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The Sheldon Poor Farm 1833 to 1978

Born out of the Elizabethan liberalism of 17th century England the “Poor Laws “ prevented  the imprisonment, hanging, or slavery of indigents and provided for more humane means to care for the less fortunate of society. Well before the 1875 construction of the Statue of Liberty bearing the plaque poor farms began to spring up across America. 

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe  free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me ,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”,

In 1797 the Vermont Legislature passed a law stating, “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 house may and shall be used for keeping, correcting, and setting to work vagrants, common beggars, lewd, idle, and disorderly persons” By this means the legislature tasked towns to "relieve, support and maintain their own poor.” This law stayed intact until 1968 Vermont History

 

Flawed from its beginning, the “Poor Farm” concept strove to provide the basics of food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention for the so named “Inmates” as many received internments here as opposed to jail.  In exchange inmates, if able, provided free labor on the farm and around the house. This ideal deteriorated with fewer and fewer inmates able to provide labor as the populations grew older.  Entire families occasionally occupied rooms at the “home” with children born here and living here through their lives.  In the end only the least able lived at the home with elderly and mentally ill patients permeating the population.
In 1833 the towns of Fairfield, Sheldon, St. Albans, and Swanton united to solve the problem of their poor.  James Mason of Sheldon arranged for the purchase of land in the District 7 of the town of Sheldon also known as the “Webster District” with children attending the Webster School.  The Poor House remained there until the Sheldon Springs location transaction occurred March 1846. 

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In 1883 eight towns belonged to the association.  In Over the Hill, compiled by E P Kearney, we read, “The records clearly show that during the first fifty years the cooperative idea was successful in meeting the needs of the various towns which from time to time joined the association.  The directors saw to it that the institution was a financial success as well as a splendid example of one way to provide a good home for those who, through misfortune, or the carelessness of their children, were forced to spend their last days in a charitable institution.”

A scathing report from the St. Albans Weekly Messenger of Thursday Feb 4, 1897 calls the 50 year old housing unit a rack and ruined structure decaying from 50 years of neglect.  I quote, “then throw in sixty-three paupers to balance and allow them to exist, not live, in a place that has been befouled for five decades by hundreds and hundreds of filthy people, and you have the situation at the Sheldon poor house today.”  Details provided by three reports after a visit to the Poor House suggest support for this evaluation.

The Sheldon Poor House Association incorporated in 1906.  Kearney describes the Poor Farm as “in generally fair condition” in 1913 however the building burned on Jan. 23, 1913 in a fire set by a mentally ill female inmate scheduled for release to the Waterbury State Hospital due to mental illness.  A new building replaced this structure in December 1913 which housed up to 125 people within its three stories measuring 141 x 40 feet.  A 1962 fire on Jan 23 set by an inmate badly damaged 8 rooms on the third floor. This building represents the one typically remembered by Sheldon residents as it persisted until a fire destroyed it on October 24, 1978.

The original barn burned in February 1893 to be replaced by a 100x40 foot structure which stood on the property until 1927 when it also burned to be replaced by a new barn.  Detailed records indicate that, although the farm proved less than self-sufficient, cows, pigs, chickens grain products, and vegetables provided income and food for the inmates and staff.

People represent the real history of the Poor House.  Well intending earlier citizens, although forced by government decrees, hoped to provide a better environment for the poor.  Citizens, directors, and overseers worked diligently to maintain good living conditions and a pleasant atmosphere at the home.  Rules governed how the overseer would perform daily duties.  Behaviors for remaining in the house addressed the daily and weekly activities of inmates.  Any able bodied person worked on the farm or in the house.  Social activities and curfews addressed the requirements of living at the house including many deriving from community norms especially in regards to adherence to religious activity on the Sabbath.
In his 1990 article Steve Young states, “The Sheldon farm was the best of a bad system.  Poor farms and overseers of the poor constituted, statewide, a jumble of locally run, patched-together institutions that often resulted in harsh, inhumane treatment of the downtrodden and disabled.  And yet at Sheldon Springs, by most accounts, poor farm inmates, especially in the institution’s later years, were treated with care and consideration.”
Relatives, friends, and neighbors visited the home and the inmates although not as frequently as might be needed.  At least on living resident says  “I remember going with my Grandparents every Christmas  We went up every year with a group of other volunteers and joy and happiness to all on that special day.  I can remember walking in and what it looked like. Those days I will never forget.  They are the most memorable when I was growing up.”
In spite of our best intentions the Poor House concept failed to live up to expectations.  Once at the farm few inmates left.  In 1968 a Mrs. Nolan, overseer, states that inmates “had no other home, knew no other home. Home was here.” The hope of temporary assistance while transitioning to a better lifestyle eluded the efforts of all involved.  Finally The Welfare Act of 1967 ended local care and responsibility for the poor and transferred it to the State of Vermont.  On October 1, 1968 all inmates of the Sheldon Home moved to other locations in the state.  Now nearly 50 years later we can wonder if the “new” system works.  The “New” system attempted in 1968 now modified by additional legislations still leaves many of our more unfortunate citizens homeless, hungry, and unattended by medical or mental health specialists.  Some states continue to examine the “Farm” concept today to lessen the situation of homelessness, but few return to that idea with zeal. 

Some who called the Sheldon Poor House home continue to rest there.  The Poor Farm Cemetery located on the Poor Farm Road holds the remains of the many who “remained” by chance not by choice.


Homelessness, poverty, ill-health, and mental health persist through human history.  Our means of dealing with these persons and their issues successfully continues to elude us.  The Sheldon Poor Farm represents one effort successful at the time to a limited extent and then rendered obsolete not by the elimination of poverty but by new found methods of deal with it.

Additional References

“The Sheldon Poor Farm” Sheldon Vermont by Dorothy Hemenway Ashton Second Edition 1979 Regal Art Press P 57 – 63. Available at the Sheldon Municipal Library

“Sheldon Poor-House Association By-Laws” approved and Adopted Jan 6, 1942 (In possession of the Sheldon Historical Society)

“Over the Hill Sheldon Poor House Association 1937” More Than One Hundred Years in the Sheldon Poor-House History 1833-1927 compiled by Edward P Kearney (In possession of the Sheldon Historical Society)

“A Disgrace to Humanity: Shocking Condition Of Affairs That Exist At The Sheldon Poor House” St. Albans Weekly Messenger Thursday Feb 4, 1897.
(Transcription in possession of the Sheldon Historical Society)

“Over The Hill To The Poor Farm” by Steve Young in Vermont Life Spring 1990 (Copy in possession of the Sheldon Historical Society)

Sheldon Maps from the “Beers Atlas” (Owned by the Sheldon Historical Society)

St Albans Messenger Jan 22, 1962

Burlington Free Press Jan 23, 1962

St Albans Messenger October 24, 1978

Burlington Free Press October 25, 1968


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