Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Poor Farm

There was an article in The Boston Globe a couple of weeks back the town of Milton’s (a close-in suburb) trying to figure out what to do with the poor farm that was left to it over 300 years ago.

The person doing the leaving was Governor William Stoughton, who was both a judge and prosecutor during the Salem Witch Trials. Hmmmm. Pretty convenient to be both judge and prosecutor, don’t you think? Would you even have to jump up and say, “Objection, Your Honor,” or just cut to the chase and say “Objection sustained.” Which may not have been necessary, since Stoughton refused to allow the accused to have any defense counsel. Stoughton did, however, allow “spectral evidence” – dreams and visions – to be used in court. (Info on Stoughton: from Wikipedia.)

But, unless you were Sarah Good or Rebecca Glover or one of the other “witches” who were hanged, Stoughton wasn’t a completely bad fellow. He did, after all, leave Milton some land “for the use and benefit of the poor.” (Not stated but I suspect strongly implied: we’re talking the deserving poor. And not the kind inclined toward wearing black pointy hats and cruising around on broomsticks.)

Anyway, throughout the 18th century, the poor could cut wood on the 34-acre plot, and in the 1800’s a poor house went up.

The original Poor House, or almshouse, was built around 1805, and included cages to punish residents who disturbed the peace, according to a history compiled by the town. Paupers lived and farmed there, and the able-bodied men worked on the town’s roads.

That building was sold for $102 in 1854. A new Poor House was built for $2,675 on the spot where it still stands today. Also remaining are the 1871 Men’s Almshouse and 1888 Pest House, built to quarantine people with smallpox.

But poor houses went out of fashion in the mid-twentieth century and, since the 1940's, Milton has been out of the poor house biz:

… instead renting out three buildings on the site and using the income to help needy individuals with emergencies — in small grants totaling about $20,000 annually in recent years.

The buildings have now fallen into disrepair. But while the buildings may be down, “requests for emergency aid are up.”

The town selectman are looking into selling or leasing the land, which abuts the Blue Hills Reservation (hiking, swimming, skiing…), which is quite a pretty area.  Selling all or part of the land could bring in as much as $8.5M, which would nicely augment the $400K that has accrued in the Governor Stoughton fund over the years.

As with everything else these days:

“It’s all about the Benjamins,’’ said town planner William Clark. He said whatever the selectmen decide must be approved, however, by the state attorney general and Massachusetts Probate and Family Court, to be sure Stoughton’s will is honored.

I.e., that the poor get the benefit of the proceeds.

If I were the Town of Milton, I wouldn’t be getting rid of this property quite so fast.

At least in my life-time, I don’t think we’ll be going back to the point where we cage folks for disturbing the peace. But other than that…

For the sake of argument, let’s just say that we do get rid of all those irksome hand-out programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. After all, the social safety net is for effete, Euro-style dandies, not for hearty, don’t-look-down Americans. (I bet old Governor Stoughton would agree with this point.)

But, as there always is in checkered game of life, there will be winners and losers under the grand new “you’re on your own, bub” scheme.

So, Milton, hang on to that poor farm.

You may need it for those who neglected to save anything for their dotage. (Note to self: design new tee-shirt: Old geezer slapping himself on the forehead. Caption: “Damn, I forgot to save for retirement.”)  Or for those who really and truly did try to put things away, but who didn’t have much luck as part-time money managers; or who got caught up in the next Bernie Madoff scheme; or who thought they were saving enough, but that was before the fund-managers got through extracting their small-print fees. (Hey, what’s this heads-I-win-tales-you-lose thing?)

If you have a poor farm and an alms house, once again, paupers can farm and able-bodied men work on the roads.

Ninety’s the new sixty, don’t you know? Start hoeing, Gramps.

Sure, you might want to rename the Pest House.  Something like Pleasant Manor would work. Or House of Health.

Maybe the paupers can farm herbs that can be used for palliative care for those who can’t afford to even get their case considered by a Death Panel.

And while I do hope smallpox won’t be making a comeback, you never know. Inoculations are sort of nanny-state, aren’t they? And if you don’t inoculate, it’s survival of the fittest. Thus the ninety year old pauper, having survived smallpox, should be fit as a fiddle and ready to farm for his remaining years.

Anyway, my advice to Milton is hang on to this property. You never know when a poor farm is going to come in handy. Could be any day now.

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