Fairfield County Poorhouse

The OES visited the Fairfield County Poorhouse on April 6, 2014. Also known as the Fairfield County Infirmary and later the Clarence E. Miller Building, this large brick structure served the residents of Fairfield County in some capacity for over 170 years. Prior to 1828, township officers called “overseers of the poor” took responsibility for the homeless and poor in their respective townships. Contracts were made with the lowest bidder for each pauper to receive food, clothing, and medical care. It soon became necessary that a proper facility was needed for the care of these individuals, and the county constructed a wooden building in 1828 north of Lancaster. This building soon filled to capacity, and a large brick building replaced it in 1840. The building was expanded on again in 1865, and numerous outbuildings were constructed to serve various purposes, including a laundry, tenant house, storage, and farming facilities. A farm was established across the road from the infirmary to help sustain those living there. In 1917, the infirmary farm brought in a total of $4,300 from the sale of crops and livestock. Natural gas lines were run to the infirmary in 1917 to provide lighting and heat. In 1926, 3,857 feet of pipe were laid to provide water to the infirmary, which previously relied on a natural spring and groundwater. The infirmary didn’t see electricity until 1958.

The population of the county poorhouse continued to climb until it reached its record population of 82 “inmates” in 1903. The unfortunates were admitted for a multitude of reasons, including both physical and mental health conditions and drunkenness. Some spent the majority of their lives in the poorhouse. As would be expected, death was a normal part of life. While many died due to medical conditions or old age, there were a few tragic deaths that we found through our research. One such instance occurred on March 22, 1929, when 73-year-old Jane Householder was burned alive after she opened a gas stove and caught her clothing on fire. Two attendants heard Miss Householder’s screams and smothered the flames with two rugs. A doctor was summoned to the infirmary to care for the victim, but she succumbed to death nine hours later. Those who died and were not claimed by family were buried in the pauper’s cemetery behind the infirmary, along with unknown travelers and those who couldn’t afford a plot in a cemetery elsewhere. The majority of burials are unmarked; only a few have tombstones standing today.

A variety of events made life at the poorhouse tolerable. County officials visited periodically to partake in dinner with the inmates. Lancaster residents donated Christmas gifts to some of the “pathetic figures who have no longer any connection with the outside world,” as quoted from a Lancaster Eagle-Gazette article in 1927. Ice cream socials were held, and local bands and orchestras played music for the old folks. It wasn’t always a good time, though. In 1924, a crazed inmate attacked the infirmary superintendent while working in the fields across from the infirmary. The man suddenly rushed the superintendent, striking him in the head with the bar he had been using to stack hay. A fellow inmate came to the superintendent’s aid, and soon, fellow employees captured the attacker. We have been told there were several suicides at the poorhouse, although we could not find any documentation to support the claims.

The farmland across from the infirmary was sold to Ohio University in the mid-1960s to establish a remote campus there. The infirmary’s population continued to dwindle until just sixteen residents remained when the facility closed for good in May 1985. Those remaining residents were sent to nursing or foster homes. The old infirmary was remodeled in 1986, adding a sprinkler system, enclosed stairwells, emergency lighting, and a fire alarm, to accommodate county offices. The building was rechristened the Clarence E. Miller Building, named for the late former congressman, and served as the county’s health department for the next 27 years. By 2011, the building was literally falling apart. Mold, crumbling walls, loose bricks, and other concerns were commonplace. A study showed the facility would require over $4 million in renovations to resurrect the building. The health department decided to move to a leased modern office facility in late 2013, and the old poorhouse has been vacant since.

Of course, given the history of the location, the old poorhouse is said to be haunted. Many employees who worked in the building at night have heard people talking when no one else was in the building. A ghost named “Willy” haunts the second and third floors. His name likely comes from one of the only tombstones in the pauper’s cemetery that has a name listed. A ghostly woman wearing 1800s-style clothing with her hair in a bun has been spotted by several witnesses. One woman who was working late one night looked up to see a little girl standing in the doorway. When the woman asked the little girl if she needed help, the girl vanished. Many county employees were afraid to go into the attic due to a cold and strange feeling about the place. The second-floor women’s restroom was also avoided due to the same feeling.

During our visit, the old infirmary was still in decent condition. There was some water damage due to busted pipes from the winter freeze. The roof was in need of repairs, and mold infested several corners of the building, but the overall structure seemed sound. After our initial tour of the building, we conducted a mini-paranormal investigation. Two OES members smelled lavender perfume on two separate occasions. They did not notice any obvious air fresheners in the vicinity. While investigating the attic by himself, OES Coordinator Philip Niklas witnessed several signs that were in storage move on their own. We tried to debunk the movement by stepping on loose floorboards, but the signs did not move. There were a couple of small spikes on the EM meter, but nothing too concerning. Temperature readings were steady for the most part, but there were some sudden drops in temperature by a few degrees. Equipment being used by Niklas turned off on its own a few times, but that could have been due to user error, not the paranormal. Upon review, we did capture some electronic voice phenomena. Those recordings are on the second page, along with video footage from our exploration and entire investigation.

The ultimate fate of the Clarence E. Miller Building is currently unknown. Ohio University Lancaster officials stated they weren’t interested in acquiring the property, and the historical parks department said they couldn’t afford to maintain the building if they took it over. Other suggestions range from an office building to apartments to demolition. There have been several bids on the property, but all have been rejected by county commissioners as of spring 2016. Hopefully, a keen investor will step forward and renovate the historic structure.

Thank you to the Fairfield County Commissioners for granting us permission to photograph the building.

Location Information: Abandoned

The Fairfield County Poorhouse (Clarence E. Miller Building) is on State Route 27, across from the Ohio University Lancaster campus; Fairfield County.

Photographs: Exterior, First & Second Floors


Go to Fairfield County Poorhouse Page 2