Oldest in America, ‘town pound’s’ history illustrates changes in animal shelter

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GLOCESTER – Located at the corner of Route 102 and Pound Road, Glocester’s original town pound dates to 1749.

The stone enclosure is historically important, according to Society of Architectural Historians; for, “the pound is the oldest in America. The 50-foot square, stone wall enclosure with an iron gate held stray cattle, horses and other animals. For a slight fee, animals were released to owners or were auctioned off after 10 days.”

The former Glocester Town Pound, different, of course, from the current shelter run by Animal Control, “consists of a dry-laid fieldstone wall about 6’ tall, capped with flat stones, and an iron gate at the entry, which is on Chopmist Hill Road. This is one of the oldest and best-preserved town pounds in Rhode Island,” notes the Blackstone Valley Heritage Landscape Inventory, Glocester Reconnaissance Report.

Town pounds existed from earliest colonial history. It’s known, for example, that Massachusetts pounds existed from 1635.

So exactly what was a, “town pound,” back when America was still a colony of England?

“Lost livestock was a serious business to the frugal settlers,” wrote Anna Crawford Allen Holst, in Rhode Island History published by the Rhode Island Historical Society. “Provision was made rapidly to care for such lost animals in tight enclosures, where they could not possibly cause harm to the hard-planted crops, and where the valued animals could safely await their owners.” 

Holst explained the town council would annually appoint a pound keeper, and the town would maintain the enclosure.  

In the early days of America, pounds were constructed of wood fencing. Later in history, stone, for its endurance properties, was used to build pounds. Stone town pounds were prevalent in the 19th century.

However, Glocester Town Pound was earlier, and significant, according to Holst.

“The high stone walls, well built and capped, and the fine old iron gate, as well as the pound’s unusual
triangular shape, make this pound one of the most out-standing in the state,” she wrote. “A small flight of three stone steps beside the south west corner of the pound lend great interest.”

Today, some town pounds have been restored or preserved for historic and or aesthetic reasons. 

New England has quite a few historic pounds, particularly in Maine and Massachusetts.

In 1970, Glocester’s Town Pound was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

In general, the term, “pound,” is considered passe. “Animal shelter,” is the preferred terminology for contemporary buildings where lost, stray, or unwanted animals are housed and services provided.

The term, “pound,” is still heard today; however, with, “pound seizure,” a practice that goes back at least to the 1800s when dogs and cats were seized from pounds to supply the biomedical research industry and academia for laboratory experiments and use in education. Pound seizure is illegal in some states. Companies that breed dogs, cats, rabbits, and other animals are now the preferred supplier of subjects for basic research.

In addition to Glocester’s Town Pound, other historic enclosures used to “keep” animals can be found in Exeter, Foster, Hopkinton, and Richmond, according to Society of Architectural Historians.

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