Sometimes when I walk in Kittery’s 72-acre Town Forest, I wonder what became of Ella Hill and her girl Annie. From 1891 to about 1897, Ella and Annie lived here at the Town Farm, or Poor Farm. In 1891, the town spent $2 to move Ella and two children to the almshouse. She arrived with an infant son, Fred, in her arms. He died on May 22 that year and probably dwells in an unmarked grave nearby.
Ella had another son, John, born around 1878 when she was 20. The 1880 census tells us that she and two-year-old John lived with Rachael Fernald and worked as a domestic servant. Ella’s father, John Hill, a farmer, died in 1880, so she perhaps went to live with and work at the Fernalds to keep body and soul together for herself and her baby. No husband is mentioned in the scant records I’ve found that document Ella’s life. After the census, young John disappears, so perhaps Ella lost two children.
At the almshouse, Ella and little Annie probably ate supper each night with Adelaide and Charles Leach. By that time, Adelaide, about 60 years old, and Charles, her 49-year-old younger brother, had been residents, or “inmates,” of the almshouse for more than 2o years. Perhaps they provided comfort to Ella when her baby died. Perhaps she comforted them when William Leach, possibly their brother or another relative, died there on January 23, 1892, at age 64.
More inmate deaths followed during Ella’s stay. In 1892, Mary Taylor, age 45 died, followed by John Ricker, age 80, and Abigail Clements, age 79. Not long after, 88-year-old Joseph Parsons arrived. Perhaps Ella helped care for these elders to earn her keep.
Ella and Annie stayed on until around 1897, when they disappear from the Kittery town reports. Did Ella marry? Did she find employment in one of Kittery’s big hotels, or somewhere else?
Town records are silent on her eventual fate. They tell us a bit more about Adelaide and Charles, both of whom lived most of their lives at the Town Farm, and died there. On January 22, 1901, Adelaide died. Although the town report listed her name as a farm inmate for more than 30 years, nobody caught the mistake that named her “Annabelle Leach” in the vital statistics. Charles died 15 years later, on September 20, 1916.
What the records don’t reveal is why the Leaches, an old Kittery family with roots dating to the 1600s, landed at the almshouse. They arrived, it seems, with other members of the Leach family, including their parents, Ebenezer and Iza, some time between 1861 and 1871; a town report from 1861-62 records expenses for “partial support” of 30-year-old Adelaide Leach at a private home. The 1860 census tells us that Ebenezer Leach was a fisherman, as was his son Charles. Various town reports list the “Leach property” as under town ownership, valued at $500 in 1906 (but not part of the Town Farm, valued at $2,000). What fate befell the Leach family, so that they lost their land and perhaps their livelihoods, and ended up living out their days at the Town Farm? Why did two young adults — Adelaide and Charles – stay at the farm?
Today, the Town Forest is one of the Kittery’s under-the-radar resources, one in which I’ve enjoyed walking, running, and biking since the 1990s. Over the past 20 years, the forest surrounding the town land has shrunk, as housing developments have sprung up on all sides, but the Town Forest remains a great place to wander, and to wonder, about the people who once called this place home, including a good number who still remain, buried somewhere in unmarked graves.
In 19th century New England, the “poor farm” was a well-established institution where some residents worked at farm chores to pay their keep. However, evidence in Kittery’s town reports suggests that taxpayers generally supported the five to eight residents who lived there, with the town paying a salary to a “superintendent,” and bills for flour, wood, food, and other necessities, and even for hiring nearby farmers like William Haley and Samuel Norton to do the mowing and other heavy chores. Although it’s possible that “inmates” took care of a small garden, most were too old to do the hard physical labor of farm work.
The 19th century almshouse has a reputation as a misery-filled place where all manner of humanity was thrown together, elderly widows and young children mixed in with vagrants and drunkards. But some poor farms, especially in rural New England, were more convivial and communal – places of shelter and community where residents might play cards together or just enjoy the benefits of human companionship. They were more like small old-age homes, where elderly residents who had no family or whose family wouldn’t or couldn’t care for them lived out their last days.
I suspect that the Kittery Town Farm almshouse had a community-like feel to it. Adelaide and Charles Leach surely enjoyed the company of little Annie Hill, who lived at the farm until she was about seven.
In 1820, Kittery purchased the original 13 acres for the farm, along with a house and a barn, for $325. Later, Captain John R. Haley left 59 surrounding acres to the town. It’s unclear when the town began using the house and land as its “poor farm,” but a town report from 1852 mentions the almshouse, so I suspect the land was purchased specifically to serve as a home for the poor. Some sources that discuss the Pepperrell family note that one of the Sparhawk brothers of Loyalist William Pepperrell ended up living at the almshouse (and the timing, around the 1820s, sounds about right, as a Sparhawk born in the 1750s or 60s would have been an elder by the 1820s).
Town records suggest that the town began to move away from using the almshouse as the shelter of last resort in the 1920s, when the number of residents declined to two and then to one, Mary Gunnison, an elderly woman who lived there with caretakers Mr. and Mrs. Charles Hall until around 1922.
Later, the town rented the farm for a $175 a year. In many years, maintenance expenses outweighed the rental income, which probably led to the decision to demolish the almshouse in 1961. Many Kittery residents today still remember riding the school bus past the almshouse on Haley Road.
Somewhere in this forest is a lost and unmarked pauper’s burial plot that probably holds the Leaches and the other souls who died while living at the Town Farm. When the snow melts, I’ll continue to look for it, as I wander, and wonder, about these people, their stories, and why they landed at the poor farm.
Sources and resources
The Town Forest, at 77 Haley Road, runs between Haley and Lewis Roads, with parking areas on both ends. At the southern end, the former town pound, where stray livestock was once corralled, is an interesting feature.
I welcome any comments or additional information that might fill out this story about the Town Farm.
The Town Farm now features one main loop trail, about 3 miles long, known as the Quimby Trail, named for the late Conrad Quimby, a retired newspaper publisher who called Kittery home for many years, and as Chair of the Conservation Commission spearheaded the creation of walking trails in the Town Forest. Numerous herd trails also thread through the forest. Hunters regularly tramp in these woods in the fall, and more adventurous walkers can plunge deep into the forest without fear of getting hopelessly lost (especially now that residential development surrounds the forest).
Walkers will find the Haley Family Cemetery, on the Quimby Trail, soon after it bears left (from the Haley Road entrance). The Lewis Family Cemetery is located at the Haley Road entrance, next to the Town Pound.
The Rice Library holds town reports dating to 1874. More reports (but not all) can be found in Maine’s Digital Commons. The earliest report I found was dated 1852.
Some general information about the 19th century poor farm comes from David Wagner’s excellent study of six New England town farms and almshouses: The Poorhouse: America’s Forgotten Institution, New York; Rowman and Littlefield, 2005.
Information on the 1820 purchase is from the March 3, 2002 Portsmouth Herald article by Amy Wallace, “Kittery Hunts for Town Forest Solution,” by Amy Wallace.
Hunting is permitted in the Town Forest, so I recommend wearing hunter orange Monday to Saturday from November 1 to mid-December and avoiding the forest altogether at dusk and dawn, when hunters are most active. No hunting on Sundays.