In 1862, on over 40 acres of land, the town of Johnston constructed one of the largest poorhouses in Rhode Island, to care for the sick, elderly and poor who had no means of support.
The 2½-story structure on Atwood Avenue was comprised of a main house attached to a hospitalization building. The house contained 12 rooms for inmates, an inmate sitting room upstairs and a combination kitchen-dining-sitting room for them in the basement. While the house was heated by stoves, the hospitalization building had no source of heat.
During its early years of operation, the Johnston Town Farm was run by Charles and Sarah Jennison. Among its inmates in 1870 were 80-year-old Olive Luther, 30-year-old Ellen Manchester and 60-year-old Susan Stephens.
A decade later, all three women were still residing there, although the institution was now being overseen by William and Betsey (Tyler) Clemence. Stephens had been injured due to a fall, as had 81-year-old inmate Anne Fenner. Sixty-year-old Alpheus Waterman and his 23-year-old son John were also inmates, as widowed Alpheus was suffering from syphilis.
Charles Stanley filled the position of keeper during the 1890s, followed by James and Luella (McGuire) Nichols. Just after the turn of the century, the town farm counted eight inmates – two women, five men and an orphaned baby.
During the Nichols’ care of the farm, Luella died in 1907 at the age of 32. Widow Sarah King stepped in to serve as matron of the facility. James eventually remarried and his new wife, Margaret (Brophy), took over as matron.
By 1910, the inmates included 35-year-old Lena Randall and her 33-year-old sister, Lizzie, along with 45-year-old widow Ellen Angell and her 8-year-old son, Arthur.
All four were still amongst the residents five years later. It was an unfortunate turn that circumstances had taken for the Randall sisters, who had grown up on a farm successful enough for their parents to employ two household servants.
After a fire destroyed the Town Farm buildings in 1918, both women were removed to the State Infirmary, diagnosed with mental afflictions. Lena remained at the infirmary for decades while Lizzie was later transferred to the State Hospital for Mental Diseases.
Ella Angell was also moved to the infirmary where she stayed for years. Arthur finally made a life for himself and, by 1920, was boarding with the family of milk dealer Charles Nichols and working as a milk wagon driver. He later married.
The town never rebuilt its structure for housing the local poor, sick and elderly and their care became the responsibility of the state.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.