Manchester’s poorhouse had a colorful history, reflecting similarities with such institutions in other American towns
during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Those of us “of a certain age,” recall our parents telling us that we
would “drive them to the poorhouse” with our extravagant requests. Today, although the phrase is still used, the poorhouse
– also known as an almshouse, poor farm, or county home – has been replaced by nursing homes, shelters, group homes, and
supervised residences for those who need assistance or refuge.
At the old-fashioned poorhouse, residents might have to work for their bread, toiling on a farm or helping build roads, and some poorhouses were less a refuge than a punitive-type institution – particularly when the prevailing belief was that the poor people had squandered their money through Demon Rum or other bad behavior. On the other hand, fueling the controversy was our nineteenth-century idealism and belief that the public should fund institutions whose motif was deterrence and character improvement. One such idealistic movement was Temperance, and many organizations agitated for total abstinence from alcohol, believing that this would improve family life.
In the 1923 “History of Manchester,” authors Spiess and Bidwell write that “…the town pursued a zig-zag policy of poor relief. For a while the paupers were hired out. Then conditions under this obnoxious system evidently became so intolerable that the hiring or building of a townhouse was proposed as a remedy. But the simple machinery of town government did not prove adequate to undertake such a complex function as institutional poor relief. We suspect, also, that the hiring-out system was strongly advocated by persons who hoped to make money for themselves out of the necessities of others.” In 1861, the Selectmen were authorized “to contract with some judicious competent person for the keeping of the poor of this town ... so that they shall have a good comfortable support.” The town also provided for “outside alms,” for maintaining town poor in state institutions, such as hospitals.
Then, as now, most families took care of their poor relations, taking in parents, adult children, and other kin who couldn’t make it on their own for financial, medical, or other reasons. Today, we have state departments charged with taking action to obtain child support, in situations where, years ago, abandoned orphans, women and their children might end up at the poor farm.
Then, as now, there was also a gray area between who just needed a little help, and who was getting into trouble, breaking the rules, so to speak, of society.
For example, in December 1903, The Hartford Courant reported, “Peter Burns, who was admitted to the [Manchester] almshouse some time ago, left Sunday and was found on the street with a large bundle under his arm and nothing to shelter him from the rain until Officer Campbell was attracted by his strange actions and locked him up. It is thought that he is harmlessly insane and this morning he was again taken to the almshouse.” Perhaps Peter didn’t have a family able (or willing) to keep him at home.
In a 1904 news-brief, The Courant reported, “Edward Horan of Union Village [the North End of Manchester] was taken to the poor house at his own request. Mr. Horan has always been a hard working man but during the past few months he has grown feeble and to add to this his mind was showing signs of weakening. Last Friday his wife died and he was left without a home.”
Not all “inmates,” as they were then called, were as peaceable as Mr. Horan, as noted in this 1905 Courant article, “John C. Conway, who while an inmate of the almshouse in Manchester assaulted another inmate by striking him on the head with a hatchet, pleaded guilty to the charge of assault. He was bound over by the town court at Manchester for assault with intent to kill. State’s Attorney Eggleston said that Conway is 65 years old and that he possesses a violent temper. He did not think that Conway should be sentenced to state prison, but he hardly knew what to do with him, as the man had declared that he preferred life in a jail to being in the Manchester almshouse. Judge Thayer sentenced him to jail for six months.” The Courant added, “Conway is so deaf that he cannot be made to hear. He does not understand the sign language and the only way that he can be conversed with is by writing. He carries a slate for that purpose.”
As noted in Spiess and Bidwell’s book, Manchester sometimes “farmed out” its poor, paying a certain amount per person to a custodian – such as a farmer or other landowner – who was willing to take in the poor. Then the custodian could assign chores around the farm, or even “rent out” the residents to others who needed some cheap labor.
