Rutland’s Poor Farm

Clearing and marking the Poor Farm Cemetery, Rutland VT

Clearing and marking the Poor Farm Cemetery, Rutland VT

“Boy” White died by “suffocation by strangulation.” William McPherson was “found dead at rear of Tyrell’s shop.”

Who were these people? And what’s the rest of their story?

What about Mary Jane Taylor? She was senile when she died at age 82 in 1899. But how and when did this African American woman come to Rutland? When was she widowed? How did she end up living at Rutland’s Poor Farm for over 20 years? We will never know.

Indeed, to know anything further about this woman who lived and died here in our city would be a be to hazard a guess, as it would be for “Boy” and William and the other innumerable paupers — only 32 of whom we have record — buried in a long-lost cemetery on Gleason Road in Rutland between 1893 and 1911.
But the memorialization of these 32 now serves as a reminder and a recognition of the real people who, due to their unfortunate life circumstances, would have been forgotten beneath the city dump.

“Confine and set their poor to work”
Not much is known about the Poor Farm in Rutland, only that it was one of many throughout the state established in the 1800s. Growing out of Elizabethan England’s Poor Laws which replaced the previous “solution” of jailing, hanging, or indenturing the destitute and insane, Vermont’s laws requested that “the inhabitants of any town in this state may build or purchase a house of corrections or workhouse, in which to confine and set their poor to work. And such a house may and shall be used for keeping, correcting, and setting to work vagrants, common beggars, lewd, idle, and disorderly persons.”

As far back as 1799, Rutland’s townspeople were eager to help their town’s less fortunate. Voting to give one cent from every dollar in taxes, they commissioned the town’s selectmen to oversee the needs of the poor, including a Christian burial. However, prior to the establishment of above stated law, one way the selectmen saw to these needs was to “dispose of such of the town poor as have become an annual charge at public auction to the best bidder for the interest of the town.”

However, “selling” off the poor essentially into servitude wasn’t a satisfactory solution and didn’t cover the needs of the physically and mentally ill, the elderly or children. Rutland was the first to see the “injustice of the former plan,” and in 1831, after over 15 years of discussing it — and the town’s people again readily agreeing to help pay for it — the town established a poor house near the West Rutland quarries.

By 1875, this poor house had to be abandoned due to disrepair and a new house and out buildings was built — as was the custom, far away from the sight of the general population — on 400 acres, on what is now Gleason Road near the high school. In 1884, there were 47 “inmates” housed there at a cost of $3,658.37. Other costs for those unfortunates from the “outside” were also on the books, including their burials.

“A reverence for God, the hope of heaven, and a fear of the poorhouse.”

Poor farms — which were often exactly that, where strong-bodied male “inmates” were put to work as farmhands and the women as kitchen-hands — were considered a last, and far from undesirable, resort. Vermonters, it was said, were raised with a reverence for God, the hope of heaven, and a fear of the poorhouse.

There were generally two types of residents in Vermont’s poor houses: the permanent, which included the sick, disabled, the elderly, the widowed, and insane, some of whom would have born and died within its walls; and the transient, those who were temporarily down on their luck. This latter group was usually young men and their families.

The conditions at the Rutland poor farm are not known exactly (other than the confirmed presence in 1917 of syphilis among the residents), however we can infer from reports such as that of K.R.B. Flint, a political scientist from Norwich University, that they were not great. He writes in the 1917 report, “Vermont Conditions and Needs”: “The conditions which exist in the poorhouses of Vermont must he characterized as very bad. During the past two years I have personally visited several poorhouses in different sections of the state and when one sees the sick, the aged, the feeble‐minded, and children of tender years living together in confusion it shows that our system of public charity is fundamentally wrong. Proper classification of dependents is the cornerstone upon which any modern system of poor‐relief should be erected. In this state there is absolutely no classification. The sexes are not separated, the diseased are not segregated, and children are permitted by law to spend the years when environment is all important in an atmosphere which is nothing short of demoralizing.”

Describing the six “unfortunates” at the Northfield poorhouse — including one lady “in her dotage” who was “continually muttering meaningless sentences,” and another “notorious character, vulgar and profane” — who, due to their age and disabilities, remained idle from day to day, Flint writes, “this is a typical picture of the Vermont town poorhouse.”

In response to Flint’s suggestions, Vermont passed a law in 1918 that prohibited children under 16 to be admitted to poorhouses or farms. Children who could not be fostered out were instead sent to the Brandon School for the Feebleminded and the Vermont Industrial School. This was the first in a series of federal regulations, including Social Security, and charity organizations such as the Red Cross, which allowed more people to fend for themselves and made way for the eventual replacement of the poor houses with such institutions as nursing homes and insane asylums.

Rutland’s poor farm’s relatively late closing in 1966 was most likely due to what Steven R. Hoffbeck in “Remember the Poor: Poor Farms in Vermont,” indicates was some bigger towns’ “greater investment in poor farm facilities” and/or “bureaucratic inertia.” However, the 1967 Welfare Act officially signaled the end for Vermont’s poor farms — Sheldon Springs being the last to close in 1968 — when it removed the right and responsibility of individual towns to care for their poor.

One Mrs. Nolan, who was interviewed in 1990 for a Vermont Life article on Sheldon Springs’ poor house in which she had proudly worked, responded to this change in focus by saying: “It’s nice (for the poor) to get the checks today… but they were much happier then. Much happier. ‘Cause they had work to do. (That’s) all they needed, they really did.”

A piece of bone and a coffin handle
Back in Rutland in the present century, groundhogs bought to the surface of the county solid waste center a piece of bone and a coffin handle. In 2006, a resident inquired about a seemingly out of place old and bent fence. This led the city cemetery commissioner, Thomas Giffin, and his father, Cliff, to investigate the presence of what is now known to be a long-disappeared pauper’s cemetery.

In 2008, the land was cleared and a marble monument with the inscription, “In memory of Rutland’s poor interred here at the poor farm cemetery. Rest in Peace,” was donated by Henry Socinski, owner of Artistic Memorials in West Rutland. In 2011, the land was further landscaped and students from Stafford Technical Center constructed a kiosk bearing the names of the 32 known deceased. The site is now maintained by the city cemetery commission.

Although we will never know Mary Jane Taylor’s story, that her name and the names of those buried alongside her are now displayed, is a witness to their existence — and thus their (unknown) impact on those of us who are living here today — regardless of how that life was lived — or forgotten. The kiosk at the site says it best: “It memorializes this sacred soil in remembrance of those unfortunate citizens that circumstances dealt with so harshly in life. This shall they be remembered in death.”

Information for this article was found at uvm.edu, “The History of Rutland, Vermont 1761-1861,” “History of Rutland County, Vermont,” and various documents supplied by the Rutland Historical Society and the Cemetery Commissioner.

Originally published 6/4/14 Rutland Reader | (c) Joanna Tebbs Young

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