Going to the Poor House

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Parsonage Cottage144.jpg

                                   PUTNAM COTTAGE TODAY 


Most people don't normally associate Greenwich with poverty.  It's known for being a Hedge Fund center, as well as a "bedroom community" for people working in New York City.  Yet, in the past, Greenwich has had to provide care and shelter for the poor. This originally meant indigent (homeless) men without families.  As I began to research this topic, I quickly realized that the history of the "poor house" also chronicles the origin of the Town's Social Services Department.

 At first, the Town contracted townspeople to provide shelter for the poor for a stipend.  Many farmers took advantage of the supplemental income, and erected small buildings for this purpose.  This gave rise to the term "farming out the poor".  

At the December 16, 1793, Town Meeting, the Town was empowered to procure a site to centralize all the poor.  Despite this charge, it wasn't until November 6, 1820,  that the Selectmen were given authority to spend money for a building and manager to oversee a "Poorhouse".  Then, at the October 1st, 1827 meeting, the townspeople empowered the the Selectmen to purchase land and build a shelter. 

In an attempt to make the system more cost-efficient, a committee was formed in 1854 to investigate alternatives.  In October 1855, they decided  to purchase some farmland and construct a building to save money.  The committee purchased Pecksland Farm in the Round Hill section for $20,000.  According to Geoffrey Lynfield, the property included an almshouse and 125 acres of fields and woodlands.  This became the first offical "Poorhouse" in Greenwich.  It was also known as the "Poor Farm", "Town Farm" and "Town Home".  ( Lynnfield states the farm was eventually sold to Roger Sherman Baldwin in 1912.  Baldwin called it "The Poor House" and "Baldwin Farms".   When Mrs. Baldwin died in 1960, the land was subdivided into smaller lots for development.)

The poorhouse at Pecksland Farm was eventually replaced by a complex on Parsonage Road near Putnam Cemetery and the "Contagious Hospital".  Well-known town benefactor Robert Bruce built and donated 4 buildings on Parsonage Road for the purpose of opening a hospital in 1903.  (Several years later, Greenwich General Hospital moved to Milbank Road, and in 1917, changed its name to Greenwich Municipal Hospital.)   In October of 1905, the Town Meeting authorized the Town to sell the land on Pecksland Road and move to Parsonage Road on land donated by Robert Bruce. 

In 1904, the US Bureau of the Census issued a special report titled "Paupers in Almshouses".  It provided a Summary of Poorhouses by State.  Each Town's procedure (within each state) was documented. The State of Connecticut required each Town to provide subsistence for all paupers, and the Selectmen were to oversee the program, keeping records whether fully- or partly- supported.  Each Town was required to establish an almshouse, or join forces to provide a shelter.  This service could no longer be conrtracted out.  Paupers who were not residents would be cared for at State expense for six-months; then the Town was required to pay the expense. If anyone brought a new pauper into town, s/he would be fined $70!  There were also provisions against people with property qualifying for assistance, and immediate relatives (parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren) could not secure support on behalf of the poor person. 

Incidently, you can track the history of the Town Home by looking at the Greenwich Annual Reports from 1908.  At first, the site was called "The Alms House and Town Farm".  Its residents were called inmates!  Approximately 35 people were housed there.  The 1910 Annual Report indicates the Town Home fell under the supervision of the Greenwich Commissioner of Charities, who was paid the annual salary of $2000.   A State Charities Commission praised the Superintendent of the facility and his wife for excellent management! 

The long-term goal of the Town Home was to help the needy get on their feet and become self-sufficient.  It was believed this could be done by providing for them until they could obtain permanent employment.  Unfortunatley, the Depression hit in 1929, and a great many more people lost their jobs through no fault of their own.    This placed heavy demands on the Commision and the Town Home. Contributing to the space problem was the fact that the Greenwich Contagious Hospital Infirmary had to be moved to the Home. The facility was filled to capacity and applicants had to be turned away. This was very frustrating to many of the applicants, who were reluctantly seeking aid to begin with.  They didn't like to ask for charity or be dependent.

In 1933, the Connecticut General Assembly changed the name of the Commission of Charities to the Commission of Public Welfare.  This was to remove the stigma associated with "charity", which the people tried to avoid.  Fortunately, the infirmary patients were transferred to a new location, and renovations were made to some storage space at the Town Home to create more living quarters.  This also provided work for 8 skilled workers for 6 weeks.

