By Ed Democracy
I first heard about "poor farms" when, in the late 1990's, I was listening to the John McDonald radio show (SAT & SUN 6am-10am on WGAN 560 AM). I cannot remember the overall topic, but, a caller with a thick Maine accent made a passing reference saying, "yuh, n'course you remembah the ol' poor farm over t' Cape 'lizbeth right by the town line, theya...", to which, the host, John McDonald, replied, "Yuh, yuh, 'course I do." The caller and the conversation returned to the original topic.
Meanwhile, I was thinking, "Wait! Wait! What? "Poor Farm?!" "Cape Elizabeth?!" "What? What was that? When was that? ... a poor farm in Cape Elizabeth? There were poor people in Cape Elizabeth?"
Then, not long after, there was a small "blurb" in the Portland Press Herald about a grant-funded project to microfilm some logbooks from a Portland Poor Farm! The project was to be carried out by Abraham Schecter. The original documents and microfilm would reside at the Maine Historical Society library. Abraham is now the Archivist at the Portland Public Library. He is a very friendly and enthusiastic neighborhood historian and can be found warmly greeting all who enter the Portland Room on the 3rd Floor of the Portland Public Library.
I soon went into the Brown Library at the Maine Historical Society. The librarian on duty was none other than William Barry, among Portland and Maine's preeminent historians. I told him what brought me there. He brought me the box containing the original Portland Poor Farm logbooks and a pair of white gloves. It was a ledger listing names, ages, dates, and reasons for internment - all manner of medical, physical, mental, social, and economical malady.
A one-stop drop for the maladjusted. From what I soon gathered, while some sounded close to a back-to-the-land intentional community, most sounded closer to forced labor camps or concentration camps.
I told William Barry I had talked with some of my Labor Ready compatriots about this crazy thing I heard about a poor farm in Cape Elizabeth! One guy, as it happened, was homeless, but temporarily quartered at a home in Cape Elizabeth! He said I'm staying right near the library! I go in there all the time! The ladies from the historical society would probably be happy to help with research. Another coworker, who "slept rough", worked hard, and was full of history and stories (Korean War VET) had heard of poor farms and wanted to find out more, too.
We talked all week about how we all wanted to get out of the rat race and wanted to collaborate on a book about poor farm history. We knew there must be people like us in every town who would like to collaborate.
William Barry told me that the history was virtually untouched. He said, "In fact, the only thing published, that I am aware of, are references I made to poor farms, town farms, alms houses, and the like, which I encountered while writing my book on the history of the Sweetser Homes in Maine." He brought me a copy of his book. He said he only mentioned them in passing as they related to the Sweetser Homes. He said the history was wide open and has been badly neglected. He told me that the concept and the practice of poor farms came directly from the Elizabethan Poor Laws and that, at the time, this was viewed as an enormous humanitarian advance over the treatment of the poor under the Tudors - work or die! Under the Elizabethan Poor Laws, those unable to work and support themselves would be shipped back to their town of origin which would be responsible for their care.
I told my Labor Ready compadres what I learned. They were in! I told them about a really great sociology professor I knew who had written books about poverty and homelessness and how he worked with the poor right here in Portland. I went to talk with him. I told him what I had learned, shared some notes, and asked him if he would like to participate on this collaborative research and writing project with some homeless & working poor folks? He said he would think about it.
My coworkers & I were robbed by a sociology professor, no less, of some original research - verbatim - while sharing a concept for a proposed joint research & writing project by homeless, working homeless, near-homeless, etc. people who have also started researching poor farms! I was asking him for his participation & help with writing, editing, publishing, etc. ... he helped himself to the concept and added a book to his own personal professional publishing portfolio! HYPOCRITE! THIEF! Never heard a word from him. Then I saw the book and read some of my own words (verbatim) and concepts!
Publish or Perish? Publish AND perish!
Obviously, this sort of thing sticks with you - for many reasons! Chief among them, is the power of the history. So much history, yet, so quiet! It is everywhere, and it is nowhere! It makes no sense, and it makes perfect sense! This history explains the underlying attitudes toward poverty and the human beings who experience poverty. We cannot really understand it, we cannot really make poverty go away, we cannot really make poor people go away. But, we do have some less inhumane ways of dealing with poverty and the human beings who experience poverty. And, we can let sleeping historical dog lie. Lie by ommission. Whistle past the graveyard. Oh, don't worry. It probably won't be a poor farm graveyard - they usually did not have graveyards, per se. For example, the Portland Alms House remains - as they could be found - were relocated to a mass grave in the Forest Gardens Cemetary in South Portland.
So, when I started this, I had just served honorably in the US Navy (1993-1996). Got out and finished by BA in Philosophy at USM (1999). I was homeless, for some time while I was finishing. I was working like a dog to not be homeless again when this all started. I have been homeless several times since. I continue to work like a dog to not be homeless again. The antisocial sociology professor represents the systematized worker rape of the current system. The fight continues for a system of humanity, by humanity, and for humanity!
This history still needs to be unearthed. The lessons still must be learned. The old adage is true: If we do not learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.
History, despite its wrenching pain
cannot be unlived, but if faced
With Courage, need not be lived again.
– MAYA ANGELOU, Inaugural poem (1993)
“On the Pulse of Morning”