THE POOR FARM SEARCH FOR ESMORILDA (December 1/20)

The day before the virus scare closed walking trails, a friend and I went to the most desolate, windswept cemetery in the Annapolis Valley.

The Horton township poor farm cemetery is on a knoll by the Cornwallis River, less than a kilometre north of Highway 1 in Greenwich. I may be exaggerating about it being windswept and desolate, but that afternoon, at high tide, a cold north wind buffeted the old graveyard, and a low cloud cover added to the cemetery’s gloom.

 We were at the graveyard so the friend could see where a distant cousin might have been buried, “sometime around1891, but I’m not sure” he said. “I’m not even sure she’s buried here, but the records that exist sort of point to this place.”

Childless and the last of her immediate line, Esmorilda, the friend’s cousin, had no choice but to move into the poor farm after her husband died in a farm accident. Her situation was typical for many people in a period when social assistance as we know it today didn’t exist. Poor farms usually were a last desperate resort when there were no family members you could turn to.

Not a lot has been written about poor farms. However, readers interested in their history should check out A Wholesome Horror, by Brenda Thompson, which was published in 2017. Esmorilda’s story isn’t told there but I heard most of it from the friend who was searching for her resting place. She was the daughter of an Irish immigrant who arrived here before the potato famine. When her parents died, she lived for a time with a cousin who farmed a piece of land near Hall’s Harbour. Then she married another descendant of an Irish family and her luck ran out when he was killed after falling under a moving wagon.

Esmorilda lived on a poor farm in Kings County, which may have been in Greenwich, the Horton Poor Farm. At one time there were three poor farms in Kings County and the friend had scoured the few records that existed, narrowing it down to the possibility that Esmorilda had died in Horton. Apparently, she was in her late 50s when her husband was killed and had reached her late 60s when she succumbed to disease. However, her name doesn’t appear in any of the Kings County poor farm records that exist. The search for Esmorilda’s gravesite was conducted mainly by asking distant relatives about her; which said the friend was difficult since no one wanted to talk about relatives that died on a poor farm.  

Before poor farms were established, people becoming destitute, homeless or simply running out of luck, had to depend on being “bid off” or “farmed out.” As Eaton explained in his Kings County history, this basically meant that “people were ‘farmed out’ to men who made their living wholly or in part by boarding them.” The people Eaton referred to were, as he put it, “poor men, women or children.”

This system of dealing with the poor partially ended in 1858 when the legislature passed an act incorporating a general poor house. “Partially” here meaning that the farming out of the poor apparently existed well after the act was passed. In Esmorilda’s case, there was a period when she was taken on as a housekeeper until infirmities made the poor farm her final resting place.

The friend never did determine where Esmorilda is buried. “It must be in Horton,” he said, “but even distant relatives don’t want to talk about relatives who went to poor farms.”

The headstone marking the site of the Horton Poor Farm cemetery
The headstone marking the site of the Horton Poor Farm cemetery (Michelle Coleman).

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