As the Depression wore on, there were more demands placed on the Commission.  Families were feeling the stress more and more.  Private residents and organizations partnered with the Commission to provide services.  Mrs. J. Stillman Rockefeller provided funds to make improvements at the Town Home.

By 1936, Old Age Assistance legislation was passed. This ruled that people accepting assistance could not live at the Town Home.  Yet, the staff was beginning to see an increase in family problems - alcoholism, elderly people who needed living assistance, etc.  Some of the private charities were beginning to dwindle also as resources became more scarce.  Next of kin were refusing to help because of their own burdens. Old Age Assistance - which was thought to eliminate the need for the Town Home - was not the answer to the problem.

The Commission recognized the importance of putting people back to work. In the 1940s, Town Home residents were given jobs cultivating the land, clearing brush and building a recreation room.  Raising vegetables helped keep the Home food bills down.   Another program in town created "cash relief men".  These were people who were "outsourced" to Town departments to help with the workload.  Wages were paid through relief funds, but eventually transferred to department budgets.

Once the war ended in 1946, men began returning home with a new sets of problems;  unemployment, housing, psychological problems.  It became apparent that there would always be a need for social services.  In 1950, an amendment to the Social Security Act gave the Town some relief by providing federal funds to supplement the Town Home.  The following year, construction began to fireproof and expand the structure.  Two big dorms were added, as well as 4 new bedroom units on the first floor. 

Tha annual reports of the early 1950s debunked the notion that Greenwich was nothing but a wealthy community with no social problems.  It was quite the contrary.  Each year seemed to bring new social problems to light.  Economic disruptions, technological advances, and even longevity put new demands on the community. These problems were becoming more diverse and complicated.  One Town official pointed out that the financial aid provided was keeping some marginal families from poverty.  New services were also introduced such as Homemaker Services that allowed the elderly to stay at home.

In the 1960s, the Town Home was operating at capacity.  It was more of an affordable assisted-living facility than a shelter for the poor.  By 1972, the name was changed to "Parsonage Cottage".  The Commission of Welfare was renamed The Social Services Department to reflect its ever-expanding responsibilities.   It wasn't long before the Department began to experience space and staffing shortages.  Things seemed to level off in the 1980s.  Unfortunately, severl unusual incidents placed the facility in a negative light.  In 1985, a resident wandered away from the Cottage and was killed by an automobile on the nearby Merritt Parkway.  The Town was sued and ultimately settled with the family.  A study of the facility was undertaken, and the Social Services Department reported that the facility was underused.   Two fires also broke out, which threatened residents. 

Due to economic hard times in the 1990s, Connecticut made deep cuts in  state aid.  The Town's BET (Board of Estimate and Taxation) made additional cuts.  Officials called for a closing of Parsonage Cottage, and  alternate plans for continuation of much needed services.  The Selectmen and Commission on Aging backed a plan to remodel the facility to bring it up to code in order to meet state funding requirements.  Many believed affordable assisted-living was necessary in town.  However, ever-increasing costs of operating the facility was strapping the Town and Social Services Department.

In 1994, the Town hired a fundraising consultant to address the problem.  A wide variety of fundraising activities was undertaken involving private and government sources.  Several grants were obtained.  The Cottage was also turned over to the Housing Authority. Ground was broken on the Parsonage Cottage site in June 1995.  After two years of construction (and some delays), Parsonage Cottage re-opened as a nursing home facility.

Today, the building that was once the "Poor House" is now a modern assisted-living facility for the elderly.   What was "Greenwich Contagious Hospital" is now the Nathaniel Witherell Nursing Home.  The Town's Social Services Department, the United Way, and local churches have partnered to provide additional support for those in need.  The Town also provides affordable housing in several locations.  Churches run regional soup kitchens.Many other groups in town provide much needed services.

No one knows what the future will hold, but there will always be a need for Social Services.


Greenwich Time (Hearst Corporation)

Greenwich Place Names; Lynfield, G., self published

Annual Report of the Town of Greenwich: 1930-1998

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Carl White published on December 14, 2012 10:53 AM.

Historical Happenings was the previous entry in this blog.

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