I typically don't do requests. It would cramp my style. If I write about a
subject that someone has requested, I run the risk of their knowing
something about the subject. They might be able to tell the difference
among my facts and know that some are true, some may be slight
misinformation, and some may be totally made up. I'm not saying they are; I
said they MAY be.
But, hey, requests to write about "Poor Farms" have been filling my e-mail
box like offers from Nigerian royalty to split "$30 millions of dollars
U.S." with them. So, without claiming to actually KNOW anything about "Poor
Farms," I'll say a few words as we close out Thetford's 250th year.
Thetford has a "Poor Farm Road," and so does Norwich. Now, I can guarantee
you that there are no "Poor Farm Roads" in suburbia. Given the chance to
name a road "Mapledell Passage," or "Poor Farm Road," developers will choose
"Mapledell" 100% of the time. But here in the real world, many towns have a
Poor Farm Road, just as many have a School Street, or a Church Street, or
Dump Road (oops-my bad-"Solid-Waste-Transfer-Facility Road"). Towns have
roads by those names because there was a dump, or a church, or a school, or
a poor farm on that road.
Things were different back in the day. Social services were minimal. It
was hard to deliver social services on a statewide or federal basis without
good communication and good transportation. Some of the most pressing and
basic societal needs had to be dealt with on the local level. Families took
care of their relatives who were old, or ailing, or who had mental health
problems. Neighbors supported each other in these efforts.
The problem came when you didn't have any relatives. Or they didn't much
like you. Or you had alienated them. Or you were just too much for them to
handle. Then society as a whole, represented by Ye Olde Towne Governmente,
had to step up to take care of things. Until a very few decades ago-say the
1960s-towns used to have an officer known as Overseer of the Poor. It was
his (and I say "his" because that IS a true fact: you had to be of the male
persuasion to hold almost any town office up until the last 50 years-more's
the pity) job to deal with the poor.
"Poor" was a functional definition: you didn't have any money. Now you
could be in the position of not having any money for a variety of reasons.
You might be too old to work. You might be affected by memory loss. You
might be chronically ill or be physically disabled. You might have any of a
number of incapacitating mental illnesses. Or you might just be lazy. Your
family would love you and give you three hots and a cot even if you were
affected by any of these conditions.
But if you lacked a family then it was "Off to the Overseer of the Poor"
with you. The Overseer would deal with your situation in a variety of ways.
In Norwich and Thetford, I'll bet if the Overseer didn't know you, and you
didn't seem to be "from around here," and were a bit confused, they might
load you into a wagon and take you to Hanover and leave you on Main Street.
New Hampshire had overseers of the poor, too. Harsh but effective.
If you were poor, and had no family, and weren't too troublesome, the
Overseer would try to place you in a home. People would take in citizens
who were "on the town." The Overseer of the Poor would pay a weekly stipend
to care for them. The citizens being placed in homes would be elderly or
people with manageable afflictions.
But it would be hard to find a home placement for an older citizen with
severe memory loss, or who was very ill, or who was severely incapacitated,
or who had significant mental illness. In the late 19th century Vermont
built the state hospital at Waterbury to care for mentally ill citizens who
were violent or totally out of touch with their surroundings. But the state
hospital did not take mentally ill people who, though they could not cope
with daily life, were not dangers to themselves or others.
So, for these citizens, most towns had a poor farm. The Overseer of the
Poor oversaw that, too. If the Overseer couldn't make a private placement,
he brought the citizen to the poor farm. Which was, conveniently enough, on
Poor Farm Road in most towns. There the person who was "poor" was cared for
by people who were willing to do the work, but who had no training or
expertise. Which, come to think of it, probably described most of the
people who worked at the state hospital in Waterbury, too.
All right, class: Let's close our eyes and conjure up a picture of our
town's poor farm! Ooooh. Pretty grim. One set of residents who were very
old. Another set who were very ill. Another set who had severe physical
incapacities. And another set who had incapacitating mental illness. But,
on the other hand, the town WAS doing its best to care for these citizens.
How did the "farm" part of "poor farm" fit in? Well, the placement of these
facilities in both Norwich and Thetford was a couple of miles away from the
villages. They were out with the working farms. I think they were placed
well outside the villages because the residents of a poor farm who were
mobile probably could be troublesome to neighbors if they were in a village.
I'm sure the facilities had a big garden, but these residents wouldn't be
very good at farming. I suspect that "farm" was just a euphemism. It was
better-and nicer-than any of a number of pejorative terms that could be
Poor farms are no more because the state and federal governments have taken
over the responsibility for those citizens who need that kind of help. The
buildings are gone from the old poor farms because they were probably built
on the cheap and collapsed when they stopped being used. But we still have
the signs at the end of our Poor Farm Roads to remind us that there was a
time when each town had to figure out a way to care for ALL of their
citizens and a "poor farm" was significant part of that care.
Next week is Thetford's 250th birthday!
Dan Grossman, firstname.lastname@example.org