Bradford Poor Farm residence during the early 1950s when it was the home of Harold and Alice Ames. From 1852 to 1923, its 12 bedrooms housed the poor of Bradford. (Photo courtesy of Alice Ames)
Caring for the Poor: March, 1923
Originally published on March 14, 2007
On March 6, 1923 the voters of Bradford voted at the Annual Town Meeting to sell its town farm. Purchased 70 years earlier the town farm had housed some of the poor of the community. For all of the towns in this area one topic that was perennial every March was dealing with the poor.
Life in early Vermont was difficult and hard work in often unforgiving surroundings made economic hardships common. Add to this frequent epidemics that ravaged communities and the economic panics or depressions that often left families destitute.
People drew on the charity of families and neighbors when adversity confronted. Many New Englanders were faced with conflicting beliefs about the poor. As Christians they were admonished by the faith to be charitable. However they had also inherited the belief that the poor suffered from moral failure; they were evil and shiftless.
Using the Elizabethan-era poor laws of England as a model, the Vermont legislature passed a law in 1779 requiring each town to care for their poor. This law gave town Overseers of the Poor responsibility for and control over individuals who because of economic or physical conditions were unable to care for themselves. In 1797 towns were given permission to erect poor-houses.
Towns were concerned that they might be held responsible for the care of an individual who were not really one of their own. Selectmen were given the power to “warn” a transient to depart it was possible that the individual would become a charge of the town. One became a resident after living in a town for a period from one to seven years. If warned out of town a pauper could be returned to his last legal settlement and whipped if he returned. Litigation between towns over the support of such individuals was common.
Debtor prisons were also used in Vermont. A person unable to pay his debts was locked in prison until they were paid. This practice continued in some form until 1838.
Towns also auctioned off the care of individuals to the lowest bidder. In Topsham, the price paid for caring for a single person ranged from 50 cents to 75 cents per week. , not including medical or burial expenses for which the town was responsible. Records in Corinth indicate that when “bidding off” included children, they were sometimes separated from their parent(s). The practice of auctioning was discontinued when two Taplin children were locked by their caretaker in an unheated shed and died of exposure and starvation.
Not confined to Corinth, these abuses led to the establishment of the town poorhouse, often also called almshouse, town farm or poor farm. In our area, they were operated in Orford (on the north side of Sunday Mountain), Lyme (1839- c. 1867), Newbury (1837-1932 on Scotch Hollow Road), Piermont (1837-1858 on River Road), Haverhill (c. 1839-1868 south of North Haverhill on what is now Route 10), Corinth (1852-c1912 on Turkey Hill Road), Bradford (1853-1923 on Town Farm Hill) and Topsham (1854-1888 above Waits River village). Ryegate and Groton did not have a poor farm.
Residents included the poor, the aged, the mentally and physically disabled and the ill. The Overseer of the Poor and a resident manager were responsible for these establishments. The town hoped that these farms would be self-sufficient with crops sold for income. “Inmates” were expected to work as much as possible.
Discipline was sometimes harsh with whipping and solitary confinement used as punishment. In her 1996 novel “Jip: His Story,” Vermont author Katherine Paterson tells of such treatment absed on actual 19th century events in Hartford. Harsh as this treatment might have been, homelessness was more severe.
Admitting that one was unable to care for self or family was a measure of last resort. In his 1989 Vermont History article Steven Hoffbeck quotes one early Stowe resident who said “I’ll starve or freeze to death …before I will go to that accursed poorhouse.”
Being on the public dole meant that one’s name and expenses to the taxpayers was published in the annual report of the town, adding to one’s humiliation. In 1870, the Bradford Overseer reported, with specific individual expenses enumerated, “the expenses of supporting the poor for the past year was $1,084.89.”
In addition to the permanent residents who required care, there were also tramps and vagrants. Several towns maintained tramp houses providing brief housing for these transients. Fairlee established a tramp house as early as 1878, and Overseer Charles Pike was still providing a meal of brea and beans and one night’s shelter in the early 1950’s. During the Great Depression in 1932, the Town of Newbury fed and lodged 1,421 tramps.
The development of the county farm in New Hampshire relieved those towns from the need to maintain town farms. In Vermont, poor farms declined in number after 1880 as other helping organizations and agencies were created. Newly discovered records for the Bradford Overseer show this decline. During the period from 1913-1923 there were never more than four inmates, primarily elders, listed in the annual report. There were no inmates during four of the last five years before the farm was sold in 1923.
In the 20th century, state and federal program such as social security, work relief and direct forms of support for families took over the care of the poor. In Vermont, the Social Welfare Act of 1967 removed from the towns the authority to operate a poor farm as well as the legal responsibility
for welfare. The position of Overseer of the Poor was abolished.
In many towns, thee may still be a road name or pauper grave marker that reminds us of the time when care of the indigent was a topic at town meeting. But the changes that reduced legal responsibility for the poor have not ridded us of the feels of charity and neighborliness. Both established residents and itinerant strangers have experienced the helping hand that many rural New Englanders extend to them in time of need.