In June 1830, the residents of Tiverton gathered for the annual town meeting, an opportunity for the freemen of the town to participate in local government. Included on the day’s agenda was a proposal to create a town farm as a refuge for the destitute and mentally ill. The creation of this “asylum for the poor” made Tiverton one of the first towns in Rhode Island to adopt a new approach to caring for local paupers.
Before the creation of poorhouses, town farms, or asylums, many communities auctioned off the poor, encouraging affluent residents to place bids for their labor as indentured servants. By the mid-1800s, the shift from farm to factory work created a new group of landless, jobless, and itinerant poor—too many to be absorbed into the traditional system. Towns viewed poor farms as a modern, humane way to combat poverty, drunkenness, and deviation from social norms, while allowing people to earn their own keep. Town leaders hoped to reform the poor through labor, while decreasing the burden on taxpayers. Spending on poor relief was often the single largest item in town budgets.
Although the freemen of Tiverton favored establishing a town farm, locating funds and deciding on suitable property was a complicated task. More than a year passed before the appointed committee purchased sixty acres of farmland from the Gray family for $4,300. The town purchased livestock for the farm and gave the committee authorization “to finish the house standing on said farm, in a good and plain manner.” By 1832, the town farm was ready for occupants.
Life was not easy for inmates. Burdened with endless chores, they raised pigs and cattle, and cultivated corn and other “grain, roots and vegetables and provisions.” Inmates lived under the strict supervision of the farm’s caretaker who lived onsite to discipline and reform the poor. Annual inspections by town officials and written accounts submitted by the Overseers of the Poor ensured that the caretaker and inmates managed resources for the benefit of the town. The overseers expected the farm to be self-sufficient, with inmates raising enough food to feed themselves.
In 1886, the Overseers of the Poor ceased keeping records for the farm, marking the beginning of a slow transition from a strictly regulated poor farm to a refuge for the elderly and disabled. A 1910 Department of Commerce report indicated that town farm housed only eight inmates, mostly single men and women, who lived in the house that the Overseers of the Poor acquired nearly a century earlier.
Ruth Manchester, a lifelong resident of Tiverton, recalled playing with the caretaker’s children and visiting the farm’s kitchen for cookies and other baked treats as a child in the 1920s. Although the town farm still ran a small dairy—selling milk to Ruth’s family and other Tiverton residents—it was no longer the agricultural venture of earlier decades. With the establishment of the Social Security Act in 1935, other options became available to those, particularly the elderly and indigent, who had once found themselves at the mercy of the Overseers of the Poor. Tiverton’s Town Farm continued to operate until 1955, when it became a private rest home, which operated until 1982.
Although a small cemetery with the unmarked graves of inmates is nearby, the house is gone and only the names of the Overseers of the Poor are preserved in Tiverton’s town records. The names and identities of those who lived and worked on the farm are lost to history.