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
Residents of the almshouse received
medical care. The town paid Dr. Ashbel
Robertson and the firm of Welsh and Cook for services and medicine.
The work performed by the almshouse
residents included onion cultivation.
John Hanmer and John Warner were listed as selling onion seed to the
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.
This scant record of Wethersfield’s
almshouse is the most tangible evidence we have of a vitally important
institution little noticed and long forgotten.
One of America’s most famous 19th
century writers did, however, take notice of the New England almshouse. In “Walden” (1854) Henry David Thoreau
“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.
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