featured Poverty

Brenda Thompson: Trespassing the Arcadia Poor House cemetery

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.

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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 

See also: How dare you! Brenda Thompson on welfare activism in the eighties

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  1. I had to smile as I read your article just now … I grew up in Plymouth and remember the Poor Farm well. I started working on my family tree about 10 years ago and when I returned to the area in 2016 I decided to take “a few pictures” in a couple of specific cemeteries to document on ancestry and Findagrave. Famous last words ….
    On that trip I ended up taking over a thousand pictures of all the stones in 13 cemeteries around Yarmouth County. When I went back last year I did some more … I think I can honestly say I’m completely addicted. I’ll be back in the fall this year for more.
    Your fence climbing adventure sounds exactly like something I’d do. I went out to the Poor Farm last May and noticed the stones way off in the fenced in area, but didn’t know about the road behind the airport or I probably would have done the same thing you did. I may have to yet, just to get the pictures of the grave markers there.

    The only real semi-adventure I’ve had so far was last May when I was taking pics in Kemptville. I drove way out to the end of the North Kempt road (at least to where the pavement ended, I wasn’t going on the dirt track beyond in my rental). Out there it’s basically house …drive a bit …. house …. drive a bit …. not very heavily populated. Always driving with my head on a swivel, trying to spot gravestones in some old forgotten cemetery that may not be marked. So I came to a field with a chain across the driveway, and way in the back I saw something that looked like they could be headstones. They were the right size and shape, but I couldn’t see them clearly. As I’m standing there by my car a Dept of Forestry truck comes along and rolls down their window, asks me if I’m lost or need help. So I told him what I was doing and asked him if he knew if those were gravestones over there. He said they definitely are but he didn’t know who owned the property and that I should ask the nearby homeowners. Off he drove.

    I knocked on the door of the only nearby-ish house, nobody home. So I put on my nephew’s boots (he so graciously loans them to me when I come visit) and hopped the chain. The field was really uneven and may have been swampy so I wasn’t going straight across that, so I moseyed my way along the perimeter, got quite scratched up along the way, until I finally reached my destination … a bunch of broken, probably lightning-struck stumps. The first thing to mind of course was “idiot forestry guy…..”.
    Oh well, no harm, no foul. Luckily for me mosquitoes don’t eat me or I’d have been a bitten up mess way out there. One of these days I will find a cemetery that everyone has forgotten about, and I can hardly wait 🙂

  2. I find this tragic people forgotten and then access to their unmarked graves prohibited .Control their lives then control them after death.Should be open path to that graveyard.

  3. As a child I remember a neighbor who I believe moved to the poor farm when he could no longer take care of himself. Have thought of him often.

  4. The problem with that is it’s off an airport runway, would be dangerous to allow the public to access it. If not for that, I’m sure it would be.

  5. My grandfathers younger brothers and sisters were left there by my great grandmother in 1910 or 1911 when she came to Massachusetts. She was a widow, and pregnant with her 7th and 8th babies was unable to take care of them. Luckily they were adopted and fostered out. My heart hurts to think of those poor children in a place like that.

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