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The Alms House

By Kaethe Maguire

Mt Hope.JPG

The land set aside by the town to bury the poor was donated by Deming Jarves and is known today as Mount Hope Cemetery located  on Route 6A. 

The new American Colonies followed the British model of asking local communities to support the poor and the mentally ill with housing, food, clothing and if possible, some form of work. At least that was the idea. The reality was often far short of the hoped-for care of the poor and it carried a stigma of blaming the poor for their own unfortunate circumstances. There seemed to be no allowance of kindness for a wife and children of a drunk of a husband and father who created the desperate situation.


During the first 90 years after 1637, towns kept no records of their pauper neighbors. In 1683 the Plymouth Court ordered the Select Board of each town to “Take care of the poor in their respective town ships, the town to provide for the expense.”


Towns were expected to support the poor even after the distressed people moved away in hope of finding prosperity elsewhere.  For example, Russell Lovell cites the case of Benjamin Dillingham, his wife Polly and children.  Like many poor of Massachusetts of the time, the Dillingham’s moved to the Maine Territory, then part of Massachusetts.


On June 4th 1824 Fairfield, Maine wrote to the Sandwich Select Board to pay for the necessities of life for the Dillingham Family and to ‘remove them’ from Maine!  Evidently Sandwich supported this family for many years while they were in Maine; however, it appears that there was no stability with this clan and they were indeed returned to Sandwich and to the responsibility of Sandwich.


Benjamin Dillingham was born in 1785 in Sandwich. He was one of 10 children of Benjamin Dillingham and Desire Tupper. They had all moved to Maine. People like this ended up in the Poor House. Thus the old expression, “I am going to end up in the Poor House.”


In 1706/07 Sandwich voted that a block of 200 acres should be set aside for the care of the poor. By 1720 the Town agreed to provide a house for Seth Tobey and his wife who found themselves homeless in 1719.  One can only wonder why this family lived in such conditions when there was such a strong presence of Tobey’s in Sandwich.


Even after the separation of Bourne from Sandwich in 1884, Bourne paupers continued to reside in the Sandwich Alms house with Bourne paying for their keep.


In 1726 the Town voted to establish a Poor House near the Mill River, now called Mill Creek. This would be todays River Street. This was intended to be a brief respite house as it was only 17’ x 13’, the same size as the town lockup which was to be created 100 years later on the same spot.


The War of 1812 caused a depression across Cape Cod. In both 1817 and 1837 there were financial panics.


By 1823 the Town voted to purchase “Decon Thomas Hamblen’s house and barn together with all the land adjoining the same and give him twelve hundred dollars for the same.” This is the site of the current Crow Farm and the Crowell family on both sides of Charles St. [1]

Crow Farmland.JPG

What is today Crow Farm, was once the Almshouse Farm aka "the poor farm".

Charles Street had been part of the original County Road and turned east at what is now Crowell Lane. Charles Street cut right into the woods. It would be fun to see an old map of these ancient ways.


By 1831 the farm covered 52 acres and sported 4 cows, but no horses.


The main Alms House building was a pre-Revolutionary War two story colonial 34’ long and 28’ deep.  By 1829 a needed extension of 18’ by 28’ was added and a full cellar was dug. By 1868 two ells of two stories each were added on as well. Eleanor Crowell Winslow’s house at 24 Charles St. now sits on this site.

By 1876 177 ‘tramps’ passed through the Town necessitating some form of lodging. In 1878 the “Murphy House”

was moved to the spot and tied to he existing structure. This became the “Tramp House”. This was to accommodate drifting men who would only stay for a brief period and needed a place to sleep. Following the Civil War there were many homeless men wandering the roads. Where the women were, I do not know. According to the Independent, a Sandwich weekly, 7 ‘tramps’ was the highest number the house could accommodate on a single night. The cost was not to exceed $.12 for their food and lodging.


At this time the cost of an Alms house inmate was about $2.29 per week. Food that was not raised had to be purchased. The Old Colony Rail Road provided transportation of a half barrel of mackerel from Provincetown for example.


Before the presence of the Boston and Sandwich Glass Works, (1825) this whole place was heated by from the many adjacent wood lots. After that they used coal bought from the Glass Works for fuel.


The keeper lived with the poor in the same structure. Since they were already on farmland, the poor were expected to work the farm if at all able. As early as 1829 the Town bought additional farmland from the Chipman family.  The Alms House sold food from their farm to the people of the Town. Somehow the keeper’s wife cooked for all!  A Mrs. Lawrence actually continued on alone when her husband died in 1845.


The Sandwich Observer of 16 January, 1847 reported that “Nearly one half of the whole number of Paupers were probably made so by intemperance in themselves and others.” [2] There was a large Temperance movement all over the country at this time. In 1846 there were 113 Alms Houses in the State, 12 of which were in Barnstable County.


