Photo of the Ipswich Town Farm by George Dexter

The Ipswich Town Farm, 1817-1928

Ipswich established its first poorhouse in 1717, and until then the poor and incapacitated were simply let out to the lowest bidder. There was a growing movement in Massachusetts during the early 19th century for establishing rural working town farms for the poor. Caring for the poor in Ipswich became such an issue that the affluent remote areas known as Chebacco and the Hamlet broke away and became the towns of Essex and Hamilton.

In 1817 the town voted to buy the farm owned by John Lummus, and allocated $10,500 to create a town farm. The land had once been the farm of Dr. Thomas Berry, the idiosyncratic aristocrat of Ipswich. Despite its proximity to the village, it was not until 1753 that the town granted permission to build a road along a line separating the salt marsh from farm land.

Ipswich 1872 map, Town Farm Road, with the "Alms House" at the end.
Ipswich 1872 map, Town Farm Road, with the “Alms House” at the end.

The Ipswich Town Farm housing and barns were located on a slight knoll in the flat and marshy section of Ipswich just east of the commuter rail tracks north of town, near where the Rowley River and Eagle Hill River drain into Plum Island Sound. The images in the photos below indicate that the farm was at the same location as the Ipswich wind turbine and Agresource composting facility at the end of Town Farm Rd.

The Town Farm Report of 1832 gives us the following information, recorded by Thomas Franklin Waters: “At this time, three men and six women were each able to do a day’s work. The salary of the superintendent was $200.00. New farm buildings were added in 1838 and the 30-40 poor people there supposedly worked “cheerfully and without coercion, with guidance and support.”

The town farm movement lost favor after writer Dorothea Dix in 1843 exposed the terrible confinement conditions in prisons and almshouses in Massachusetts. By 1880 the town farm system was no longer cost-effective, remaining primarily as a place of last resort for the elderly poor.

In 1913, the Town of Ipswich established a Garbage Department, in which food waste was to be collected and taken to the Town Farm, where it would be eaten by livestock.

1913 Ipswich town report

From the 1913 Ipswich Town Report:

“In establishing the Garbage Department we had no precedent of other years to guide us, but were compelled to blaze a pathway through an unexplored wilderness. Beginning the work with care and proceeding with utmost caution, practicing economy within reason everywhere, we found it necessary to expend approximately $937.00 in the work of equipment and collection.

Beginning the work as we did in June, having but three hogs to start with and being compelled to purchase a considerable number of shoats, we could not expect to have a large stock of pork ready for market before the close of the year. Our sales reached the amount of $243.00.”

“The garbage collection business is a new enterprise for the Town, and many people do not as yet take kindly to it. Its value as a health measure is not fully understood or appreciated.

At first there were many who raised objections to giving the garbage to the Town, desiring that their friends and relatives should collect it to feed their own stock as they had done from time immemorial. It required much persuasion on the part of Mr. (Aretas D.) Wallace who instituted the work of collection to induce such to permit the Town team to collect, and at the present time there are still large numbers who have not fallen in with the plan of the Health Department in this respect.

It requires much time to perfect a work of so great importance. If those who give their garbage to the Town would keep the receptacle during the cold weather in a place where the contents would not freeze solidly, it would greatly assist the collector. Respectfully submitted, Overseers of Ipswich: Charles G. Hull, Frank T. Goodhue, Aretas D. Wallace.”

Federal social relief programs instituted after the Great Depression, including Social Security, relieved communities of the need to provide that service and our town farm closed in 1928. Company L of the 181st Infantry Regiment was stationed at “Ipswich Camp”, an infantry and field artillery coastal defense base camp at the end of Town Farm Road. At the beginning of WW II, the 181st was assigned to the Eastern Coastal Defense Command conducting coastal patrols from Higgins Beach, Maine to Watch Hill, RI to prevent the landing of German agents from U-Boats. The 181st Infantry was deactivated on 8 February 1944 and the soldiers were sent to Italy as infantry replacements in the 3rd, 34th and 36th Infantry Divisions. (Source: 181st Infantry Regiment Wikipedia)

Since the closing of the farm, Town Farm Road has also hosted the town dump, the transfer station, cemeteries, a training ground for the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia, a composting facility, an auto salvage yard, access to a boat yard, and two wind turbines. If it were not for the efforts of Ipswich citizens in 1970, a nuclear power plant would be sitting on that site now.

Ipswich town farm
Another view of the Town Farm, courtesy Bill George, from Ipswich by William M. Varrell for the Ipswich Historical Society. In the distance are the railroad tracks and bridge over the Egypt River.
Town farm Massachusetts Guard camp in Ipswich
The M.V.M (Massachusetts Voluntary Militia) camp at the former Town Farm, 1906 or 1907 during training exercises. Image from Bill Varrell’s “Ipswich” courtesy of the Ipswich Historical Society.


6 thoughts on “The Ipswich Town Farm, 1817-1928”

  1. Oh Gordon, I was so thrilled to read this history!
    My mother alluded to the “poor farm” all the time while I was growing up in the 50’s and 60’s. I think her parents used to threaten her as a child by saying that they would “end up there someday”! The things parents say!!!
    Now I have the facts, and I thank you for your constant effort to keep us informed.

    1. Thank you Martha! The past has so many lessons, and the “Good old days” weren’t nearly so good as people would have us think. As a child, my mother cut the amount of salt she used in recipes in half, because her parents couldn’t afford to buy it during the depression. (Maybe she inadvertently saved me from having high blood pressure later in life!)

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