In the legislature of 1806—7 Bucks county was represented by friends of the measure, and on April 10, 1807, an act was passed authorizing the erection of a county almshouse. The commissioners of Bucks, with the consent of the court of quarter sessions and the grand jury, were empowered to act. After determining upon the erection of an almshouse, they were directed to authorize an election of seven citizens, to fix upon a site for the purpose, and also an election of three persons to be directors of the poor, who should divide themselves into three classes with reference to their term of office. They were to appoint a treasurer, employ and dismiss at pleasure a steward, matron, physician, surgeon, and any other necessary attendants; to indenture apprentices till the time at which they should become of age, and exercise all such powers as had previously been vested in the overseers of the poor. Hilltown, New Britain, Plumstead, and all townships below, were named in the bill; the others were exempted from its provisions, but authorized to share in them by paying their share of the cost of the house and farm. The matter passed the several stages prescribed, and in October, 1807, the election was held, resulting in the choice of Thomas Long, William Buckman, David Spinner, William Watts, Thomas Stewart, Joseph Clunn, and Samuel Gillingham to fix upon a site, and James Chapman, John McMasters, and Ralph Stover as directors.
The election was closely contested by a strong element opposed to the measure in itself and to its ultimate bearing upon the change of the county-seat, and after the election every possible effort was made to prevent the purchase of a site. After a delay of fourteen months, however, the commissioners for the location made choice of the Gilbert Rodman tract of three hundred and sixty acres, situated in Warwick, on the Easton road and the Neshaminy creek, which was purchased at twenty pounds per acre. The selection and purchase were severely criticized, and public meetings were called to support or condemn it, but the court’s approval of the purchase ended the contest, though the animosities engendered lived long afterward.
Measures for the erection of the building were at once taken. The counties of Lancaster, Chester, and Delaware had erected similar institutions, and McMasters and Chapman were dispatched to these counties to glean such information as would be useful in the construction of the proposed building. They made a report on January 15, 1808, and on the following day the proposals of mechanics were received. From the 25th to the 31st instant the board was in continuous session engaged in preparing estimates and plans, and the contract was finally awarded to Timothy Smith. Chapman and Smith then visited Delaware county to examine the almshouse there and secure plans. The stone was quarried upon the farm, and the men were stimulated to their best endeavor by a half-barrel of whiskey placed at their disposal by the directors. On the 21st of June the directors went to New hope and purchased lumber of Hugh Smith. Shingles were bought of Henry Bell, of Philadelphia, and lime of Tyson Hill, and Samuel Gilbert. Building operations began on the 4th of May, 1809, when the corner-stone was laid. The character of the ceremonies is not known, but they doubtless were of a hilarious order, as the directors and two other equally benevolent gentlemen furnished the liquor at their private expense. In fact, whiskey entered very largely into the expense of construction, eight hundred and twenty-two gallons of it being consumed by the workmen in the course of the building’s erection. About one-fourth of this amount is itemized as whiskey, at a cost of $94.77 1/2, the rest being conveniently included in the general item of "diet." The aggregate cost of the building was $19,030.47 1/2, to which the sum of $19,280 paid for the farm should be added, bringing the total to $38,310.47 1/2. It was occupied on March 20, 1810, twenty-four townships contributing one hundred and thirty-nine inmates. The rest of the townships subsequently availed themselves of the privileges of the act, and all now approve the wisdom of a measure many once opposed. The almshouse is a stone structure with two stories and an attic, and stands upon an eminence which overlooks a wide scope of surrounding country, insuring good air and the best facilities for drainage. The experience of some three-quarters of a century has confirmed the claims originally made in defense of the selection, save in the matter of the water supply. A hydraulic ram was at first constructed to convey water from the small tributary of the Neshaminy to the buildings. This was found inadequate, and a number of wells were dug. In 1875 a severe drouth affected the water supply of the whole county, and a steam pump and a reservoir, with a capacity of twenty-seven hundred barrels, were constructed by the steward, at a cost of four or five thousand dollars. In 1881 an artesian well was sunk, and the stream abandoned as a source of supply for the buildings. The well has proven practically successful, and the water is forced from thence by a steam pump to all parts of the buildings.
The sick and insane here have always been cared for in a separate building provided for them. The old Rodman farm-house was converted into a hospital, with a stone building furnished with cells for the worst cases of insanity. Many of these, however, were subsequently transferred to the state institutions. A new stone hospital, in many respects patterned after a similar institution in Lancaster county, was erected in 1868—9. It is a massive stone structure, forty-five by one hundred and twenty feet in superficial dimensions, four stories high, and contains sixty rooms. It is provided with solid brick partition walls throughout; with water and heating appliances, offices, kitchens, etc., of the most approved kind. Theentire cost is estimated at S144,001.70. In 1849 the cholera reached Bucks county, and in July made its appearance at the alms-house with unusual virulence. In less than a week eighteen cases had proven fatal, and a dozen inmates were complaining with premonitory symptoms of the dread disease. Naturally it was difficult to find any brave enough to face this danger, and render such help as was needed. Before the close of the second week eighty of the one hundred and fifty-four occupants had perished. Medical aid was then secured, and several gentlemen of the vicinity volunteered their services. William Edwards, the steward, and his wife, both died in the discharge of their duties, and the senior physician, Dr. O.P. James, declared that nothing but the imperious demands of duty sustained him in the terrible experiences of that time. But one of the directors, William B. Warford, ventured to visit the plague-stricken spot, and when he arrived more than forty were dead or dying. The fear of contagion for a time stifled every humane sentiment, and the unburied bodies were necessarily permitted for too long a time to add their poisonous contribution to the already heavily freighted air. No great degree of censure is due for this state of things. In the presence of such danger the simple performance of duty rises to the height of heroism, and all cannot act the heroic part. The general administration of this institution has been creditable throughout its history. In 1819, when the ill-feeling engendered by the erection of the almshouse, and the removal of the county-seat was still active, a widespread disposition to criticize the management of the public charity was developed. On May 22d a meeting was held in the court house to discuss the matter. The meeting was practically unanimous in its condemnation of the administration, and a committee was appointed to examine the condition and the methods employed in conducting the institution. The result of the committee’s exploration was rather inconclusive; in their report they criticized the methods employed, but brought no charge of culpable neglect or incompetency.
In 1877 a commission was appointedto inquire into the condition and conduct of the institution. They reported much to the credit of the management, so far as the conduct of the steward and his assistants were concerned, but seriously reflected upon the financial policy of the directors. Many practices that had come into use were condemned as irregular and extravagant, and calling for immediate reform. The effect of this examination and report was to bring about a radical change in this respect, and it is believed that the institution is now conducted as efficiently as any similar one in the state. In the support of this charity the county has expended fully a million dollars during the three-quarters of a century that it has existed. Its present available assets may be estimated at two hundred thousand dollars, and the balance of this large expenditure must be accredited to the noble satisfaction of having established and generously dispensed a great public charity.