One of the most historically significant houses in Hillsdale is a small cobblestone structure located on the outskirts of the city. The structure was built of uniformed sized stones, laid in precise rows, gathered from the fields nearby. Isaac VanDenburg had employed a local stone mason to build the house in 1853. VanDenburg was not only a local tavern keeper and land owner but was also a member of the County Board of Commissioners. This group after much discussion, voted to buy VanDenburg’s farm and home in order to house the aged or those infirm whose families no longer would care for them.
In 1854, the Greek Revival style home became the Hillsdale County Poor House. At first only 15 “paupers” were housed here with a man and his wife to farm the acreage, maintain the house hold, and act as County Poor Farm Keepers. By 1867 with an addition extending to the back of the house, 35 were listed on the census as inmates.
The house would have remained in obscurity except for a young Hillsdale College student named Will Carleton. Carleton frequently walked about the countryside and often stopped at the Poor House. While there he listened to the tales of sadness and woe told to him by the residents.
Graduating from college in 1869, Carleton first worked as a newspaper journalist in Hillsdale. He had been in the habit of writing poetry as a youngster. His first significant work published was “Betsy and I Are Out,” a poignant tale of a divorce which was first published in the Toledo Blade, but then reprinted by Harper’s Weekly. This poem was soon followed in 1872 by “Over the Hill to the Poor House” developing the plight of the aged and those with indifferent families. This piece captured national attention and catapulted Carleton into literary prominence—a position he was to hold the rest of his life as he continued to write and to lecture from coast to coast.
The poem also awakened the nation’s moral conscience to the problems of the aged. It was perhaps the impetus for Social Security. Even a movie based on the poem and entitled “Over the Hill to the Poor House” produced by William Fox in 1922, was very popular at the time.
Because of Carleton’s prolific writings (12 books of poetry) and the popular appeal of his works, Michigan conferred on him the honorary title of “Poet Laureate”. Carleton died in 1912 as one of the nation’s respected and widely read writers and lecturers. The house and its inhabitants which prompted the poem “Over the Hill to the Poor House”, is now maintained as a museum by the Hillsdale County Historical
The Will Carleton Poor House is listed on the National and State Register of Historic Sites.
Special Events Held at the Poor House
Christmas Open House--1st weekend in December
Will Carleton Summer Festival--1st weekend in August.