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.”
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.
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.
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.