At one time, Manchester’s poor farm was south of the old South School (today’s Lutz Children’s Museum) on South Main Street. Edwin L. Bidwell (1859-1932) spoke of this poorhouse in his provocative memoir, “Customs and Incidents in the Early Days of Manchester, Childhood Reminiscences, 1865-1889,” which was published in a series in the Manchester Herald during 1921 (the Manchester Historical Society has reprinted the memoir in a booklet available for sale in its museum store). Mr. Bidwell wrote, “Some distance south of the school was situated the ‘poor house’ or place where the few paupers of the town were supported. They were mostly young unfortunates who had lost their parents and were supported by the town until they could take care of themselves. They attended the school and were received by us as social equals, no one dreaming of calling them paupers. They were well clothed, well fed and apparently well treated and were loyally devoted to the man who had charge of them, who is living at the present writing, although at an advanced age. There was one old soak there who often managed to obtain the price and would go on a drunk. On my way to school one morning I met him. Fortune had smiled on him and the day before he had been intoxicated…and was in the semi-maudlin, semi-repentant condition…He stopped me and very earnestly and urgently requested me to direct him to a priest — as he desired to confess and be absolved. At that time there was no priest any nearer than the North End and it was impossible for me to direct him there. From where we stood I could obtain a view of the South Methodist parsonage and the thought entered my mind that a priest and a minister performed the same functions. So pointing out the house to him I directed him where to go and informed him that he would probably find a person there who would gladly minister to his spiritual wants. He thanked me very kindly and went his way. I have not the slightest doubt but that he went to the parsonage, and I have often wondered what he said, what the minister said...”
Later, the town of Manchester purchased a farm in the Highland Park section of town – 75 acres, some of which was in Bolton. A custodian was hired to run the institution under the supervision of the town’s “Charity Superintendent.” The public, while wanting to provide for the poor, didn’t necessarily want them in their midst. But this particular farm ran into various problems, including serving condemned pork and foul potatoes in 1907 and running out of water in the summer of 1909. It would cost considerable money to pipe in water from a nearby landowner’s spring, or to pipe it in from the nearby Cheney reservoir.
Dr. Burr, the town doctor, urged a new almshouse in a September 1910 selectmen’s report, which cited unsanitary conditions, including no sewer connections, and the lack of a sufficient water supply. He said that the house was old and in poor shape and that it was “impossible under the conditions that now exist there to have the health of the inmates of the place brought to the proper standard.” Dr. Burr also recommended that “a detention hospital be provided for contagious diseases and also that a place be fixed up in the cell room of the police station, or some other place, where prisoners suffering with tremens could be properly cared for and watched.”
In 1911, The Courant reported that the board of selectmen considered the “erection of a fence around a certain part of the ground of the Manchester almshouse to prevent the slightly demented inmates from wandering away from the place, as has sometimes happened. The almshouse is located very close to the largest of the three reservoirs from which South Manchester residents secure their drinking water and there has been a feeling in town for some time that precautions should be taken to prevent anything happening to the inmates of the almshouse who might come too close to the reservoir.”
“The fence however wasn’t built, and the town decided in 1912 to build a new almshouse on East Middle Turnpike. A public open house was held in June 1913, and a few days later, 14 residents moved in. The town was proud of its new two-story almshouse with its open-air porches, rooms to accommodate 40 residents, running water, and baths.
The town sold the old almshouse to Cheney Brothers for $7,500, after a year of discussion and committee meetings. The buildings were razed by Cheney Brothers, “who bought the property to protect their watershed, the farm being in the vicinity of the reservoirs.”
The almshouse had its ups and downs over the years, still accommodating residents during the 1950s, when Vet Haven was built nearby (in the area of today’s Illing School). Visit Vet Haven for information about Vet Haven in this web site.
In 1953, a plan for the deteriorating almshouse developed – the police department, which had needed more space than was available at its Hall of Records location (today’s Probate Court across from Town Hall on Center Street) would remodel the almshouse, at an estimated cost of $150,000. However, Police Chief Schendel managed the remodeling of the building at a cost of only $75,000 with the help of a crew of “volunteers, including off-duty auxiliary police and regular officers, and by haggling for materials,” according to a Police department history available at Police Department web site. This building accommodated police headquarters from 1954 to 1979, when renovations were made and a two-story wing was added. The building no longer looked as much like the almshouse. In 1995, the entire building was replaced and our new police headquarters held a ribbon-cutting ceremony on October 16, 1996.
So Manchester’s almshouse is now a bit of history, although controversy over government-sponsored institutions will probably always be with us.
Susan Barlow serves on the board of the Manchester Historical Society and is webmaster of its site.