Brenda Thompson is the author of the forthcoming A Wholesome Horror: Poor Houses in Nova Scotia, published by SSP Publications.
Yarmouth County had two poor houses; one in Arcadia and one in Argyle. The Arcadia Poor House was first built in 1857 to house the paupers of the area. There is some evidence that there may have been a poor house prior to the one built in 1857: Allusion is made in an early Record to a road existing in 1774 between the old poor-house and what is now called Arcadia, going as far as the bridge.
The Poor House at Arcadia became a model for other poor houses in the province that were built after the County Incorporation Act of 1879 when counties became responsible for care of their paupers.
When doing research for the book A Wholesome Horror: Poor Houses in Nova Scotia, my husband and I went back to Yarmouth in May 2017 looking for the old poor house that I remembered when I moved to the area in 1993. I could not find the old poor house. I remembered a huge, vast empty building when I lived in the area but it was no longer there at the place I remembered it. I left Yarmouth in 1996 and had rarely been back. After a trip to the local Yarmouth County museum, I found out that the old poor house, with the exception of one wing, was torn down in 1997. The old barns remained.
The cemetery of the Arcadia Poor House was behind the grounds of what was once the fields for the poor house. These fields where the poor house inmates once worked was now the property of the Federal Government of Canada and was at the end of the runway of the Yarmouth Airport. The cemetery was located behind fences and NO TRESPASSING signs. There was a memorial stone surrounded by a rotting wooden fence and a large Christian cross to mark the cemetery.
My husband Kent and I drove around the airport and located an old back road which looked like it was used mostly by people who were dumping their garbage and riding around the area in their four-wheelers and All Terrain Vehicles. I’ll admit, I was so excited by the idea of getting closer to the cemetery that I took off running, leaving my husband and shoes behind. I climbed over three fences- two of which were down close to the ground, the third took considerably more effort on my part and bare feet to get a grip on the fence- and ran barefoot across the field to get closer to the graves of the poor house inmates. I also knew that if I were caught, I would risk a huge fine for trespassing on federal government property.
I spent a few minutes with the paupers of the Arcadia Poor House. I whispered some promises to them; I took some photos of their final resting spots; I appreciated that someone(s) had taken great efforts to mark the graves of the paupers and to not lose their memories. And then I ran, barefoot, back across the fields and off the property. I struggled to get back over the fences and laughed to myself at the idea of hoisting my 54 year old bum over fences and trespassing on federal government land. What a radical!
Somehow there must be a way that others can visit this cemetery, and pay homage to the victims of poverty, our ancestors, without having to break the law.
A Wholesome Horror: Poor Houses in Nova Scotia, will be launched on May 20 at 2 pm at the Sissiboo Coffee Roaster Cafe Annapolis Royal
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