A long, cold winter had taken hold of Carlisle, choking off the resources of the Female Benevolent Society.
Conditions were so dire by early February 1899 that a writer known only as “Citizen” felt moved to pen a letter to the editor of The Sentinel newspaper.
“The constant and pressing appeals to this society since October have well nigh exhausted its treasury,” the letter reads. “Now they are obliged to turn from their doors many helpless ones without that assistance which their kind and generous hearts prompt them to give.”
The writer quoted one of the society’s members who went into the wards of Carlisle to assess the level and scope of need within each cluster of neighborhoods. “I am haunted by specters of pallid women,” that person told the writer. “I hear the cry of the children from hunger and cold.”
More than 70 years had gone by since four prominent women first established the society in 1828. The history of this organization was the subject of an award-winning Lamberton essay by Tom Collidge.
In it, Collidge identified one of the women as Mrs. Blaine, the daughter-in-law of Col. Ephraim Blaine, the commissary general of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. There was also Mrs. Alexander. The wife of a general, she made the flag that was used by one of the two cavalry companies raised by Cumberland County during the Civil War.
The ladies wasted no time. By their second meeting, they adopted a constitution declaring their mission was to help the working poor help themselves. Article VIII required committees of two or more members to visit poor families within each ward at least once every two weeks.
The committees then reported back their findings to the executive board at the next regular meeting held the first Monday of each month. That board consisted of a first and second director, a recording secretary, a corresponding secretary, a treasurer and an assistant treasurer – all elected to three-year terms.
Aside from conducting evaluations, committee members had the authority to offer families advice and religious instruction and to provide them with Bibles, tracts and other books “drafted to their capacities and wants,” the constitution reads. “At least one member of the committee shall be a professor of religion and acquainted with the management of a family.” In this context, “professor” probably meant a believer in the Christian faith, not necessarily a college faculty member.
From the start, the society had zero tolerance for sloth and idleness. Article IX of its constitution reads: “No family or individual shall be admitted to the benefits of the society without having exhibited evidence ... satisfactory to the majority of the board of [a] willingness to contribute to their own support by their industry.”
Assistance to those able to work included buying the products they made, giving them employment or loaning them money. The products were sold by agents working for the society with the profits going into the treasury. Help was also offered to disabled individuals who were ineligible for relief under the Poor Laws or to those who were enrolled in the society’s program as a healthy worker only to be rendered unable to work.
In a short time, the membership grew to 41 women, each chipping in 25 cents in annual dues, Collidge said. Yearly collections were organized through local churches, and society members canvassed the four wards for donations.
“Members were required to make personal visits with the poor, read the Bible and pray, and give spiritual as well as material aid,” Collidge wrote. “On market mornings, the members begged [for] produce left over from the vendors.”
By 1877, membership had grown to 110 women. Treasurer records show that between 1865 and 1879, the society had distributed $500 to $600 annually to the poor. Attendance at meetings was strongly encouraged and violators were fined 10 cents for any unexcused absence.
Lydia Baird Home
For part of its history, the society was involved in what is known as the Lydia Baird Home on East High Street. On March 24, 1984, The Sentinel published an editorial on the history of the society that traced the home back to Miss Mary Baird whose family used to live on West High Street near the present-day Carlisle Theatre.
As a young girl, Baird was familiar with the plight of older women who found themselves without a home of their own. All too often, they lived their remaining years in overcrowded conditions with relatives or, in the worst case scenario, the county poorhouse. Baird wanted to provide them with shelter.
She married Col. Henry J. Biddle of Philadelphia, who was killed in North Carolina during the Civil War. She became wealthy and, in 1885, purchased the property on East High Street on which she built the Lydia Baird Home as a memorial to her younger sister who died in 1876, according to the editorial. That building came under the administration of the society, which used it as housing for impoverished older women who had nowhere else to go.
In 1893, house managers decided to open the second floor to all community members in need of medical care. They sent a letter to the physicians of Carlisle requesting their cooperation in providing no-fee treatment to patients. The Lydia Baird home became Carlisle’s first hospital and continued in that capacity until early 1896 when it was replaced by Todd Hospital.
Following Biddle’s death in 1900, the society took over ownership of the building and established a set of house rules during a special meeting held in early July 1901, according to Collidge. The home was only open to women of good character ages 60 to 75 who were physically able to care for themselves and lived within the area covered by the Carlisle post office.
The house rules required each applicant to provide three references of people who can testify to their good character and standing in the community. They also had to submit an affidavit listing all their financial resources and provide the names of two sponsors who could take over their care should the woman suffer an illness or disability.
Further, all occupants had to agree to keep their rooms clean and orderly. No washing was permitted, and use of the laundry had to be scheduled by the matron who lived on the premises.
For much of its history, the Lydia Baird Home had a waiting list of eligible tenants. But that started to change in the 1960s with the advent of Social Security and old age pensions, the editorial reads. There were a few cases when rooms were left vacant by the shrinking demand.
That trend continued into the early 1980s when the society was overtaken by the general feeling that there was no longer a need for the kind of service. As a result, the society closed the Lydia Baird Home in March 1984 and transferred its six remaining residents to the Todd Memorial Home.
“[The society] came into being at a time when no organized agencies or groups existed to help the needy and destitute,” the March 1984 editorial reads. “The society was a forerunner of what exists today.”