LOOKING BACK: VALLEY POOR FARMS (April 16/99)

In an Advertiser column several years ago, Harold Woodman wrote that with the coming of old age pensions “the county poorhouses, which had been the home of many old people, soon disappeared from the scene.”

We can assume from this observation that poor-houses were once a fact of life. In 1910 A.W.H. Eaton (History of Kings County) wrote that “for many years now Poor-Houses have existed in the three original townships (Aylesford, Horton, Cornwallis) of the county.” When Eaton wrote this there were at least five provincially operated poor-houses in this part of the Annapolis Valley. Three were located in Kings County, one in West Hants and one in Bridgetown.

As for the establishment of poor-houses in Kings County, it’s possible to be more explicit than Eaton. Thanks to a grant from the Kings County Agricultural Society, poor-houses were opened in Billtown, Greenwich and Aylesford late in the 19th century. Records of the year-to-year operation of these houses can be found in House of Assembly reports in the Nova Scotia Archives and the Kirkconnell Room at Acadia University. A brief description of the Greenwich poor-house is in the history of this community (Greenwich Times 1760 – 1968) by Edythe Quinn.

It appears that before the establishment of poor-houses the poor and needy (as Eaton calls them in his Kings County history) were often “farmed out” and “bid off.” Translated, this meant that men, women and children needing assistance were often boarded in private homes where they were required to work at farm labor and domestic chores. Eaton tells us that private homes, subsidized by county grants, operated as boarding rooms for the poor and were common in the 19th century.

The opening of poor-houses in the Annapolis Valley did away with the boarding house system of caring for the needy – a system newspapers called “wasteful, inefficient and ill-suited to looking after certain classes of the poor,” – i.e. people with physical and mental disabilities. In some cases, however, the poor-houses or poor farms as government reports called them, were worse than private boarding rooms. While government reports on early county poor-houses gloss over what life was really like in these institutions, enough was said to paint a terrible picture.

In 1891, for example, a government inspector, Dr. A. C. Page toured the poor-houses of Kings and Hants County and while he used phrases such as “prettily situated,” a “handsome and substantial” building, and “tempting accommodations,” the misery peeks through.

“The Horton (Greenwich) farm … is a very suitable one,” Dr. Page reported, “but the house is old and not well adapted to the purpose, being too small and having very poor sleeping accommodations. There are 22 inmates, seven of whom are children. The bedsteads are poor, rickety wooden contrivances, not fit for the purpose for which they are used, but on the other hand well calculated for the breeding of vermin.” Dr. Page concludes with, “No bath room. No bathing. No enclosed grounds. No pains taken to keep sexes separate.”

On the Billtown poor-house Dr. Page reports that while there are no violent or acute insane there are “several silly imbeciles.” The buildings there are very poor, Page notes, and there is no regular medical supervision, no bathrooms and no heat throughout the house. The poor-house in West Hants has 45 inmates, “two of them insane, 25 are children.” We can see from Dr. Page’s reports that in most cases these poor-houses were the last stop for the homeless and for people with physical and mental disabilities.

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