by Nora Howard
In 1811, two years before Connecticut required each town to establish houses for the poor, Wethersfield opened its own. Prior to this time, the state’s “workhouses” were generally part of the county jail system. Beginning in 1838, the Wethersfield workhouse – also known as the almshouse – was located on a 34-acre site in what was then Pratt’s Ferry Road, Occupying this area today is the town’s maintenance garage on Marsh St., I-91, and the meadows.
The town purchased this property in 1838 for $4,600 from William Hanmer. It contained a dwelling house, which the town converted into a place for the poor to live and work.
In the collections of the Wethersfield Historical Society is the four-page account of this almshouse for the year 1843-44. It list the expenses paid by the “Town of Wethersfield in account with their Selectmen…for the support of the poor out of the almshouse.”
From this surviving record we gain a brief look into the daily life of Wethersfield’s efforts at providing social services 150 years ago. We see, for instance, that homeowners were occasionally paid for boarding the poor. Wethersfield also made payments to other towns for this purpose. Hartford and Rocky Hill, for example, received a total of about $32 for supporting two Wethersfield charges. “Wayfaring men” and “transient people” received a total of $1.62 to “keep them from the poorhouse.”
Residents of the almshouse received medical care. The town paid Dr. Ashbel Robertson and the firm of Welsh and Cook for services and medicine.
Among the foodstuffs purchased for this period were milk, pork and rye. There were continual payments for wood and mostly unspecified articles of clothing. For $1, the town purchased a hat for Edward Potter.
The funeral of C. Andrews cost Wethersfield $2. The town also paid Henry Dickinson $3 for a coffin and shroud for this mother. The illness of Henry Deming’s wife cost the taxpayers $3. The town paid out several dollars to make sure Eliza Blood and her child had wood. For the relief of Charity Tryon’s pain, the town bought opium.
One of America’s most famous 19th century writers did, however, take notice of the New England almshouse. In “Walden” (1854) Henry David Thoreau observed:
“Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode.”
Reprinted with permission from the Wethersfield Post.
About the Author: Nora Howard