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Pieces of Eight


Long Distance Tutelage Results in Documentary Report

By Christine Neff

A desire to learn more about family heritage started an East Carolina University graduate student on the path to uncovering an important piece of North Carolina history.

And the encouragement of her distance education professor led to the preservation of that story on film.

Kim Miller Quintal of Winston-Salem, a distance education student in ECU’s English department, is making a documentary on the history of poorhouses in North Carolina with the support of ECU English professor Julie Fay.

Theirs is a unique collaboration. Fay and Quintal have met in person only once but, like many DE students and faculty members, communicate regularly by phone, e-mail and other means.

“It’s been a really good, collaborative effort, all the way across the state,” Fay said.

The project started several years ago when Quintal began researching her great-great-grandfather, wondering what he had done and where he had lived. She came across a listing for him in an 1880s Census that answered those questions while raising many more.

“Occupation: shoemaker. Place of residence: almshouse,” it read.

The word “almshouse” surprised Quintal. “I was taken aback. I immediately thought of Charles Dickens. I didn’t know there were almshouses in America. It just shocked me,” she said.

She did more research and found that almshouses, also known as poorhouses and, later, county homes, were prevalent throughout North Carolina and the United States from the early colonial years through the 20th century.

County homes were often run by families and served as a residence for orphans, the elderly, mentally ill and, sometimes, criminals in a community. “It was a repository for everyone in the community who didn’t have another form of care,” Quintal said.

Her great-great-grandfather lived and died in the Yadkin County Poorhouse. She found that four other family members had lived in county homes at some point in their lives, including a relative who moved there at age 16 when he started having convulsions.

Quintal had ambivalent feelings to this discovery. “In a way, I thought, how could you allow a family member to live in place like this? But on the other hand, I thought this was the only alternative then,” she said.

The conditions in some poorhouses were upsetting. She read about an elderly man who had been left, unattended, in his bed for 13 weeks without a change of clothes or sheets, a blind woman who gave birth to a child as the result of sexual abuse. “There were some really horrible things going on,” Quintal said.

Julie Fay, left, ECU English professor, and Kim Quintal, a graduate student, have collaborated on a documentary about poorhouses in North Carolina. (Contributed photo)

On the other hand, she read and heard about community members who volunteered at the homes, and residents – called inmates – who took care of each other to the extent that they could.

Quintal wanted to share her findings with others, but wasn’t sure how to do so. Turning her research into a documentary seemed ideal but impossible – until she met Fay through an online course.

Fay was teaching a class in grant writing and encouraged Quintal to apply for a grant to support the documentary idea. Fay called the project a “forceful and original one.”

“She was so encouraging to me and thought it was such a good idea that I was empowered by that,” Quintal said.

The documentary project has since received several grants from the North Carolina Humanities Council, worth, in total, $6,985, as well as support from the Yadkin County Historical Society.

Quintal began working with a filmmaker last year, and video clips from the work-in-progress can be seen at this web site,

The documentary, “Gone to the Poorhouse,” weaves together Quintal’s family story with recollections of poorhouse residents and employees, historical documents and images of old facilities. Quintal continues to recruit North Carolinians familiar with poorhouse history to interview for the documentary.

Fay and Quintal feel the project sheds light on an important part of the state’s history.

There are parallels in how society deals with the mentally ill, homeless and elderly, yesterday and today, Fay said. “These larger issues that the research addresses are very important for our society to examine,” she said.

Quintal noted the need to uncover these unpleasant chapters in North Carolina and American history. “It is a hidden part of our history that people don’t talk about. We sort of bury it away. But uncovering it helps us learn about who we were, who we are,” she said.

To get involved or to learn more, visit the Southern Documentary Project web site,

This page originally appeared in the Nov. 3, 2008 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at