Chapter 53: Maud Lewis The Heart on the Door
The End of Children 1961 by Lance Woolaver
The Overseers of the Poor were charged with an annual inspection of the farm and an annual inspection of its books. The overseers would include a doctor, a Protestant clergyman and at least one councillor of the town and county. The conduct of the Keeper was within their scope. As Fred MacKinnon would write in his 1996 study Poverty, Poor Houses and Private Philanthropy, and quoting from the text he presented at his house in Halifax, the selection of a Keeper was at times a matter of unregulated luck:
“Whether inmates of poorhouses were abused or well treated depended entirely upon the Keeper and Matron. Some of the poor houses in Nova Scotia were well managed and the inmates were treated compassionately as members of a large family. The quality of care provided depended almost entirely on the caring and humanity of the Keeper.”
The problem was the politics. Despite career employment in the civil service, MacKinnon would describe this with complete and unfettered disclosure:
“Sometimes a humane and conscientious superintendent was followed by an uncaring official with no qualifications for the position. For instance, with respect to people, I can think of the Poor House in Argyle, Yarmouth County. The Keeper and his wife were both very compassionate and very concerned with the welfare of the patients that were in their Home. And I can think of others where the Keeper by instinct and by personality was totally unsuited for the position, should never have been chosen for that position, would have been better suited to look after a farm. And that’s not being very thoughtful to the animals.”
The Keeper’s job was, in some counties, and at some times, a political plum. The Alms House brought with it a place to live and eat, a great consideration in the decade following 1929. The Keeper and Matron lived in the Alms House, their rent being part of their pay. As long as the job was quietly done, their family was secure. “No news was good news. Don’t look for trouble. We’ll get through this.”
On the debit side of the ledger, a change in electoral fortunes could bring a change in the post. If astute, the Keeper would welcome, at election-time, the Liberals and the Conservatives – the “Grits” and the “Tories.” Their agents entered the Alms House wards to sign up proxy votes. Unlike federal prison inmates, Poor Farm inmates were enfranchised: They “had the vote.” In Nova Scotia, both parties worked this proxy dodge. A hundred votes: Elections would be won on less. Competition, to harvest the inmates’ votes, was keen. The price of a vote, in Digby County, in, for example, the late 1950’s, was a “mickey” of rum. Alcohol, however, was not permitted within the Alms House of a Poor Farm.
Only if “partial” to one political party could the Keeper’s conduct cost him his job. Keeper ranked below Road Boss or Harbour Master in the hierarchy of the local spoils. Everyone, in a little county, knew everyone, and as the parties won and lost, all the local bigwigs got their chance. The top jobs were then judicial positions – lifetime sinecures: If, as candidate for the legislature you lost enough elections, and you lost the riding while your party won the province, appointments to “the Bench” could be secured by graft. And there, for life, you sat.
A Keeper could be poorly paid. At the closing of the Poor Farms in the 1960’s, the Keeper might be paid, depending on the County, a thousand or two per annum – the Matron’s salary included. Fortunately, their living did not ask a lot of cash. And there would be for some, at times, a secret source of money.
Theoretically, cash payments paid for Poor Farm orchard gangs were turned in to the county clerk. That system too, in some distant counties, at some times, was up for graft. If the farmer paid the Keeper less than the going rate, and the Keeper took the less, they might decide between them to keep it quiet. The Poor Farm gangs, dressed in their denim overalls, and transported by a tractor hauling a flat bed wagon, the inmates riding with their legs adangle on the dirt road, great grins, were not in a position to report the Keeper. While most Keepers were good farmers and honest administrators, loose administration by the overseers could assist an occasional larceny.
Nothing could stop the seasons: The gangs were in demand each autumn as potato diggers and apple pickers. The county could accumulate a steady sum. Apple orchards and blueberry fields demanded workers in the fall and none in winter. Poor Farm labour was ideal: local, experienced and temporary. The labour came as steadily as spring and autumn.
When I was young the Poor Farm gangs were often seen in transport on the road. The gangs were chosen from the able. They were bossed by a Keeper’s trusted inmate. The Keeper and the Matron seldom left the Farm. The pickers were fed by the orchard or farm in which they found themselves for the day. All came back to the wards at night. With a good Keeper and a good farmer, in good weather, the apple picking or the berry raking could be a pleasant outing from the Farm.
The story of Marshalltown’s “Kind Keeper,” Guy Thomas, has been told by his grandson, Harold Ritchie, now of Digby Neck. Harold would live at the Poor Farm for nineteen years, beginning at three months. He denies abuse occurred when Guy Thomas was Keeper. His account has been supported by many:
“In actual fact, from the list of names printed in the 1930 Digby Courier, I grew up with seven of the inmates. I know a number of the so-called insane inmates who were moved from their side to the ‘sane’ side. There is a lot of people in Digby County that can verify that the inmates used to go to Digby shopping with my grandparents. The farm was self-supporting except for clothing and canned goods and flour. There were 40 head of cattle, 2 horses, 20 pigs, 100 hens, and geese and sheep, and some of the inmates even had pet rabbits. As for slave labour and beatings to the inmates for the 20 years my grandparents were there, I would like to hear any complaints. The farm was run as a farm … most of the inmates called my grandparents Mum and Dad. No one was forced to do jobs they didn’t want to. My grandparents ran the home 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for $500.00 a year. After 20 years they were getting, I think, $1,500 a year each. They would take money out of their own pockets and buy the inmates presents each Christmas for those who would not get anything from their relatives.”
Harold’s defense of his grandfather had been prompted by 1990’s articles in the Digby Courier. These articles sparked a great controversy, but placed no specific allegations against any individual Keeper. The dates of the alledged abuses went unspecified. It is possible these Courier accounts, as with the story of Christine Hill, dated from the days of the Keepers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I was taken by Harold Ritchie’s defence of his grandfather. We had both grown up in Digby County. We knew the 1940’s and the 1950’s. And as this book and his account were writ and broadcast, we had both grown old. Our writings seemed a complementary kind of a settling of matters. I liked him.
By all accounts, Harold’s grandfather, Guy Thomas was an exceptional man. Early in the 1950’s, Guy acquired a television set, the gift of an uncle and the first in the county, and shared it with the inmates. Harold presented me with photographs of childhood years in which he and his friends had lived in the Poor Farm. In one Guy Thomas lifts an inmate, a dwarf, on a shovel. It is alike a circus, a giant and a dwarf, joking in each other’s company. The year was 1959. From 1959 to the end of the Municipal Home in Marshalltown was a few years only, and with that closing the Haydens were out and Guy Thomas was out and Ev Lewis was out as Night Watchman. The Keepers and the Matrons would have little more to show than the departing inmates.
Would you like to read more of Lance Woolaver’s book? I highly recommend it! It is a very detailed, sad but fascinating book. You can order it from his website at Lance Woolaver