It’s no secret that Lowell of long ago was more rural, especially in its outskirts – which included the land where Cross Point, Showcase Cinema and Route 3 now sit today.  As you drive along Lowell’s Route 110 East today (also known as Chelmsford Street), you’ll cross into Lowell just before you pass under Route 3.  From there, you’ll continue past a gas station, a strip mall or two, and local landmarks like Cross Point and Lowes.  It’s pretty familiar scenery, even if you’re seeing it for the first time.

In Lowell of long ago, however, stately trees once towered over a white picket fence that lined a rural, tree-lined version of this road.

Lowell’s City Farm was also tucked into this corner of the city, sharing the crescent-shaped plot of land between Chelmsford Street and River Meadow Brook with the Lowell Water Works, roughly tracing the route that the Lowell Connector runs today, between exits 3 and 4.

“I’ll meet you by the break in the white fence.”


An extension of Victoria Street once led into the City Farm (Lowell City Atlas, 1896)

Victoria Street once extended across Chelmsford Street and provided the main entrance into the City Farm, described by 19th century Lowellians as ‘the break in the white fence’.  Rumor has it that that break in the fence was framed by ‘several thousand’ cabbage plants, but the Victorians were known to exaggerate their descriptive facts.

At the end of its long driveway, you’d see the buildings of the City Farm, standing roughly where Lowes is today.  Its land ran from the present-day location of Route 3, back into the Showcase Cinema area, including land where the 99 and Lowes now sit, and up along Chelmsford Street, almost to Plain Street.

“You’ll send me to the poor house.”

Maybe you’ve heard the expression “You’ll send me to the poor house.”  Lowell’s City Farm has been gone for years, generations, but it lives on in memory as a shelter of last resort.

City farms served as Victorian society’s equivalent of today’s homeless shelters, nursing homes, and mental hospitals.  Lowell’s City Farm, its grounds, buildings, and inmates, was often described as clean and neat.  It wasn’t lost on many that some of the poor found at the farm were experiencing some of the best fortune of their lives.  But, their original purpose, never strayed far from officials’ minds.  The city farm’s main purpose was to instill a sense of self-sufficiency in the paupers of the day.


A partial schedule from the 1880 US Census showing a few of the inmates at the Lowell City Farm

As one Lowell City Overseer of the Poor put it:

“The philosophy of this method of relief [of the poor] is that it tends to prevent total pauperism.  The poor temporarily deprived of labor and its fruits are aided until they are able to become self-sustaining once more.  If when their day of trouble comes they are removed to an almshouse, that self-respect which separates poverty from pauperism is apt to be broken down and the person relegated to the increasing ranks of public charges.  It has been the aim of the Secretary to discriminate between those whose poverty is the result of untoward circumstances beyond their control, and those whose poverty is the result of untoward circumstances beyond their control, and those whose wretched condition is the result of drunkenness and idleness.  The former class have been helped cheerfully an wisely, while the latter have been, as far as possible, compelled to go to work or removed to an almshouse.  An effort has been made to extirpate chronic pauperism among a class of idle, worthless people.”  Joseph Smith, Secretary of the Overseers of the Poor, 1889.

Finding your way around.

city poor farm.jpg

Source:  Lowell Sun – May 7, 1900

Lowell’s City Farm was no small institution.  Its 125 acres housed an almshouse for the poor, a workhouse used to imprison criminals, the insane asylum, and “the House for the employment and reformation of Juvenile Offenders in the City of Lowell”.


The Almshouse was the largest of the City Farm’s institutions, housing an average of 250 people at any one time during the year.  Most came and went voluntarily, staying mostly for the worst winter weather between November and March.  About 10% of the poor farm’s discharges came through death, through common 19th ailments like consumption and debility.

Most of the insane were kept ‘under lock and key’, but a few were restrained with ‘mechanical apparatus’.  A large percentage of the insane were reported to be homicidal or suicidal.  The City Farm’s insane population averaged about 75 most years.

The workhouse was the ‘house of corrections’ of its day.  Housing about 50 inmates at any one time during the year, most were committed for drunkenness.  Far fewer found themselves committed there for crimes like larceny, vagrancy, or embezzlement.

The “House of Reformation for Juvenile Offenders” functioned as a sort of alternative school for children found guilty of crimes, most often truancy.  In 1888, the house of reformation housed 41 children – 40 boys and one girl.

What was it like there?

If you were to visit the Poor Farm in Victorian-era Lowell, you’d have been surrounded by a lot of old paupers – old by Victorian standards anyway.  When families could no longer care for their old or infirm, they went to the Poor Farm, sometimes temporarily, sometimes for the rest of their days.

Whether free or detained, sane or insane, poor farm ‘inmates’ followed a rigid schedule believed by their contemporaries to be their savior from a life of dependency on the city.  All inmates were expected to rise daily at 5:30 in the morning, and retire each evening at 7:30.

