11 October 2019

Hillsborough's Poor Farm (1837 - 1947)

How will a community care for its poor? This is a question Hillsborough Township has contemplated since before the municipality was Hillsborough Township. Meeting minutes of the Westering Precinct of Somerset County - the name for the combined future townships of Hillsborough and Montgomery - regularly include notations of funds to be raised for indigent residents. 

The Hillsborough Township Poor Farm, circa 1947

On at least a couple of occasions after Hillsborough and Montgomery split in 1771, attempts were made to establish permanent housing for the poor both locally and at the county level. Apparently, these attempts did not receive any support, as the Overseers of the Poor were directed in 1824 to purchase a poor farm jointly with Montgomery. Some sources say that this was the Van Pelt Farm on the southbound side of Great Road/Belle Mead-Blawenburg Road/Rt. 601 before the intersection with Grandview Road.

A portion of the minutes of the April 1824 Hillsborough Township Committee Meeting
 directing the Overseers of the Poor to purchase a farm jointly with Montgomery Township.
The enterprise lasted until 1836 when the Poor Farm was folded and the property sold. The next year, the township purchased a 120-acre tract on Amwell Road west of Neshanic known as the Indian Farm from J.S. Young and wife for $5,000 - about $130,000 today. The original farmhouse on the property was used to house the inmates (the term for those persons without income or any means of support who were committed to the farm) until about 1858 when a new, large, two-story house was erected.

"Poor House", "Alms House", "Township Farm" -
all the names over the years for Hillsborough's Poor Farm.
Maps are - clockwise from upper left - 1850, 1860, 1873, and 1945.

The last custodian of the Poor Farm, Mrs. Florence Brown, was interviewed in her later years and was able to describe the building's original layout. A center hall with staircase to the second floor separated the custodians' quarters on the west - front and rear living rooms with bedrooms above - and inmates' quarters on the east - front common living room with three bedrooms in the rear along with a bathroom and the kitchen, and six bedrooms and a bath above on the second floor.

The 1840 annual report of the "Poor-House Establishment"
 made by the Overseers of the Poor to the Hillsborough Township Committee.
In 1840, the Poor Farm living quarters was the original Indian Farm farmhouse.
Inmates - men, women, and sometimes children - lived and worked on the farm. They grew some of what they needed to eat and sold enough produce to have funds to acquire other staples and household goods. Still, when the custodian's salary was figured in, it was unlikely that the farm would break even.

The Farm in 1978

The Courier News reprinted the original resolutions for the "conduct of the paupers" from April 1837:
"No. 1 - Any pauper that brings spiritous liquors about the place to be punished therefore. No. 2 - Any pauper that comes drunk or gets intoxicated on the premises to be punished therefor. No. 3 - Any pauper that refuses to do labor that the steward thinks him capable of performing or abuses the steward while he is in conduct of his duties, to be punished therefor. Punishment to consist in not allowing any food until the steward is satisfied that he will comply with the rules."
A separate smaller building on the property known as the "tramp house" was used for those unsavory wayfarers merely "passing through" town. Here they could be locked up overnight and sent off in the morning with a good breakfast to fuel their passage beyond the city limits.

The Farmhouse in 2008
The Browns were the final custodians of the Poor Farm between about 1926 and 1947. Under their management, the farm established a large dairy herd with all modern facilities, as well as a modern poultry operation. In the 20th century, the number of poor working on the farm varied - from a high of 16 during the Depression down to just two men when Hillsborough voters approved the discontinuance of the farm by a vote of 354 to 272 on November 6, 1946. The property was sold at auction on January 18, 1947.


  1. I grew up on Sheep Hollow Farm right accross the road from the former "poor farm" when the Sisco's and later the Halstead's owned the farm. I helped Richy Halstead caring for the dairy cows and his dad R. Thomas plant all the trees on the lane to the farm. Great memories from growing up in Neshanic and Hillsborough.
    Thomas Nolen Wright JR

  2. Awesome..Just Love seeing these..Live near there now..Thank-you for these posts

  3. Love this..Thank-you..I live nearby and think of this a lot..