Visitors to the poorhouse farm arrive these days in expensive cars. They roll their designer luggage to the front door and pay for a weekend stay on platinum credit cards.

Earlier arrivals made a very different entrance. They came on crutches or carrying unplanned children. Many had no personal belongings, nor any idea how long they would be staying.

The Loudoun County poorhouse, once a working farm for the county's indigent, was transformed into a bed-and-breakfast 15 years ago.

The farm, off Poor House Lane, a gravel road near Unison in western Loudoun, looks much the same as it did when it was built in 1814 as a plantation. The three-story main house, slave quarters, smoke house and separate kitchen for paupers are mostly still standing, as is a barn that was rebuilt after being burned by Union troops during the Civil War and now needs to be rebuilt again.

The county bought the 229-acre farm in 1822 for $8,479 and used it as a poorhouse until 1946, when it was sold to farmers, who tilled the land but let the buildings fall into disrepair. Dottie and Fred Mace came from Fairfax Station to buy the buildings and 13 acres of property in 1987. They painstakingly restored the main house and kitchen and turned them into a bed-and-breakfast three years later.

Brad Toohill, 41, and his wife, Sue Browning, 43, used to spend weekend vacations there in the 1990s. They had bought and restored a historic home in New Jersey and fell in love with the nearly 200-year-old Georgian main house. They also fell in love with the farm, which reminded them of the rural areas in Ohio and New Jersey where they grew up. They daydreamed about buying the place and raising a family there.

They were ready to invest in the property back then. Dottie Mace, recently widowed, was thinking of selling, but changed her mind. Four years ago, the couple decided to move to the area anyway, with their two young daughters. They bought a house just a few miles down the road and still mused about living on the former poorhouse property and running their own bed-and-breakfast.

Last year, Mace decided she was ready to sell, and they bought the property for $1.07 million in January.

Now, in addition to their day jobs -- Toohill is assistant principal at Mountain View Elementary School, Browning commutes to New York during the week to work as a designer for the Gap -- they are learning how to be innkeepers.

"We didn't go into this with blinders on, like it was going to be a vacation," Toohill said. Since they opened on Memorial Day, they have had steady business on the weekends, keeping them busy with laundry, cooking and reservations. But, he said, getting to know their guests from around the country is fun, and so far, the money they've earned has been able to cover the hefty mortgage.

The couple charges visitors up to $175 a night to stay in the main house, furnished with recently acquired antiques. The old inmates' kitchen, a free-standing two-story brick building, goes for up to $200 a night.

Toohill and Browning want to restore the dilapidated wooden and brick buildings -- originally slave quarters, then housing for the poor -- hoping that visitors will pay top dollar to stay in converted shacks with views of a pond and rolling hills.

They have also had to take a crash course in the early history of their property and the poorhouse movement so they can answer all the questions from curious tourists who turn down their driveway.

Until the Revolutionary War, the Anglican church provided medical care and basic needs for the poor. Responsibility later fell to individual counties. Poorhouses -- which offered shelter, food and care in exchange for work -- were the solution many jurisdictions adopted.

For some people, the poorhouse was a debtor's prison, for others it was a place to work off a minor jail sentence. For many, without family support or an ability to make a living, it was a place to go when there wasn't any other place to go.

Conditions at poorhouses varied widely, said James Watkinson, a Library of Virginia historian who researches the poor in antebellum Virginia.

Richmond's facility was so crowded and squalid, it "would have made Dickens shudder," he said. "The overseers would burn tar just to kill the smell in the place."

But records from Loudoun's poorhouse show that the farm was well maintained and comparatively comfortable, according to local historian Eugene Scheel, who writes a column for the Loudoun Extra.

Loudoun's Board of Supervisors appointed an overseer to live in the main house and supervise the farm, and a physician to care for the inmates. The supervisors also decided who was sent there. Some people were eligible for "out of doors relief," or temporary financial support to keep them out of the poorhouse. But many who were older, disabled, or without family or other means of support ended up at the farm.

Bob Barton, 80, the son of the last poorhouse overseer, lived in the main house in the 1930s and early 1940s. In a telephone interview from his Falls Church home, he said he has many fond memories of growing up at the poorhouse.

He liked to sit out on the big porch that wrapped around the main house, he said, talking to the inmates, or paupers, as they were sometimes called, when they came by for tobacco or snuff. More than 60 years later, he remembered some of them by name.

There was Fannie, he said, who lived there with her handicapped grown daughter, and old Newt, mostly blind, whose eyes would wander when he talked to him. He remembered Viola, who stuttered, and Aunt Lucy, who used to go outside every night and call for her husband, who was long gone.

The inmates lived in segregated buildings. Blacks stayed in former slave quarters. There was a two-room building for the women, and a separate two-room building for the men. Black women had the most crowded conditions, Barton remembered, with as many as 18 or 20 living together at one time, with their children.

Whites lived in a newer dormitory, on the opposite side of the kitchen. The men lived downstairs, two to a room, and the women, who were less common as inmates, would stay upstairs.

Though they had segregated quarters, the inmates worked and ate together, sharing the same five outhouses and common circumstances. This meant former slaves sometimes mixed with former aristocrats.

Audrey Windsor Bergner, a Middleburg author of two books about old plantations and historic homes in the Piedmont, said that Benjamin Carter -- the son of George Carter, founder of Oatlands plantation -- spent his last days at the poorhouse. The heir to one of Virginia's wealthiest families squandered his inheritance and then alienated his family by suing his only brother for money. He had nowhere else to turn, she said.

Other formerly well-to-do people came to the farm through hard luck, but most were too old or too sick to work. This made it difficult to operate a working farm, which was meant to pay for itself but which in reality required constant support from the county.

Minutes from meetings of the Board of Supervisors show that this spending was the source of controversy, as supervisors searched for less expensive alternatives.

Loudoun County was one of the last communities to abandon its poorhouse. By the mid-1940s, federal welfare programs were being developed, Watkinson said, and by then reformers were calling it an outdated system.

Sixty years later, the only evidence of the hundreds of paupers who once lived there are a couple of shacks and a shiny new poorhouse farm sign meant for paying customers.

But beyond the pond and the fields overgrown with Queen Anne's lace, there's a cemetery on a hill, where some of the inmates were put to rest in $6 rough pine coffins. They were buried with unmarked headstones in segregated plots, often without ceremony, but with a lasting view of the old farm.

The three-story main house on the former poorhouse property is nearly 200 years old. The farm, above, which is off Poor House Lane, a gravel road near Unison in western Loudoun, looks much the same as it did when it was built in 1814 as a plantation. At right, owner Brad Toohill bought the property with his wife, Sue Browning, in January. Below is a guest bathroom in the main house.