Open Saturdays and Sundays from 1:30PM – 4:30PM
This year our main exhibit will look at how the poor were supported in Mansfield from the 1800s to the 1930s. It will focus on the Mansfield Poor House, the Connecticut Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home, and some of the federal social programs and public works projects that assisted Mansfield’s needy during the Great Depression. There will also be an exhibit that recognizes the Stearns family and their Mountain Dairy business. This year marks the 250th anniversary of when Boaz Stearns and his family settled on Chestnut Hill in 1772.
Admission is $5.00/adult; free for MHS members and children 12 and under. The wearing of face masks inside the museum is optional but encouraged. Following the opening, the museum will be open on Saturday and Sunday, 1:30 – 4:30PM through the end of September.
You can purchase a ticket for visiting the museum through our website or at the door on the day of your visit.
Poverty, homelessness and hunger are perennial problems that have affected many throughout history. Recently, COVID has demonstrated just how vulnerable we are and how quickly one’s financial circumstances can change. Since the pandemic began, many more now struggle with joblessness, housing issues and food insecurity. Thankfully, today there are many more social safety nets available than there were in the past.
The main exhibit provides a historical look at how the poor were supported in Mansfield, first on the local level, and later with the help of state and federal programs. The exhibit focuses on the Mansfield Poor House, the Connecticut Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home, and some of the social programs and a public works project that assisted Mansfield’s needy during the Depression.
Beginning in 1776 the Town of Mansfield levied a poor tax to defray the cost of providing relief to the town’s neediest residents. With these funds, the Town furnished some food, clothing, and firewood to aid its poor. Then, in 1826, the Town contracted with Ralph Storrs to establish the first poor house. He cared for the town’s paupers in a building on his property. A year later, it was voted at a town meeting to establish a work house in the lower room of this poor house. “All idle persons, who have nothing wherewith to support themselves,” beggars, vagrants, chronic drunkards, those who do not support their families, and other “unworthy poor” could be sent to this “house of correction” and sentenced to hard labor for up to forty days. It is unknown how long this arrangement continued.
A more benevolent approach was taken when, in 1861, the Town contracted with Robert A. Barrows to care for Mansfield paupers at his farm on Maple Road. After his health failed, his daughter Emma and her husband William H. Gardiner took over management of the poor house until it closed in 1922. Unlike the almshouses in larger cities and towns, the Barrows and Gardiners provided a home-like setting for the paupers under their care. By all accounts, the poor house residents were well fed and cared for, with funding provided by the town.
There was a new crisis of poverty in the wake of the Civil War. Almost 5,000 Connecticut soldiers lost their lives during war, with many leaving behind widows and fatherless children. Many others were left maimed and unable to support their families. The government
pensions provided to the families of fallen or wounded soldiers were often not enough to keep them from slipping into poverty.
Connecticut was among several states that established orphanages to care for the children of its fallen soldiers. The Connecticut Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home was established in Mansfield in 1866, on property donated to the State by Edwin Whitney. Over its nine years of operation, the orphanage provided care and education for 153 children left fatherless by the Civil War. A number of these children had been surrendered to the Home by their destitute mothers who were unable to support them. The Orphan Home closed in 1875 after most of the children had reached the age limit for state support. The property was later purchased by Augustus Storrs and became the site of the Storrs Agricultural School, now UConn.
The exhibit concludes with a brief look at the Great Depression of the 1930s that brought another wave of poverty throughout the nation. Under the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, this era saw the beginning of federal safety nets for the nation’s poor, the development of a massive public works program, and the establishment of the Social Security Administration. Known collectively as “The New Deal,” these new programs were designed to improve the economy and put the unemployed back to work.
Even the small town of Mansfield benefited from these new federal programs. The federal emergency relief funds granted to the town provided assistance to many residents in need. The former Town Office Building was also constructed in 1935 as a federally-funded public works project. Its construction provided employment for 42 of Mansfield’s out-of-work residents. The town hall was also relocated and refurbished as part of this W.P.A. project. These two buildings served as the seat of Mansfield’s government until the late 1970s and now continue to serve the public as home to the Mansfield Historical Society.
The other new exhibit celebrates an important Mansfield family and its successful dairy business. This year marks the 250th anniversary of when Boaz Stearns and his family came to Mansfield and established a farm on Chestnut Hill. Ten generations of the Stearns family have now lived on the land where Boaz settled in 1772. Today it is home to Mountain Dairy, a commercial dairy operation begun in 1871. Last year was its 150th anniversary. The dairy farm and business are still owned and run by members of the Stearns family. Carolyn Stearns is the curator of this exhibit that features many photographs and artifacts on loan from members of the Stearns family.