Not all residents were hard hearted and blamed the poor for their condition in life. Jonathan Bourne of New Bedford, a former Sandwich resident and owner of 24 whaling ships, annually supplied the Alms House residents with Thanksgiving Dinner. In 1887 the Sandwich Town Meeting voted to extend thanks to Mr. Bourne for the ‘liberality shown annually’. (Money).


In 1867 Joshua G. Battles caught and salted 5 barrels of herring for the Alms House at $.55 per barrel. He also caught 52 barrels for the Indians at $.20 a barrel.


From the very beginning land was set aside for a burial ground. This is  he site of the Alms House Burial Ground, used between 1823 and 1845. Sadly, there were not records kept of the names of those buried there. However, Carolyn Crowell of 33 Charles Street, living in her parents’ 1923 home, has done much to raise the awareness of the this abandoned and forgotten burial ground. A large stone now marks the spot. This was placed by our Department of Public works in June of 2011. [3]  Charles Street was known as ‘Poor Farm Road’.

According to Ms. Crowell there were other burials on adjacent property, now owned by the Town of Sandwich, in that same area as late as 1915. The Alms House burial ground that closed in 1845 did so because of the rocky land that made it so difficult to dig graves. There was a wooden fence, created in 1915, on the second site that was visible as late as the 1970s, but it soon eroded and fell.


It was this disregard for the poor that caused Ms. Crowell to call attention to this unmarked burial area.


In 1844 the Town reserved an area of the Deming Jarves created Mt. Hope burial ground for the poor on Route 6A.

Eventually the care of the mentally ill became an obvious need but it led to a lack of safety for the residents of the Poor House. There was no easy solution for anyone anywhere

Almshouse Memorial Stone.jpg

A stone memorial located near the corner of Charles Street and Crowell Lane.

and it resulted in the terrible imprisonment of the mentally ill in attics or in locked rooms where a caretaker was paid to keep that sick person segregated.


There was a ‘lunatic hospital’ in Taunton but the hospital wanted the incurables to be placed in Alms Houses.


After 1875 the law prohibited housing children in the Alms House. The thought was not to expose children to the ‘taint of pauperism’.  Also, they sought to separate out the mentally ill.[4]  Poverty was associated with laziness and moral deficiency.


Carolyn’s uncle, Leavitt Crowell, has left written memories of growing up in the area and told the story of finding metal loops, chains and bolts in the foundation of the Alms House. Sadly, these were used to chain the mentally ill. Leavitt removed some of this metal as a young boy and melted it down to make metal soldiers!


He also tells us that there was a spring on the spot that held 3 to 4 feet of water at all times. A lead pipe for water for the Alms House was attached. This area has now dried up. There had been a sign saying “Water Hole” on the spot.


The 1889 State report of Lunacy and Charity of Massachusetts [5]states that by this time “the Alms House is in poor condition, though not owning to a lack of interest on the part of the Superintendent or Matron, but because the building is old and now adapted to the use for which it is put.” They reported the building should be closed if they cannot immediately provide a bathroom”.


By the time of a visitation by the Board on 22 April 1890, they reported that “the Almshouse in Sandwich is old, poorly arranged, out of repair and yet the inmates were tidy and the house ‘scrupulously’ clean.  However, 13 of the 17 inmates are insane. Five of these inmates are from the Town of Bourne”.


By 1908 attempts were made to re arrange the Alms house to better accommodate the inmates.  Also the farm was put up for sale. Proceeds were to be applied to the Town Debt.


The then Alms House burned down as so predicted. Unfortunately, I did not find any information on any details of this event.


By 1912 the Town decided to sell the farm at auction for not less than $2,000. By then it was about 27 acres. Mr. Henry Belcher of Randolph purchased the farm for $2325. On Sept. 21, 1912.


Mr. Belcher began to build a home on a high hill and then changed his mind and decided he preferred the corn of Tupper Road and Main St. (127 Main St.).  He used the foundation of the Alms house to build a house for a hired man and then decided to sell. David and Lincoln Crowell purchased the farm in 1916 and the rest is history as they say.

[1] This property once  belonged to Sam Wing, 3rd generation of John Wing. Sandwich Observer July 21, 1885.

[2] The Sandwich Observer January 16, 1847 pg. 2.

[3] Sandwich Alms House and the Poor Farm by Carolyn Crowell the Village Broadsider 6 June 1979. Pg. 16.


[4] The Register 20 March, 2008, pg. 15.

[5] Eleventh Annual Report of the State Board of Lunacy and Charity of Massachusetts 1889 by Massachusetts State Board of Health, Lunacy and Charity.

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