All dressed similarly, and slept in dormitories, even if they had been committed there for minor offenses like public drunkenness.  They all ate a diet of ‘good, plain’ food.  The quarters of those committed there for ‘mental deficiency’ were not quite as ‘commodious’, due to the extra expense that the farm already had to expend on them. The male insane patients worked alongside their sane counterparts in the fields, while the women tended a garden, secluded, and reserved only for them.

Vanished Without a Trace

Today, as you drive along Lowell’s 110, there’s almost nothing left to indicate that the City Farm so dominated this section of Chelmsford Street for generations.  The River Meadow Brook, long a key feature of the City Farm’s land, remains, but today finds itself forgotten between the Lowell Connector and the shopping center that hosts Target.  You can spy a glimpse of it as you travel along Plain Street near the Connector overpass.  The records, a few stories, and fewer photographs are all that remain of an institution that served as a last resort for thousands during Lowell’s 19th-century past.



19 thoughts on “Behind the White Fence: Lowell’s Poor Farm

  1. “We’re going to have to move to the Poor Farm!” That’s something I do remember Mom saying more than once when i was growing up. I’m in my 60’s now. I didn’t realize at the time that there really was such a place, but i got the message. I’m sure her parents reminded her as well when she was growing up . And they probably actually knew folks who went there.. ..So just do the right thing and get a job as soon as possible..or else you know what could happen! And me and my brothers and my sister did. The threat worked.

  2. The directions on the opening paragraph confused me. You are in Lowell BEFORE you go under Rt 3. Nice report in general. I remember hearing the area referred to as “where the poor farm was ” in the 50s and 60s but I never saw any of the buildings. When did they come down?

    • Hi Jim, Thanks for the comment on the directions on 110. I’ll check that wording. Writing this post was challenging because there’s not much contemporary research available out there on the Lowell City Farm. Victorian era writers just accepted that the poor farm was there, way out in the outskirts of Lowell, and kind of ignored it. I’m planning a follow-up post where I’ll go into some of the census-level patient research I found and a bit more on the day to day there. I need to nail down exact dates, but I’d hazard a guess that the poor farm buildings came down sometime in the 1920-1940 range.

      • The Lowell City Hospital and Almshouse was located on Chelmsford St, approximately where the Lowe’s is now. From looking at old maps (which can be found the UMass Lowell’s Center for Lowell History)and reading accounts in old issues of the Lowell Sun (found on the Newspaper archive), I was able to piece together that the amlshouse dates from late in the 19th century, sometime after the Civil War. It gradually evolved from a poor farm to a hospital for indigents.

        After WW2, there were a lot of requests fromLowell families to name intersections after their sons who been killed in the war. The families of Francis Farris and Joseph Lane vied for the intersection of Pawtucket and School Streets. The honor went to Lane, but Farris got the Chemlsford St Hospital named after him in 1947.

        By this time, the buildings were apparently in poor shape, because there was talk in the early 1950’s to build a new Farris Memorial Hospital up on West Meadow Road in Pawtucketville, behind the old Isolation Hosiptal (by now known as Meadowcrest Hospital). However, this never happened – I presume for lack of funds. Times were hard in Lowell in the 1950’s and 1960’s with people and industry alike fleeing to the suburbs or to other parts of the country. WIth a shrinking tax base, it was getting harder for the city to support these institutions.

        The city closed Farris Memorial in 1958. Shortly thereafter, the buildings were demolished and the land was developed as an industrial park.

        As for Isolation / Meadowcrest, that was closed in 1962, the buildings were demolished, and Pawtucketville Memorial School was built on the site.

        That’s about all I know….

      • Ryan, your directions regarding the city line being just before the overpass heading east on Chelmsford St. is exactly correct. The Entering Lowell sign can be seen just before the bridge. Great job on this article!

      • I can remember as a child living across Chelmsford Street on Usher St., that the buildings were still there in the late 40’s early 50’s. We kids would go over and visit the pigs that were in pens behind the buildings. Living in the city, farm animals were not familiar, so we were excited to feed them.

  3. I remember walking by the fence as a child and looking at the poor farm. Thanks for keeping the history of Lowell and Chelmsford alive. So much gets lost nowadays. I am into genealogy and would also appreciate some census-level details.

    • There were, along Chelmsford Street – right where the Stairway Plaza stands today. I’ve never heard that they were connected with the poor farm. I remember seeing an article years back saying that they were left there by a contractor from a job that was never completed.

  4. Those lonesome steps were much newer than the farm .I worked for Wang in the Courier Building adjacent to them . I have a couple of pictures of them and me on them – but still a mystery who left them there . This is a wonderful article – so interesting . Thank you so much for posting it .

  5. The “steps” were an advertisement for a pre-cast concrete stair and tank company that had its sales office on that site.

  6. Ryan, I just came across your piece! So interesting! I have been looking for information about the Farm for the last two years!! I have some information but your piece is full of details! You mentioned you would be doing a follow up article. Would love to read it. My great grandmother past away at the Poor Farm in 1897 and I have been researching her story for the last year or so! Look forward to hearing from you. Thank you!

    Best Regards?
    Mary den Boggende

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