POOR FARMS AND THE FARMING CONNECTION (June 14/02)

The old poor houses once common in the Valley were also called poor farms, apparently because the hapless residents often had vegetables gardens, livestock, and were in effect small farms.

Other than this minor similarity, there appears at first glance to be no connection between poor houses and farming. At least, this is what I thought until what I found recently in the history files at the Kings County Museum revealed that there is.

But first some background. When leafing through the files I found a two-page document on early industries of Kings County and a three-page review of poor houses. The poor house review contained information I didn’t have when I did a column on this subject several years ago. I photocopied this material and the overview of early industries to read at my leisure, with the intent perhaps of incorporating the information in a future column.

When reading the documents at home later I learned that Kings County has had an agricultural society or federation for over 200 years. “Regarding agriculture and fruit raising,” the industry document reads, “a society for promoting agriculture was set up in November, 1789, in Halifax. (On) December 10, 1789, Kings County Agricultural Society began its career. It celebrated its centennial in 1889 by a dinner at the American House in Wolfville.” Later it was noted that by 1898 no less than nine agricultural societies existed in Kings County.

As mentioned, the poor farm history runs to three pages, (actually to be accurate, it’s just over two pages) and its author apparently accessed various sources to prepare this paper. As I also mentioned, there are details on poor farms not found in other reference sources – Eaton’s Kings County history, for example, and Edythe Quinn’s Greenwich history. Quinn’s book is the most detailed work on poor farms now in print. Ms. Quinn must have consulted government records in preparing her excellent history of the Greenwich poor farm.

But back to the not so obvious connection between poor farms and farming in Kings County. The document from the history files mentions the connection, as does Edythe Quinn since I checked her history after reading this document. The overview on early Kings County industries also mentions the connection and it’s found in the following paragraph about the Kings County Agricultural Society:

“Following the agricultural centennial (in 1889), certain general reforms were recommended. Within a few years, a memorial from the Society to the Municipal Council led to the purchase of a Poor Farm for the township of Horton, which resulted in greatly improving the condition of the poor.”

This is the connection and it seems to have been a charitable and wise move indeed. The history file document notes that the purchase of the farm was made “to improve the lot of the destitute,” but that it also “decreased the financial costs of the people’s maintenance.” You can read this last part as meaning that people relegated to the poor farm would henceforth be expected to look after themselves. No more handouts, in other words.

It was a generous, humane gesture by the Agricultural Society in more than one way. Before the poor farm system was established, the poor and needy were often farmed out or boarded in private residences where they worked as labourers and kitchen help. The abuse of this system and the abuse of the people in it undoubtedly prompted the Society to set up the Greenwich poor farm.

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