Buried History: Waterford Almshouse and Pauper Burial Ground

Almshouse on Gurley Road, in Waterford. Photo taken by Johnna Kaplan, shortly before its demolition in 2012.

Waterford established its first public accommodation for the poor with its purchase of the Walter-Moore farm at 21 Gurley Road in 1847.¹ Until the farmhouse was torn down in 2012, the structure was the oldest surviving colonial in Waterford.² The two story house was built in 1691 by Samuel Waller, an early Connecticut horse trader.³ Like other early homes, it consisted of sturdy oak post-and-beam framing. “When raised by the building party, wooden treenails pegged held the frame together,” according to Robert Bachman, in “An Illustrated History of Waterford, Connecticut”.

A lean-to was added in the back of the house, Bachman estimates, probably as living space for Joshua Moore, Mrs. Samuel Waller’s son from a previous marriage, to whom the house was deeded in 1726. Later, William Moore lived in the Gurley Road house. In 1776 Moore was one of those nine residents of West Farms who responded to the call to arms in 1776. He traveled to Boston with eight other neighbors. He apparently lost his musket during the battle of Bunker Hill and was then on facetiously referred to as “General Moore.”⁵

Homeless men coming for shelter in 19th century London (Source: history.com)

Alms Houses

Gradually during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, state laws began to evolve to meet the changing and increasingly diverse needs in Connecticut. During the nineteenth century town almshouses became a regular part of life. A state board of Charities was developed by the state in 1873.

“For much of Connecticut’s history poor houses, also known as almshouses, town farms or poor farms, were a feature of many of the towns and cities throughout the state.”⁶

To meet its growing need in 1847, Waterford established its first poor-farm with its purchase of the 22.5 acre property and house on Gurley Road. As local resident Johnna Kaplan noted in 2011, shortly before it was torn down: It [was] the first building the town ever purchased and was not only the oldest house in Waterford at the time, but the town’s oldest public building.⁷

The building was “left unpainted for much o the twentieth century”. Photo by Johnna Kaplan, 2011.

In 1847, “a brick ell was built on the north end of what was formerly the Moore Farm,” presumably to create additional space to house the town’s unfortunate. Bachman notes that, while owned by the town, the structure “was left unpainted for much of the twentieth century”.⁸ The large property continued to be farmed throughout these years.

“Boulders were still being removed in the spring of 1966 from the barnyard of the former almshouse at 21 Gurley Road, which had been continuously farmed since Samuel Waller’s time in 1691.” Bachman, p. 4-5

Little is known about its operation as a poor house. Locally run institutions, like this one, filled a need in a time before Social Security, Medicaid and Section 8 housing became a reality. While the day-to-day operations of this facility are unknown, it may be, like other almshouses at the time, residents had to pay for their own keep by working at the farm on the property, at the almshouse itself. Almshouses were often a last resort for the poor, disabled and elderly, and residents often experienced mistreatment and destitution. Institutions such as this one incurred widespread criticism and demands for reform after the turn of the 20th century for their failure to provide differentiated treatment for the varying problems presented by residents.

The twentieth century brought profound changes to Connecticut’s treatment of the impoverished. Soon it became clear that the alms house system didn’t work very well and was more costly to maintain than its proponents hoped. Recognizing the need for more specialized care, states replaced almshouses with nursing homes and asylums, or hospitals for the mentally ill. Waterford’s Public Health Nursing Service was instituted in 1920. Around the same time the poorhouse on Gurley Road closed and Waterford moved its workhouse to a rented house on Douglas Lane. It is unclear how long the program remained there.

Pauper Burial Grounds

A “List of Pauper Deaths, Town of Waterford,” was transcribed by Margaret Stacy, based on a “list from [the] Selectmen’s book”.⁹ It gives the names of seventy-one individuals interred at the pauper burial grounds on the property of the Waterford Almshouse, and their burial dates from 1834 through 1862.

No information has been found regarding later deaths at the facility. Stacy reports “At least 34 coffins were paid for by the town but no names given.”

No written documentation has been found suggesting exactly where the individuals who died on Waterford’s poor farm were buried but anecdotal evidence suggests they were buried on the north side of the property. These graves were said to be marked only with plain pieces of field stone.

The pauper burial grounds may have been destroyed by construction on Interstate 95, the highway that runs adjacent to the Gurley Road property on the north side. At the bottom of her hand-written list, Margaret Stacy writes:

The pauper burying ground off the Oil Mill Road just dug up by the state (1962) had at least 37 graves marked by field stones set close together — 2 graves stone lined.

The town of Waterford, which owned the property, sold the farm to a family in 1921. In recent years, the house was abandoned and boarded up, quietly decaying in the woods until it seemed on the verge of collapse. Finally it was demolished in 2012. Today the 22-acre property is for sale.

Notes

  1. According to Margaret Stacy, Gurley Road, located “south of Route 95 near the Oil Mill Road…. was once [called] ‘the Country Road to Lyme’.”
  2. Historians have noted that physical evidence of Connecticut’s historical poor houses, also known as almshouses, town farms or poor farms, is rapidly disappearing. Once a feature of many towns and cities throughout the state, their very existence has been almost completely forgotten.
  3. Horses became an important commodity in Connecticut’s role in West Indian trading. “From the late seventeenth century through to the end of the eighteenth century, countless New England vessels braved the eighteenth-century Atlantic in a quest for profit by delivering horses to the sugar colonies in the West Indies.” See recent virtual presentation by Dr. Charlotte Carrington-Farmer, a NERFC fellow conducted research at the Connecticut Historical Society. See also “Horses to the West Indies,” an except from Joseph Avitable’s Dissertation “The Atlantic World Economy and Colonial Connecticut,” University of Rochester, 2009, cited in the September/October issue of the New London County Historical Society Newsletter. <https://www.nlchs.org/newsletter_pdf/NLCHS_News_2009.09.pdf>
  4. Bachman, “An Illustrated History of Waterford, Connecticut,” p. 98.
  5. Bachman, Ibid., p. 30.
  6. Connecticut Poor Houses website.
  7. Johnna Kaplan, “Poor House,” Waterford Patch, 8 May 2011. <https://patch.com/connecticut/waterford/poor-house>
  8. Margaret Stacy, “Waterford Burying Grounds.” Stacy, including her handwritten book available from the Waterford Public Library, has been and continues to be a valuable source for much of my cemetery research; Robert Bachman, Ibid., p. 99.
  9. Margaret Stacy, “Waterford Burying Grounds.