“We’re (on Poor Farm Road in Colchester) right next to what is now Paul Mazza’s Berry Farm,” Mike Hoey said. “So, what bring us here this week?”

“Early social services for Vermont residents,” Vermont Historical Society executive director Steve Perkins replied. “The berry farm is located on the site of what used to be Colchester’s poor farm. England had almshouses and poorhouses — and I think when you think of Charles Dickens and going to the poorhouse, that’s exactly what happened here.

“There weren’t statewide services, and so all of that responsibility was put back on town municipalities. Now, we’re in Vermont and it’s rural — so whereas in a city, you may have a poorhouse that takes care of the poor, we created poor farms. Usually, they were away from the village centers, outside of town, not on great land; you know, places where no one else really wanted to be. Vermont even put this into law as far back as 1797.”

Hoey asked, “Could we then (infer) from that — that at one time or another, at least — every town in Vermont or close to it would have had such a farm?”

“They may not have had the facilities of a farm, Mike, but they all had an Overseer of the Poor, which was a town office,” Perkins answered. “And so, early on, what the Overseer of the Poor would do is, they would — if somebody needed help, they would assign them to a farm or a home of somebody in town. Over time, that got abused, and it was almost like slavery. The overseer would receive funds for placing the poor at a farm to work as an indentured servant for a period of time until their debts were paid off.

“And I think that was a real problem, and so that’s why towns started to create these institutions. They started to become this place where the sick, and certainly the mentally ill and the elderly, all ended up. There are almost a hundred of them throughout the state of Vermont by the 1880s.”

“It would probably surprise a lot of people to learn just how long many of them existed,” Hoey said.

“Yes! I mean, they certainly declined in number,” Perkins continued. “But (in) 1967, Vermont finally repealed this law. That following year in 1968, the last poor farm, which was in Sheldon, closed — but they started to decline certainly in the 1930s (and) even around 1900. A big part of that was, as I said, a lot of people with mental illness were housed in the poor farms. We started to see the Vermont State Hospital open in Waterbury in the 1880s. The Brattleboro Retreat (opened) around the same time, and so the poor farms more and more became almost like elderly housing. They almost became nursing homes, in a way — but then, in the 1930s, Social Security was enacted.

“Now we get to the 1950s ,1960s, and there are even more federal programs — food stamps, Medicare — that help take care of people and finally, you see the end of this poor farm (concept). But like I said, 1968, the last one closed. Burlington’s poor farm closed in 1958; it was on the site of what’s now the C.P. Smith School in the Old North End. Colchester’s closed in the ’40s. The big cities and towns — Montpelier, Brattleboro, Rutland, Burlington — they held onto them for a long time. (Brattleboro’s poor farm closed in 1951. Montpelier’s facility remained open until 1956, and Rutland’s operated until 1966.)

“I just like old maps, and you can often see they’re labeled — sometimes they’re labeled ‘Poor Farm’. Often, they’re labeled the ‘Town Farm’. And so if you look at an old map of Colchester, you’ll see right here, where we’re standing, it says ‘the Town Farm’, so you can find those. Go to your town. Look in the old town reports, and you’ll find ‘Overseer of the Poor’ and information on how that (office) worked. We’ve published some great articles — you can find them on our website through our library — on the history of poor farms in Vermont.”