First County ‘Poorhouse’ on Cripple Creek

As published by the Daily News Journal, Sunday, September 5, 2010

By Greg Tucker, President Rutherford County Historical Society

Rutherford County’s first tax-funded “welfare program” was initiated over 170 years ago on Cripple Creek.

The Tennessee General Assembly enacted legislation in 1826 authorizing all Tennessee counties to levy a tax for the purchase of land and construction of housing for the county’s poor and homeless.  A companion bill, passed in 1827, required that each county appoint a committee to screen all requests for admittance to the “poorhouse” and to establish rules for operation of the house and treatment of the residents.

The poorhouse commissioners were also charged with determining how the residents would be clothed and who among the poorhouse population (often referred to as “inmates”) would work the poorhouse farm and in what capacity.  A poorhouse superintendent was to be appointed and charged with reporting annually to the county court on the condition of the poorhouse, number of inmates (noting their age and diseases), farm production and expenses.


Rutherford County appointed a “poorhouse committee” in 1828.  The first task for the committee was to find 100 acres of suitable property for the poorhouse and farm operation.  In August 1829, the committee recommended purchase of a 100-acre farm on which there was a “good house” already standing.  This property was described as the John Alexander farm “situated on Cripple Creek, in the eastern section of the county, about seven miles from Murfreesboro,” according to the August 17, 1829 minutes of the Daily Court (Bk. W, p. 75).

The committee further reported that about $100 worth of improvements would make the existing house adequate for housing the poor.  The property was available for $400.  The committee recommendations were approved, the farm was purchased, and a tax-levy was ordered to provide the needed funds.  (Based on the description in the minutes and deed coordinates, this first poorhouse was on the east bank of Cripple Creek, west of the Kittrell-Halls Hill Road, and north of the Woodbury Pike.)

It was intended from the outset that the resident poor would provide at least part of the operating funds by working the “poor farm” and producing not only for their own consumption but also some cash income.  The “Cripple Creek farm” proved, however, to be only marginally productive due to poor soil and a rocky terrain.  Another “poorhouse committee” was appointed in 1867 to sell the original property and to purchase a more suitable site with better soil.

The original poorhouse and farm were sold on May 30, 1867, to Eliza Cox for about $1,300.  Soon thereafter, the county purchased 207 acres from John Woods, for about $2,600, and further authorized $1,600 for construction of eight houses on the property.

Deed records and maps from the period place this second “poor farm” on Dry Branch (a Cripple Creek tributary) about the midpoint between the Woodbury and Bradyville Pikes.  (The approximate address today would be 6479 Jones Lane.)

The poorhouse report for the quarter ending December 31, 1891, identified 31 “white” (including one infant) and nine “colored” inmates.  “Feeding and waiting on said paupers” cost the county $598.23.  “Medical attention” cost $25; “three loads of straw for bedding” $6.50; “sewing done for the paupers” $23.05; and shoe mending $5.  It was noted in 1891 that the buildings were in very poor condition requiring extensive repair.

Various 1891 committee reports — signed by J. T. Saunders, J.A. Gilley, R.S. Brown, R. Ransom, M.S. Lynch, G.C. Dromgoole, W.A. Todd, W.H. Hindman and Z.T. Dismukes — also recommended selling the current poor farm, and opening a new poorhouse to include “harmless lunatics” as well as paupers.  “Your committee would further recommend that the present poorhouse and grounds be sold and a good farm be bought so that this institution may be more self-sustaining and the taxpayers of this County be relieved of this burden.”

To this end, in early 1892 the county purchased 200 acres of “good land” along the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad just north of the Rucker community, five miles south of Murfreesboro.  The plan was not only to combine the county poorhouse and asylum, but also to use the site for the county workhouse.  With able-bodied prisoners working the farm, the poorhouse/asylum/workhouse entered the 20th century as a rare, self-sustaining county operation.

But by 1905, the county farm was again a taxpayer burden, due in part to corruption and mismanagement.  It was to be a long road to the emergence of the Community Care program that today serves Rutherford County.  But that’s another story.

What explains a name like “Cripple Creek”?  Hill folk from Virginia and the Carolinas will tell you that “cripple creek” is a generic name for any meandering or crooked stream that tumbles out of the hills and snakes through the lowlands.  No surprise, then, that Middle Tennessee (Rutherford County in particular) would have a Cripple Creek, since many of our early Rutherford pioneers came from those Virginia and Carolina hills.

The generic definition would explain why there are so many “Cripple Creeks” scattered about the United States.  But some folks just aren’t satisfied with an explanation that doesn’t involve somebody getting hurt, killed or disappearing.  For example, that old collection of tales from the Goodspeed Publishing Company (1887) says our Cripple Creek was so-named because some nameless fellow had an “accident” while crossing.  Before Goodspeed, Yankee mapmakers in the war years identified the stream as Crippled Deer Creek.  Pre-war county records identify the stream as simply Cripple Creek.

A tributary of the Stones River East Fork, Cripple Creek drains the hills and hollows in the southeast corner of the county.  The central stream rises in two branches at the head of Jacobs Hollow and meanders in a northerly direction through the Donnells Chapel and Kittrell communities to its river mouth near the Sharpsville community.  The Cripple Creek East Fork (now called Reed Creek) begins at Burks Cave, flows out of Burks Hollow and through Ferrell Hollow before joining the central stream about three miles south of Readyville.

The Cripple Creek West Fork (now called the Murray Branch) flows north out of what remains of the Murray plantation on Bradyville Pike to join the mainstream just south of Kittrell.

County Commissioner Joe Frank Jernigan lives near the creek in the Sixth District and reports that Cripple Creek signage disappears almost as quickly as it can be replaced.  Souvenir collectors/music fans are probably responsible for the thefts because of the popular folk/country/blue grass tune by the same name.

The song origins have been traced back to 19th century folk music from the Appalachian region.  Banjo picker Bascom Lamar Lunsford included “Cripple Creek” in his 1927 song book and wrote of a “Cripple Creek within five minutes walking distance of … downtown Asheville, N.C.”  But several locations claim to be the original song topic, including the old gold rush town of Cripple Creek, Colorado.

According to music historians, the original folk music and lyrics most likely refer to a creek and settlement in Wythe County, Virginia.  The creek was first explored and named in the 1600s, and the Cripple Creek settlement was started in the 1750s.  (Folks around there also have an imaginative crippled deer story.)

“Goin’ up Cripple Creek, Goin’ on a run, Goin’ up Cripple Creek, T’ have some fun.”

Greg Tucker can be reached at [email protected].

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