The Town Farm and Asylum
By Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.
This is the seventeenth article in an occasional series about Smithfield locations that have either been forgotten by time or are no longer remembered for what they once represented. The locations are selected from a list compiled by former Smithfield Building Official Al Bruno. A profile of Mr. Bruno, now 87, was originally featured in the January, 2017 edition of The Smithfield Times. The first installment of this series ran in February 2017.
It is, perhaps, ironic that Smithfield’s Town Asylum and Farm, colloquially known as the “Poor Farm,” stood on a site now surrounded by the campus of Fidelity Investments, which according to its public description is “the fourth largest asset manager with $2.4 trillion in assets under management.”
The so-called Poor Farm was a 19th century experiment in social consciousness on the part of the community. Established in 1835 on a 200 acre agricultural parcel, it was situated on Douglas Pike (Route 7). Its location was approximately mid-way between the present day Salem Street and Essex Street on the East side of Douglas Pike.
The goal of the asylum was to provide housing and sustenance for the impoverished and mentally ill residents of Smithfield. They were expected to work the farm as they were able and hence earn back the cost of their care.
It is recorded that between 1860 and 1870 the facility averaged 25 “inmates” in the summer and 40 in the winter. The median age of those inmates was 55, and it was found that the primary causes of death were consumption and old age.
On October 24, 1870 an anonymous letter to The Providence Journal levelled charges that the farm was guilty of “unjust, cruel, and barbarous treatment” of its inmates. The town formed a committee of five respected citizens to study the allegations and report. The most serious assertions of abuse and neglect were refuted, but the ultimate recommendation was that the operation was untenable financially. The asylum was closed, and the farm was sold. It became a dairy farm under private ownership and remained such for many years until the development of an industrial/office park in the 1990s. The DeCotis family operated the dairy, and the original asylum building stood until the development of the park.
Al Bruno recalls the structure and notes that he knew John DeCotis well and, in fact, worked for him.
“As a teenager I would go up to the farm and help Mr. DeCotis deliver the milk from Farmers’ Dairy sometimes referred to as Federal Dairy,” Mr. Bruno mentions. “I recall being the kid who would make the deliveries while Mr. DeCotis drove the truck. He would tell me where to go. I especially recall doing the deliveries to second and third floor customers. Everything was in glass bottles. We picked up all the empty bottles as well and returned them to the dairy. Today, all of the farm was sold, and the homes along Douglas Pike were demolished and for the most part the area is being industrialized.”
Mr. Bruno recounts that as the town’s Building Official in the 1970s, eighties, and nineties, he advocated strongly for building a fire station in the area. “Today, more than ever we need to protect these new buildings. Take a ride by the old DeCotis farm. You will be amazed.”
Current photo by Albert Tavakalov/The Smithfield Times. Old photo courtesy of the Smithfield Historical Society. Information sources include the Smithfield Historical Society and Remembering Smithfield – Sketches of Apple Valley by Jim Ignasher, copyright 2009, The History Press.