The Olde Towne Pound

To say the “pound” was a staple in early Colonial American life is an understatement. This largely forgotten way of life slowly trickled out of common use between the invention of barbed wire by Illinois farmer Joseph Glidden (and subsequent patent battle for his machine) in 1874, and the 1920’s to 30’s.

Upton, MA – Town Pound

A “pound”, short for “farm animal impound”, was a concept brought over to colonial America from England, and utilized from the very onset of farming, particularly if one owned farm animals. Keeping stray animals contained was of great community importance, and was first codified into law in the Massachusetts Bay Colony (which contained parts of 3 modern day states) in 1645, and again in 1647.

These laws affected the creation of pounds in towns in current day Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. Over the years, many towns have done away with their pounds, but there are still quite a few pounds standing today, though in various conditions. Some have been rebuilt and stand strong, and yet others have been allowed to fall into a state of disrepair and are in quite rough condition.

Fitchburg MA – Town Pound

There are several names for these structures, including town pounds, stone pounds, and cattle pounds. Cattle, back in the day, didn’t mean cows, it meant “domesticated farm animals”, and so included any animal you’d find on a farm, including cows, horses, swine, goats, mules, asses, and geese. On the other hand, “neat cattle” referred to cows, bulls, bovine, and cattle.

Town Pound – Pepperell, MA

Pounds were utilized for containing stray farm animals. While farmers were required to contain them, their animals frequently got loose and would cause damage to the gardens and crops of other people. The town pound was the place to contain these unruly beasts until they could be returned to their owners.

Voluntown, CT – Town Pound

Pounds were operated by pounds keepers, an official town position where it’s occupants were voted in. Other related, and equally important, town positions included hog reeves and field drivers. Hog reeves, as indicated by the name, were in charge of rounding up loose swine, as well as ringing their noses (if needed) to prevent them from rooting crops. Field drivers, on the other hand, were in charge of moving animals around town.

Glocester, RI – Town Pound

Not every town had field drivers or hog reeves, but any town with a pound had a pounds keeper. Sometimes the pound was a townsman’s yard, barn, or stable, and he was elected as pounds keeper, as it was crucial that the pounds keeper live close to the pound. In some instances, a pounds keepers  thus the town didn’t need to construct one of it’s own.  but many towns for which records exist show that they commissioned the construction of a pound.

Dartmouth, MA – Town Pound

As far as construction went, most of the early pounds were made of wood because it was plentiful and construction was relatively easy. But as the years went on, the swine easily escaped and the timber rotted away. Eventually the vast majority of towns decided to upgrade from wood to stone. While stone pounds still needed to be repaired and rebuilt, the frequency was far less often than their wooden counterparts.

Sutton, MA – Town Pound

In order for pounds keepers to know which animals belonged to who, owners would mark the ears of their animals with a certain mark, and that was recorded with the town and/or pounds keeper. When an animal was brought to the pound by a townsperson, field driver, hog reeve, or pounds keeper himself, it was the pounds keepers job to notify the owner that their animal is in the pound. When the owner of an animal was unknown, the pounds keeper would post a notice in the town square and local newspapers.

While in the pound, animals needed to be tended to. The pounds keeper would need to make sure the animals were fed, and feeding them cost money, which would often and initially come out of their own pockets. Thus, fines were imposed on the owners to not only reimburse the pounds keepers, but also to reimburse whomever brought the animal to the pound.

Mendon, MA – Town Pound

If an animal went unclaimed after a certain amount of days, which varied by animal and by town, pounds keepers were allowed to sell animals at public auction. The more unruly the animal, the sooner they could be sold to get them off of the pounds keepers hands. Notice would be posted about what animals were to be sold and when. Proceeds from the sale of impounded animals were used for the aforementioned purposes, as well as for any ads placed in newspapers.

I originally developed the talk below for a presentation to the Upton Historical Society in March, 2023, but doe to tech issues, that was cut in half and I wasn’t able to finish the presentation. In a bizarre twist of fate (heavy rain cancelling the Sunday field trips) I tried again at the 2023 Spring NEARA Conference in Matamoras, Pennsylvania, and well, here it is.

YouTube video

Finally, I’ve been keeping track of my research on the locations of town pounds on this Google Map. If you have any information that I don’t have on the map, please forward it to me via my emails address: matt @ nehssie .com


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