The Almshouse Farm
The Barrier Islands Center is housed on the former site of the Almshouse Farm in Machipongo, VA. Many Americans have heard their parents or grandparents joke about ending up "in the poorhouse," but did you know that expression comes from a very real part of U.S. history? An almshouse, also known as a "poorhouse," was used to house poor people and their families in the days before welfare programs. They were typically county-run, and those who were able were expected to work: men would work on the farm while women were often put to work spinning wool or doing other domestic chores. Homeless people, the mentally ill, orphans and those with diseases like tuberculosis and small pox were among the "inmates" directed by the court to live at the almshouse. The Almshouse Farm served as the site for the Northampton County poorhouse for almost 150 years, from 1804 until 1952.
The Barrier Islands Center is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and comprises three historically noteworthy buildings: the 1890s Almshouse, the 1910 African American Almshouse, and a 1725 Quarter Kitchen.
THE ALMSHOUSE BUILDING
Built in the 1890s, this is the third building to serve as the Almshouse for Northampton County between 1804 until 1852. While in use as the Almshouse, the Superintendent for the Poor lived downstairs with his family, while the Almshouse "inmates" were housed in 13 rooms on the second floor.
The building now houses the Barrier Islands Museum, the Gift Shop and an interesting architectural feature: the Twisted Chimney in the attic. This last item has delighted adults and children alike and is highlighted in the first BIC children's book, "The Hog Island Sheep in a Twisted Christmas Tale."
The African-American Almshouse
The African-American Almshouse housed all African-American "inmates" of the Almshouse Farm. Built in 1910, it may have replaced an earlier structure. The west end was apparently the main entrance and probably was a day room for almshouse inmates. There were 10 rooms for inmates, with the two at the east end each having a stove for heat. The remaining eight rooms relied on heat from the two rooms with stoves as well as the central stove in the large day room.
This building was renovated in 2013 and now serves as the BIC Education Building. It is the site for the My First Field Trip program, other education initiatives, our oral history recording studio, research library, archival storage and exhibit design studios. The Beazley Foundation Community Room provides a versatile space for documentary screenings, community meetings, and more.
1725 Quarter Kitchen
The oldest building on the campus, the 1725 Kitchen Building predates the farm's use as an Almshouse. The structure actually consists of two small one-room buildings joined together by a connecting hallway. The brick section with its large brick fireplace was probably used as the almshouse kitchen in the early days. A loft above provided sleeping quarters. The frame section, added circa 1840, is known to have been used for sausage-making in the 1940s.
Today, this lovely historic building is closed to the public for structural reasons, with deteriorating joists and siding. BIC recognizes its important role as stewards of this property and is embarking on a project to rehabilitate the Quarter Kitchen. Plans include using authentic materials and methods to revitalize both sides of the building as well as incorporating exciting new programming and exhibit galleries in this historical gem.
The Pauper's cemetery
A plot of about 2.5 acres was set aside as a burial ground for inmates who passed away as residents of the Almshouse. The BIC is currently conducting research about the Almshouse and those who were buried in the unmarked graves of the pauper's cemetery at the edge of the property.