Uniquely Medfield: From Slaves, to Poor Farm, to Bricks, to 40B
Town Historian Richard Desorgher details the history of the property on West Street for which an affordable housing complex is proposed. The land has been used for many purposes but, most notably, as the town's Poor Farm.
There has been much town discussion concerning the proposed 96-unit affordable apartment complex to be developed under Chapter 40B and built along West Street. The Zoning Board of Appeals is currently studying the proposal. The area is lying on industrial zoned land and located along West Street between Route 27 and the string of small industries that run to the Charles River.
The property has a long and interesting history.
The first building on that property was constructed in the early 1800s by a wealthy slave-holding doctor from the South. Dr. Kollack had a house built after the marriage of his sister, Jerusha Kollock, to Beriah Brastow of Medfield. The Brastow Family lived there for many years and the nearby bridge going over the Charles River, connecting Medfield and Millis, was referred to as "Brastow’s Bridge." Dr. Kollack would often come to visit his sister and brother-in-law during the summer to escape the hot Southern heat, bringing with him his retinue of slaves. The house was later sold to George Newell.
In 1837, under President Andrew Jackson, our nation eliminated the national debt and in fact, created a surplus budget. “It appears to me,” Jackson said, “that the most safe, just, and federal disposition which could be made of the surplus revenue, would be its apportionment among the several states according to their ratio of representation." So the surplus money was sent to each state.
In Massachusetts, the state decided to return the money to the individual cities and towns. With its share of the federal money, Medfield voted to buy the then-vacant West Street house from George Newell for $3,100 and turn it into the town’s Almshouse or Poor Farm.
The Poor Farm was home to elderly residents unable to live by themselves, those too poor to support themselves, and a surprisingly large but consistent turnover of 300-400 tramps who passed through each year, staying for something to eat or overnight and then moving on. On November 12, 1887, the Almshouse burned to the ground. The fire originated from a defect in the chimney. At a Special Town Meeting on December 22, 1887, it was voted to rebuild the Almshouse…That $1,000, in addition to the insurance be granted.
The increase in the number of tramps coming through town was directly related to the economic conditions of the time. A major depression in the 1890s threw uncounted thousands out of work, while the lesser panics and recessions in 1903 and 1907 also added to the ranks of the unemployed.
The Medfield Town Report of 1893 notes hundreds of tramps accommodated at the West Street Almshouse. On one night, 23 were “locked up.” Six hundred and sixty-two tramps were recorded here in 1894, another 348 in 1895, 614 in 1898, and 471 in 1901.
A state inspection report of the Almshouse in 1898 reported: "No improvements have been made during the year. Better bathing and heating arrangements should be supplied as soon as possible. The house provides for no separation of the sexes. At present, there is but one permanent inmate, a feeble-minded woman. The warden receives a salary of $388.”
Those living and staying at the Almshouse or Poor Farm, along with hired hands, helped with the farming. In 1901, $1,651.62 was brought in from the sale of vegetables, eggs, milk and crops grown at the farm. The barn contained 2 horses, 10 cows, 1 bull, 2 hogs and 43 hens.
The Poor Farm stayed on West Street until 1912, just 100 years ago. It was at that time that the town voted to close and lease or sell the house and farm. Two inmates living there were removed to Sherborn and all personal property was sold at auction.
The near-by bridge located over the Charles River connecting Millis and Medfield, long known as Brastow Bridge, generally became known and called Poor Farm Bridge.
In 1913, the property was purchased by the Jacksonville Composite Brick Company. The following year it changed hands and became the Boston-Berkshire Composite Brick Company. By the 1920s, it was called the American Brick Company and was employing 40 workers who were turning out thousands of bricks. It was at this time that Italian laborers employed at the brickyard, and who were receiving 50 cents per hour, went on strike. Police officer Cornelius McKeown was called to quell the disturbance that resulted. Into the 1930s, its name changed again, this time to the Atlantic Brick Company which stayed in business into the 1960s.
Since the closing of the brickyard in the 1960s, the land has remained vacant.
For several years the local carnival was held there. The land along West Street was zoned industrial and several small industries now abut the property. The residential neighborhood on the opposite side of West Street and extending into the area of Brastow Drive, Marsh Drive, Newell Drive, and Plympton Circle was built after the brickyard closed. That development area was built in the location of the sand pits that supplied the sand needed for the making of the bricks.