“Two dollars for that? What are you trying to do? Put me in the Poor Farm?”

It was a common complaint in the old days as much as it is today, although today it’s more likely to be jokes about bankruptcy or a government bailout.

The Poor Farm was no joke. It was very real, and it was the end of the line for many unfortunate people whose circumstances put them at the mercy of the town.
There was a Poor Farm, or more often called a Town Farm, in Auburn dating back to about 1845. Any town that provided something for its poor or dependent residents was considered to be progressive and charitable, but the descriptions of what that might be paints a dismal picture.
The pages of “Auburn — 100 Years a City” by Ralph B. Skinner, city historian, record many stark facts about the fate of “paupers.” There was no sugar-coated pretense that anyone prospered from welfare or government assistance in those days.
Skinner’s 1968 book states that Auburn’s first “town house” was at Young’s Corner, the area near today’s Lost Valley Ski Area. It was established in 1845, about three years after Auburn split off from Minot. Within a short time, residents were advocating a “town farm,” because the residents could raise some food and contribute toward their own upkeep.
Before that happened, Auburn’s system for caring for the indigent was similar to a practice common in early New England. It was called “bidding them off” to other townspeople for board and keep. Those who could do no work at all (young children or widows with children) received some special arrangements from the Overseers of the Poor.
In 1845, Auburn had nine dependent persons and 12 others were bid off at auctions. Skinner’s book said an effort was made to keep couples and family groups together in neighborhoods they knew.
“An elderly woman and a man, unable to work, were bid off separately for 75 cents a week, or approximately $39 a year, which was a much higher rate than that of all of the others,” Skinner wrote. “One middle-aged widow, able to do some housework, brought an offer of $26 a year, and in the case of one housework-able young woman, the bidder asked the town to pay him only 29 cents a week for her keep, or $15 a year.”
Land and buildings for Auburn’s first “poor farm” were attained in 1848. It was a 75-acre tract on the south slope of Maple Hill known as the Tribou Farm.
Other sites came later, including a 17-year duration at a farm across from Taber’s lakeside stand and driving range on Lake Shore Drive. Remains of the farm’s foundation were found when a residence was built there in 1967.
Descriptions of a fire apparently refer to that farm. “Between five and six o’clock on the afternoon of July 26, 1873, while the 17 inmates were at supper, there came a heavy electrical storm. The barn was struck by lightning and was soon engulfed in flames.”
Newspaper accounts said “the inmates were taken for temporary shelter to Bearce House,” a rooming house built by Horace Bearce for his employees behind his shoe factory at Auburn Hollow, Skinner said. That was a neighborhood name given to North Auburn at the time. A Grange Hall was built later on the Bearce House site.
The farm couldn’t be rebuilt, so the city bought the Henry Stetson farm on Upper Turner Street. Its use as the City Farm continued through 1964. The site eventually came to be the home of Central Maine Community College.
In the latter years of the last City Farm, Rex V. Bridges was the well-known superintendent. He also had been Androscoggin County Sheriff. Bridges had been brought up on big farms in the Midwest. He took over the Auburn operation in 1924. Under Bridges and his wife, Geneva, the farm provided cash from garden sales. It also provided hay for 24 horses in the city’s fire and highway departments, but it was garbage collection and hog-raising that brought in the money to keep the farm going. In the 40 years under Bridges’ management, the Auburn City Farm population ranged from a high of 46 to two when it closed in the 1960s.

Dave Sargent is a native of Auburn and a freelance writer. He can be reached by e-mail at dasargent@maine.com.

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