From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 50, No. 3, September 2014
In 1985, the Mansfield Historical Society published a booklet, The Mansfield Poor House: A Forgotten Institution, 1861-1922. It is based on a memoir written by Dorothy Jenner Gardiner, along with materials from a family scrapbook and information from the Town records. The booklet chronicles the history of the Poor House and describes daily life therein. It also profiles some of its indigent residents that included elderly, infirm and mentally disabled individuals. It’s a fascinating study of how Mansfield cared for its poor before there was public welfare.
The Mansfield Poor House was established in 1861 when Robert A. Barrows contracted with the Town to care for Mansfield’s paupers at his farm on Maple Road. Following his death in 1876, his son-in-law, William H. Gardiner, became the contractor and assumed management of the Poor House. It remained under the care of the Gardiner family until it closed in 1922. Mansfield’s Poor House was considered a model for such institutions and the Barrows and Gardiner families were well-known for their compassionate care of their charges.
Recently a 1905 Hartford Courant article surfaced that identified two more residents of the Mansfield Poor House. Andrew Pierce and his sister, Ann Elizabeth, spent the final years of their life there. Some research in our archives and the Town records helped to flesh out their story.
At the turn of the 20th century, Andrew Pierce and his pair of oxen were a familiar sight in downtown Willimantic. He appeared there on an almost daily basis. The elderly farmer was an eccentric who captured the imagination of the public.
Pierce and his oxen were the subject of a popular postcard entitled “Yankee Farmer, Willimantic, Conn.” It was published by Hiram N. Fenn about 1900. The Mansfield Historical Society owns several copies of this postcard – some black and white and some hand-colored – as well as a photograph of Andrew Pierce with his dog. The common postcard often appears for sale on eBay.
Despite the title of Hiram Fenn’s postcard, Pierce’s farm was actually in South Mansfield. It stood on the main road leading from Mansfield to Willimantic (now Route 195) where it was a very visible symbol of poverty. It was located where the Natchaug Hospital now stands.
There is another photograph of Andrew Pierce’s farm in the collection of the Connecticut Historical Society. The photographer, Fred E. Turner, wrote on its back: “A Tragedy of New England / Andrew Pierce and his house Mansfield Conn. / once a prosperous farm / Everything in the photo / has been obliterated, / man, house & oxen / sheds walls fences are / gone within a comparatively short time.” The photograph can be viewed online at www.cthistoryonline.org (type Andrew Pierce in the search bar).
The story begins in Plainfield, Connecticut where Andrew Alanson Pierce was born on July 14, 1823. His parents were James and Elizabeth (Fuller) Pierce. His sister, Ann Elizabeth was born two years later. In 1851, the father, James Pierce, passed away at the age of 85. He was some thirty years older than his spouse. Thereafter Andrew took charge of caring for his widowed mother and maiden sister.
In 1859 Andrew Pierce relocated to Mansfield with his mother and sister. He purchased a farm from Ebenezer R. Gurley, a local silk merchant who dabbled in land speculation. The property was comprised of 143 acres with a house and outbuildings. The farm had previously belonged to John Brown and J. W. Lyon.
During his first years in Mansfield, Andrew Pierce prospered. He was able to pay off his mortgage in 1860. He also purchased additional farm land, amassing some 200 acres. But then, for some reason unknown, there was a reversal of fortune.
Perhaps it was the death of his mother in 1885 that triggered the downward spiral. In the following years, Pierce only tilled a few of his acres – just enough to provide for himself, his sister and the livestock. The house and barn fell into disrepair as he spent his days trekking back and forth to Willimantic, always accompanied by his pair of oxen. The wagon they drew was described as “as much a wreck as his house” but the oxen were well cared for and always had gleaming coats.
The Hartford Courant article, dated February 28, 1905, describes the condition of the Pierce property: “Their house slowly rotted down over their aged heads, but they refused to repair it themselves or allow others to. If the roof leaked, Pierce would get a piece of discarded tin roofing and cover the leak; the same general idea was carried out on other parts of the old house until it became uninhabitable…”
Finally in 1903, the Town of Mansfield appointed a conservator for Andrew Pierce and his sister and they were moved to the Mansfield Poor House. The farm and Andrew’s beloved oxen were sold to pay for their support.
According to the newspaper account, the old man rebelled against going to the Poor House and on his first day there, he escaped through a window and walked back to Willimantic. It took him “a long time to become reconciled to parting with the old ruin of a house and the pair of oxen.” Eventually Pierce did adjust to his new circumstances but he still made frequent trips to Willimantic, walking both ways. It was a distance of approximately eight miles from the Mansfield Poor House on Maple Road to downtown Willimantic.
Andrew Pierce passed away on February 26, 1905 at the age of 81. His sister, who had lived with him his entire life, died the next day. They were buried side by side in the Old Willimantic Cemetery – together in life and together in death.