MAURERTOWN, VA. -- The maples cast broad shadows across the face of the last poor farm in Virginia, keeping the living room dark and tolerably cool even in the sightless, sweltering noontime heat.

The trees were only saplings when Virginia Spence and Dorothy Pence took up residence here in the early 1930s. Of course Virginia and Dorothy, who are step-sisters, weren't more than saplings themselves. Ginny was 6 and Dotty 3 when the Great Depression forced their families from their farms and into the home that Shenandoah County kept for its indigent. Except for Ginny's brief stay in a nursing home, neither of them has ever left the place.

"I have always liked it here," Dorothy says. She is a solid, amenable woman in a blue and white jumper who is not given to more than one sentence at a time. That is one more, in most cases, than Ginny, who confines herself to identifying the faces of the folks who stood on the poorhouse porch 50 years ago, allowing a photographer to record their bewilderment, dignity and apprehension.

"This is you, Dorothy," Ginny says, pointing at a thin, pixieish girl in the front row. "And this is me," she adds as her finger falls on a round-faced child whose dark hair seems to have been cropped by an ax.

Together Dotty and Ginny form the institutional memory of one of the most anachronistic institutions in the American welfare system: the Shenandoah County Farm. Their reminiscences are one of the few remaining links to a time when poorhouses and poor farms formed the backbone of the nation's often misguided efforts at helping the poor.

Modeled on the workhouses established by the English poor laws in 1832, these institutions provided food and shelter in return for an inmate's labor. Places of profound squalor and sadness, they became all but obsolete after the New Deal -- just as Ginny and Dotty arrived, as it happened -- when the government began awarding welfare payments directly to the needy. Their demise was further hastened by advances in caring for the elderly, the disabled, the retarded, the mentally ill and others who were shunted into poorhouses because they had nowhere else to go. Today, experts believe, the Shenandoah County facility may be the last of its kind.

That distinction accounts for the sudden burst of attention late last month when county supervisors in this corner of northwestern Virginia, about 90 miles west of Washington, said they were thinking about closing the place.

Because of revisions in Virginia law, the 220-year-old farmhouse with the two dormitory-type wings was going to have to be outfitted with sprinkler and fire warning systems along with other repairs to maintain its status as an "adult home." The work would have cost two to three times more than the $91,000 the supervisors had budgeted to keep the place open.

It was only a matter of days, however, before a neat bureaucratic solution presented itself. It seemed that a "boarding house" didn't require the improvements that an "adult home" did. It also seemed that since nobody at the farm needed medical supervision, the place was more of a boarding house anyway. So, that is what it became.

The primary result of this bureaucratic minuet was to convince Delford Keckley, the farm's administrator, of the historic importance of the place. Keckley is a nearly toothless fellow with galloping sideburns, a generous paunch and a youthful energy that belies his 67 years. "I'll give you one brick to take home from this place," he tells a visitor. "I done the same for everybody else."

It is an odd memento, deep red, exceedingly smooth and not nearly as evocative as the spare yet Gothic stories that Dotty and Ginny remember as they sit together examining two old photographs. The companions of their childhood, men, women and children, are before them, arrayed on the poorhouse porch as though Walker Evans had posed them for a class picture.

"That's Bob Naselrod," Ginny says, her finger falling on a man who is seated at the corner of the porch. He is wearing a frayed old jacket and the look of someone who is about to be struck.

"He used to bang a stick on his bed and say it was a banjo," Dotty says.

"Ain't he the one who used to wear the ball and chain?" Keckley asks.

"Yes," Dotty says. "He used to run away... . Down the road. Out in the field. Chase the cows."

"I found it in the dungeon," Keckley says. "It must have weighed 50 pounds."

The dungeon, he adds, sits beneath the living room of the old farmhouse. It is where the original owners punished their slaves, he says. "It's about nine feet deep. And dark!"

"That's where that lady died," Dotty says.

"She was mean to children," Ginny says.

"She used to pinch us," Dotty says.

To the extent that he has been able to piece it together, Keckley explains that in the late '30s and early '40s the farm administrator put an old woman in the dungeon to punish her for terrorizing the children. She died down there. "Her records say she was 112," he adds.

