New kiosk dignifies those buried in Poor Farm cemetery
In the past, one might have strolled or driven through City Park on a beautiful day and not given a second thought to the old cemetery nestled in the trees just before entering the expansive recreation area. One might not even had noticed it just a few months ago, as the cracked and worn fieldstones that had been repurposed as grave markers were sometimes shrouded in a mass of weeds and tree debris.
However thanks to passionate volunteerism and some financial generosity Warwick Historical Cemetery Lot #90, the ground that became the final resting place for 94 Warwick residents – men, women, children and infants – is now properly marked and maintained with 78 of its inhabitants, to the best of ability, properly identified and their lives dated.
A brand new informational kiosk was unveiled on Sept. 9 depicts a picture of the Warwick City Home, also known as the Warwick Poor Farm, during the last few years of its operation. The list of names – and descriptions of the deceased in the absence of names – to the right belong to former residents of the property who were buried on its grounds, most without any form of ceremony and without friends or family present.
“As you know, built in 1870, the Warwick Poor Farm was the final resting place for many who were unable to financially support themselves,” said Mayor Scott Avedisian at the dedication ceremony. “Today, thanks to the hard work and dedication of the Warwick Historical Cemeteries Commission and all the voluntaries, 78 of those people have been identified and given a deserved dignity.”
The $548 kiosk was purchased from Vacker Signs of Minnesota, thanks in large part to the charitable help of Warwick Historical Society member Bob Chorney. It was installed by the Department of Public Works, who also volunteered to clean up the cemetery grounds free of charge.
Some people were sent to the farm due to mental illness. Some perhaps stayed there for a while when they fell on hard times, or a breadwinner in the family passed away or had to leave on business. Records show that the average number of people, referred to as “inmates” within historical documents, could fluctuate from 12 to as many as 27 at any given time.
“Most of them I figure probably lived here for a short period time,” said Mark Brown, Warwick Historical Cemeteries Commissioner. “Some were here for decades. Some came and left...it wasn’t a prison for most.”
Records of the regulations governing the farm paint a picture of a difficult and strict life led by its inhabitants.
An overseer or “Master of the Asylum” was charged with keeping a record of every person who came and went, and all who died while on the farm, as well as an inventory of clothing and furniture that belonged to the house and any malfeasance conducted by the residents, and was required present these reports at the quarterly Town Council meetings. The overseer was also responsible for procuring all supplies to support the poor, providing vouchers for each charge.
Residents of the farm were forbidden from smoking in bed and from disturbing the house by “clamor or noise.” They were forbidden from having sexual intercourse with one another, and any such activity would be “severely punished.” Hitting, cursing and other indecent behavior would be punishable by solitary confinement. If residents were found to have stolen property from the farm or brought in any kind of “spirituous liquors,” they could be imprisoned in their room or in “the cell” for not more than five days.
Residents could only leave the farm if they had a ticket of permission signed, and no outsider could visit the farm within a permit from a Town Council member or the overseer, unless they were a relative or friend of a sick resident, in which case they could be supervised by the master, or the matron in his absence.
A bell was rung at 6 a.m. every morning during the summer and at 7:30 a.m. in the winter to assemble residents and begin work. Another bell was rung at 9 p.m. to signify that it was bedtime, and all lights were to be extinguished at this time. The mentally unstable individuals were kept in separate rooms, as it was instructed the overseer shall “attend as far as predictable, to the security and comfort of the insane.”
Residents of the farm attended religious services on Sunday, and were expected to wear clean clothes and maintain “decorous” behavior. Bells were rung 15 minutes before meals. Those who were not punctual in attending forfeited their meal, unless they had a “satisfactory reason for their absence.” Meals lasted half an hour.
The “Matron of the Asylum” was charged with sweeping the rooms and making the beds every day, as well as cleaning clothes and ensuring the residents changed their clothes at least once a week. She was also responsible for caring for the women and children of the farm.
The hard work of the residents must have paid off though, as the photograph displayed on the new kiosk shows a somewhat prosperous scene, as orderly rows of crop fields can be seen expanding all around the property.
Reports from farm overseers in the early 1900s obtained by the commission showed that the farm produced many tons of hay, hundreds of combined bushels of potatoes, onions, turnips, beets, beans, carrots, peppers, tomatoes, parsnips, corn, cabbage, pears, oats, barley, pumpkins, apples and cucumbers. The farm had livestock too, raising chickens, pigs, calves and turkeys. From Sept. 1 to Nov. 1 of 1901, the far produced 378 pounds of butter.
The farm ceased operations in 1943, closing a chapter of Warwick’s past that is now mostly lost to history. The names of many who passed through may never be known, and their stories will remain untold.
“These people, in some ways, did create some of the history of Warwick,” said Brown. “Whether they knew it at the time or not.”
At least through the hard work of the commission – namely its chair, Pegee Malcolm, and commissioner Brown, alongside work from Warwick Historical Society president Felicia Gardella, Warwick City Hall liaison Sue Cabeceiras and many more volunteers and historians who put in years of work in previous decades – the names of some of those who took their last breaths on the grounds of the farm will be imprinted into the historical record; proof that they existed.
“Because they lived,” explained Malcolm as to why she spent many unpaid hours of her own time working on the poor farm project. “They were people. They were poor, they were sick, they were mentally ill, but they were people just like you and I.”