Hamilton Lenox was a prominent businessman before the Civil War in Phelps County. He borrowed money and leveraged it into an empire. His downfall started when he sided with the Confederacy during the War.
Before there was a social safety net, there was the county poor farm. It was usually situated on the edge of a town that also served as the county seat. Everybody knew about the poor farm—it was a reminder, sort of like a storm cloud in the distance, that an ill wind could be right around the corner. Fortunes could turn on a dime and more often than not, in an agricultural community, towards the side that favored hard luck. Phelps County had to take care of their poor people. The County raised some money for the paupers by a tax. In 1871 the rate of taxation for Phelps County was $1.70, ten cents of which was for the poor fund. During the early years, the County issued warrants to paupers or to persons taking care of the pauper. In 1865 the County had an opportunity to operate a poor farm on county land.
Hamilton Lenox was a prominent businessman before the Civil War. He borrowed money and leveraged it into an empire. His downfall started when he sided with the Confederacy during the War. In February 1861, Lenox borrowed $1000 in school funds from the County Court at 10 percent interest. As collateral, he mortgaged three 40-acre parcels of land. By this time, the heavily leveraged Lenox empire was falling apart. Lenox fled to Arkansas. Creditors started filing lawsuits to recover their money and Lenox land would be sold to satisfy the debt. In 1864, the County foreclosed on the 120 acres Lenox used for collateral. In May 1865, when the sheriff sold the land, the County was the high bidder. This land became known as the County Poor Farm.
There were some existing buildings on one of these three parcels. This land was the 40-acre parcel located at the southwest corner of Rolla Street and Lions Club Drive. The County started reconditioning the buildings in anticipation of providing housing to its paupers. In May 1865, the Circuit Court issued an order concerning an outbreak of smallpox in the City of Rolla. The Circuit Court ordered the Mayor to remove the infected persons and provide suitable accommodations and medical attendance for the smallpox victims. The recently renovated County Poor Farm now became the smallpox hospital.
By mid-July, the newspaper reported that the smallpox epidemic was over and the hospital was converted into the Poor Farm. After operating the Poor Farm for about six months, the County decided to sell the property and never again tried to operate its own Poor Farm. In December 1865, the Sheriff sold the 120 acres to Dr. V.G. Latham. At the time of the sale, Dr. Latham was the presiding justice of the County Court. Selling the County Farm to the person who was also presiding justice of the County Court did not appear to be a conflict of interest—at least at first.
The County was now without a place to house the paupers. The County decided to request bids for a person to house, feed and clothe the county’s paupers. Bids were accepted on February 17, 1866 for a superintendent of the Poor House and that “the lowest bidder will be considered the best.” Apparently, Dr. Latham won because by March 1866, he was the County Superintendent of Paupers. Where were the paupers being housed? They were housed in the same building which formerly housed the smallpox hospital and the County Poor Farm.
Dr. Latham was notified that the contract for boarding the poor persons will cease in June 1867. By May of 1867, the County Court had concerns about the sale of the county farm and ordered the County Attorney to investigate the circumstances of the sale and sue to get the land returned to the County. A long series of lawsuits on the County Farm continued for many years. Some of the lawsuits are listed below.
In June of 1867, the Lenox heirs got into the fight over the land. Mrs. Hamilton Lenox filed suit in Circuit Court for assignment of Dower. Dower was a provision in the State Statutes which allowed a widow to have use of 1/3rd of her husband’s land. She would not own the land, she merely had the use of the land for the duration of her life. The Court appointed commissioners to inspect the land and recommend the location of her dower interest which was 30 acres at the site of the County Farm.
In June of 1875, Phelps County filed a lawsuit against Dr. Latham to set aside the deed to the County Farm land. In August of 1875, the Circuit Court ruled that at the sale of the County Farm, Dr. Latham, as Presiding Justice of the County Court was acting as the “seller” of the property, and therefore could not also act as the “buyer” of the property. The Land reverts to the County.
With Latham out of the way, the County Court sought to verify its judgement against Hamilton Lenox for non-payment of the mortgage. A good ruling from the court would eliminate claims from the Lenox heirs. Judgement was issued in favor of the County.
Next was to eliminate Mrs. Lenox’s dower on the property. The attorneys were ordered to file suit in Circuit Court, but no suit was filed. Apparently, the attorneys convinced the County Court that the action would be futile. The state statute at the time authorized dower as absolute without debt, meaning that the county as mortgage holder, could not eliminate dower. Mrs. Lenox had the use of the property until she died on November 6, 1873. Finally, after all the legal proceedings and appeals had been exhausted, the County sold the County Farm to John Burson in April 1881.
After Dr. Latham was removed as Superintendent of Paupers, the County Court continued to hire contractors to provide services to the county’s poor. This system of hiring contractors continued up to modern times.
Latham and family moved to Texas. His wife Nancy died April 30, 1885. Dr. Latham died September 29,1892. They are buried in the Pecan Creek Cemetery, Llano County Texas.
Mrs. Lenox was buried in the family cemetery in East Cold Spring Township, not far from Hamilton’s Octagon House. A few years ago, Garret Gabel and crew volunteered to clean up the Hamilton Lenox Cemetery by trimming the vegetation and probing the ground for headstones which fell over and became buried. Mrs. Hamilton Lenox’s headstone was found under 4-6 inches of dirt.