"That's your brother George," Ginny says to Dotty, and the conversation turns to the time another boy knocked George off the poor farm porch and the time George got run over by a truck when he raced into the road to pick up an apple.

"He didn't die," Dotty says.

There is enough in these fragments to suggest that poor farms were intended to be places of misery. Advocates of "scientific charity" believed that if relief were too easily available, the able-bodied would decide not to work. Hence, the poorhouse had to be as wretched as possible. "The idea was that you could live in those conditions but nobody would want to," says Edward Berkowitz, professor of history at George Washington University. "So the only people who went to the poorhouse were people who couldn't find a job."

The problem with this approach, as historian Robert H. Bremner pointed out in his book "From the Depths: The Discovery of Poverty in America," was that the "commitment of a family to {an almshouse} had a tendency to transform temporary misfortune into permanent poverty."

By the late 19th century, poorhouses had fallen out of favor. With the initiation of welfare, social security and other benefits in the 1930s, poorhouses ceased to have the strict control over residents' lives that they had previously exercised. But historians and poverty researchers say that while poorhouses disappeared, poor people did not.

"We've reinvented the poorhouse with the homeless shelter," says Michael Katz, director of the urban studies program at the University of Pennsylvania.

"We don't talk about poorhouses, but ... we have nursing homes filled with people who are largely government supported," says Alice Rivlin, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. "It's more the term that has gone out of usage."

Meanwhile, life at the Shenandoah County Farm goes on more peacefully than its 19th-century proponents intended. Keckley lives here with his wife, Marguerite, and their son, Marshall, a redheaded future scientist of 12, and six mostly silent residents -- three men and three women -- who range in age from about 45 to 70.

On this hot afternoon, the residents seem placidly adrift, the women watching a lubricious soap opera while the men sit in the breezeway looking out the windows into the hazy fields. They are not the kind of people who do well in more modern institutions, Keckley says. They just need a little help negotiating the day.

They are people like 69-year-old Guy Finks, who suffers from Parkinson's disease and needs to be reminded every now and then to take his medicine; like the Dysart brothers, Jay and Wilbert, hefty men in their late fifties who seemed to lose interest in looking after themselves after their parents died about eight years ago; or like Reba Lineweaver, an engaging woman in her mid-forties whose speech impediment and tangled syntax can make it hard for her to talk with people.

Most of them have been here six or seven years, but Finks arrived in 1970 -- one of the last years that residents worked the 265-acre farm, planting and harvesting crops, keeping house and tending to the cows, pigs and chickens. The place never paid for itself, though, and as families moved out and the remaining residents grew older, the county decided to sell off the machinery and lease the land and outbuildings to a local farmer.

Oddly, and without anybody really intending it, the poorhouse in Shenandoah County has come to resemble a modern-day group home more than an old-fashioned poorhouse.

The residents who are able help to keep the place up. Dotty, for instance, does the cooking and is even paid a small salary. She and Ginny put together the jigsaw puzzles that have been framed and hung on the walls for decoration. While none of the residents is allowed to keep a car on the grounds, they are allowed to make their own daily schedules and come and go as they please. Several of them hold down outside jobs.

The relationship between the Keckleys, who are called Dad and Mom, and the residents is obviously warm. That may be because Delford Keckley went to school with members of some residents' families. Or it may be because of the experience he had with Ted Van.

Sixty years ago, Van lived near Keckley's maternal grandparents and took his Sunday dinner with them. So did the Keckleys. "He thought the world of us kids, and for some reason I thought he thought a little more of me than he did the rest of them," Keckley remembers.

Five years ago, a social worker brought a man to the poorhouse who was interested in living there. Keckley hadn't seen him in 55 years, but he recognized Ted Van right away.

"If anybody ever told me I would have the opportunity to take care of him in his last days -- which I did -- I would have said you were foolish," he says.

Linda Gordon, a historian at the University of Wisconsin's Institute for Research on Poverty, offers a well-reasoned explanation for why places like the poorhouse are valuable: "If the institutions are of human size and scale they allow people to develop a sense of community and allow people to develop a way of looking out for each other."

And Delford Keckley offers his: "Little things mean a lot, as you well know."