As early as 1800, the poor in Chester County had a place in the community, in their own home.
The Chester County Poor House was built with county funds on a large tract on what is now the state police barracks at Embreeville.
There, the comings and goings of “our paupers” were closely monitored by a house steward who lived on the grounds and oversaw its farming operations.
When the paupers were not harvesting crops or making bread, they often received visits from the Directors of the Poor and were written about in the local newspapers.
In fact, the life stories of not only poorhouse residents, but “picturesque local characters” sometimes called “gypsies” and “tramps,” occupied the public’s imagination well into the 1920s.
Until the Depression brought a kind of social democracy to the region, the poor were often looked upon as outsiders, or feeble-minded misfits.
There are old newspaper accounts of “Old Dabbo,” for instance, a former slave who was given the opportunity to attend school but “didn’t learn much.”
Another former slave, “Gango,” found work “bleaching linen” and working for various local farmers.
“Old Black Phil” was described as the “Goliath of wood sawers,” wandering from job to job, living where he could.
Perhaps the most celebrated itinerant was “Indian Hannah,” who died in the poorhouse in 1803 at the age of 100.
Typically described as the “last of her race,” Hannah was said to prefer the free life of her Leni-Lenape ancestors. She roamed the county and earned a living as an herbalist and basketmaker.
Gypsies generally received the most attention, in part because of their exotic attire and habit of traveling in “houses upon wheels,” complete with a “compliment of horses, colts, dogs and chickens,” as one newspaper described them in 1874.
In 1900, a band of “either English or Scotch gypsies” traveled through West Chester on the way south from New England.
Although they were depicted fairly favorably – the writer noted that they had the “best-looking horses” of any gypsy band – most accounts of the period describe a path of destruction whenever gypsies traveled through the county, with cellars raided, orchards stripped bare, and even laundry snatched from wash lines.
Aside from the almshouse, those who were not part of the county’s “roguish wanderers,” such as the working poor, could find a place on local farms, orchards and nurseries.
Two of the largest employees of temporary workers were found in West Chester.
The Hoopes Brotherand Thomas nursery extended from Biddle Street to north of Ashbridge Street and employed “armies” of men to work what was known as the nursery’s “Forty Acres,” full of roses and perennials.
There were also plants and produce to prepare for shipment in the nursery’s “packing sheds” on Maple Avenue.
By 1902, the workers’ housing that had stood nearby for nearly 25 years was deemed an eyesore and torn down. A newspaper reporter noted that the “bunk sheds” which faced a “public highway” were “not a beautiful sight,” especially on Sunday, when it was wash day for the workers.
After new housing sheds were built along Goshen Road, the after-hour activities of the workers, such as their “cooking, washing and mending,” remained out of sight and out of mind for the public, the reporter noted.
In West Chester, some seasonal workers even hoped for a cold snap.
At Uriah H. Painter’s icehouse, for instance, men toiled round the clock packing “ice cakes” cut from two ice ponds on East Gay Street.
They lived in temporary housing and spent their days “cutting, slashing, pushing, hauling, arranging and packing ice,” as one reporter summarized it.
While Painter was known to purchase ice from as far away as Canada, much of the work involved preparing the local ice – keeping it clear of snow with hand-held scrapers and brooms, for instance.
At night, the workers created a scene that put them in a romantic light, their “lanterns flitting about over the crystal surface,” as one writer noted in 1891.