ABOUT: Where the Gardens "Used to Be" is a new Providential Gardener project that will document where gardens, farms, and greenhouses have been, are, and might be in the future, within Providence, RI. While the dedicated website is under construction, The Providential Gardener is posting the first gatherings of information about long-gone gardens and farms on the Providential Gardener blog. The new website will have lots of maps and indexing and it will eventually be a comprehensive display and documentation of agriculture in Providence.
Since it will take some time just to gather the data, photos, maps, etc., Where the Gardens "Used to Be" will grow organically, which is certainly appropriate. This will be interesting and fun and I hope if you have any documents or information you will join in!
Comments and leads to additional resources are welcome, especially publishable photos! Please add comments to the posts or email The Providential Gardener.
This week's garden that "used to be" was located at what is now 225-235 Hope Street, the Aldrich-Dexter field. Brown University's skating rink is at the Hope/Lloyd corner inside that fabulous stone fence that surrounded the "Poor Farm" at Dexter Asylum ~ This wall goes along Hope, Lloyd, Arlington and Angell.
View Neck Farm, Poor Farm, Dexter Field in a larger map
According to the printed (not web-based -- not everything is on the web !) Providence: A Citywide Survey of Historic Resources (RI Historical Preservation Commission, 1986, p. 188), this is
An L-plan tract of almost 39 acres surrounded by a thick, 8-foot-high granite wall. The parcel was given to the Town of Providence in 1824, a bequest of Ebenezer Knight Dexter ... for use as a poor farm.
[By the way, this is more land than is being freed up for development by the removal of the old I-195.]
The City of Providence website refers to this farm in the context of the Dexter Donation:
...The Neck Farm, on Providence’s east side, consisted of thirty-nine acres with some farm buildings. Ebenezer’s will stipulated that “Said town shall, within 20 years after my decease, erect all around upon the exterior lines of said farm, leaving, however [,] suitable passage ways into the same [,] a good permanent stone wall of at least three feet thick at the bottom and at least eight feet high, and to be placed upon a foundation made of small stones, and as thick as the bottom wall and sunk two feet into the ground. . . .” The rationale for this colossal wall wasn’t provided. Was it to protect the people outside from those within, or the reverse?
Ebenezer died in 1824 and the Town of Providence, then with a population under 12,000, had to finance some back-breaking labor. By the time the wall was completed eight years later, it was well over a mile long, and had consumed 7,840 cords of 4 ft. x 4 ft. x 8 ft stone, costing the town $12,700. (Fortunately, stone was plentiful in Rhode Island; it was claimed that in some fields the hay was said to be “harvested with scissors.”)...
[Another aside I can't resist: the wall finished in 1832 is still there, going strong, and the decrepit I-195 built around 1960 is worn out and mostly gone in June 2011.]
The Asylum Projects website adds the following:
Ebenezer Dexter's will of 1824 left a property known as Neck Farm to Providence to be used for "the accommodation and support of the poor of said town... and for no other use or purpose whatever." The bulk of his estate was left to the city (then town) for the construction and upkeep of the asylum and the care of the poor. Dexter's will further called for the town to erect a stone wall around the property, forbade the town to sell Neck Farm, and specified that a town meeting of no less than "forty freemen" should be required for any action concerning the property....
...Vegetable farming had been abandoned in the late 1920's, and while dairy farming continued through the '40's, farm revenues were not enough to make the asylum self-supporting. In 1947, the battle to break the will resumed. Lawyers and genealogists searched through old records, trying to determine who had owned "Neck Farm" before Ebenezer Dexter. Could the heirs of this previous owner determine the fate of the property? Could Dexter's heirs? If the asylum was demolished, what would take its place--a housing development, a park? In 1956, Brown University President Barnaby Keeney proposed that the city sell or lease the property to the university for a gym and athletic complex: "If and when the Courts permit the City to dispose of this land, it must honor its obligation to the Dexter Trust by obtaining the best possible income for the support of the poor... the University is in a position to help."
Excerpts mostly about the Asylum's farm, from an article, The East Side's Untold Story, published in the Brown Daily Herald on February 27, 2009:
At the height of its occupancy, the Asylum's 39 acres housed about 150 inhabitants who raised cows for their milk and farmed fruits and vegetables to sell.
"The place was essentially self-sustaining," said [Peter] Mackie ['59], a sports archivist at the John Hay Library. "It was a little city in there."
But residents could be forced to leave for violating the Asylum's rules, he said.
"Men and women couldn't fraternize," Mackie said. "They couldn't leave without permission."
The stories of the men, women and children who lived in the Dexter Asylum remain shrouded in the past, obscured by gaps in the historical record.
The Asylum's records "had more information about their farm animals than the people there," said Kathryn Kulpa '86, who processed the Rhode Island Historical Society's materials on the Asylum as a student intern in 1991.
There were genealogies of cows, Kulpa said, but the records about the residents' medical care were "pretty spotty."
Many photographs of the Asylum left today only show its staff members. "They were trying to protect the privacy and the dignity of the people who live there," Emlen said.
While the purpose of the wall surrounding the Asylum's grounds is unknown, Emlen said there were two possible explanations.
"If you have a farm, you don't need an eight-feet tall wall," he said. "It's clear that the wall was a social barrier, a visual barrier."
According to Emlen, the wall may have been built "to protect the people from the outside from having to look at a bunch of wretched inmates."
Another possibility, he said, "is that it protected the people on the inside from having the indignity of having people stare at them."
"I think it's sort of a matter of how you view the poor farm," he said, "as a benefit or as a great embarrassment to the city of Providence."
Willing the Asylum's creation
Ebenezer Knight Dexter certainly intended the Asylum to benefit his native city. He donated the land, including his own Neck Farm, "to ameliorate the condition of the poor, and to contribute to their comfort and relief," he wrote in his will before he passed away in 1824....
Tales as tall as the wall itself sprouted over the years....
"Other persons recall the smells of Dexter Asylum: the pervading aroma of spring plowing and spring manure, and the later scent of celery," he wrote. "The pigs were fragrant, too, and many a child was taken in on a walk to see the piggery."
Within the aging walls
Even as the Asylum's legends accumulated and its stone wall endured, the institution itself became more and more outdated.
The idea of a working farm to support the poor was receding by the end of the 19th century, according to Emlen. "By the 1920s I don't know that anyone was doing their own farming there," he said.
While the land once produced tomatoes, cucumbers and milk, freight trains from the South "undercut the vegetable market," the Providence Sunday Journal reported in October of 1946.
"Thirty-nine acres of uncommonly valuable land on the residential East Side goes virtually unused at Dexter Asylum," said the caption of the photograph that accompanied the 1946 article.
There is surely lots more information out there on Neck Farm that became the Poor Farm. What information do you have? I'd especially love to add photos or drawings!