Friday, 26 January 2018

What really happened in Marshalltown?

"In 1851 including idiots and imbiciles, there was one insane person for every 593 of the population; in 1861 this ratio had risen to one in 504; while in 1871 there was no less than one to 309." He further noted that "the advance of the population was at 40 percent, while the number of those with unsound mind increased 169 percent in the same period."

 - Dr. DeWolfe, Report of the inspector of Humane Institutions April1, 1955 to March 31, 1956, Province of Nova Scotia

Poor Farm, oil on canvas, 60" x 128", Steven Rhude


 This time of year dodging the weather is an art form in itself - the two hour journey from Wolfville to Marshalltown on a two lane highway must be timed accordingly and approached with caution. Winds from the north mountain can easily buffet a car as one contemplates their destination. On other occasions, engulfed in white outs, I've turned back; "keep your eye on the road mister." That said, driving through Marshalltown, Nova Scotia on a cold and overcast January day can be bleak for the most optimistically minded. Maudlin scrapyards, automotive shops, and a peppering of utilitarian small businesses line the highway of mostly CMHC bungalows, in direct contrast to the vistas and architectural temptations the traveller encounters while skirting the more scenic area of Digby,  and small communities like Smith's Cove, Bear River, and Plympton.

Poor Farm detail, Maud, and Maud as a child, Steven Rhude

Just west of the notorious "steel cage", a rusting MacKay Lyons monument to a roadside house once inhabited by a fish peddler and his advert housekeeper, the spirited painter Maud Lewis, there is a tract of land where once a Poor Farm stood. It still seems like a haunting location for a Dickensian world that was brought into being in Nova Scotia by various incorporated acts obviously linked to bureaucratic esoterica and data remote from the reality of human poverty. Rather, it seemed more concerned with controlling the dangerous classes. This haunting is probably not due to the mostly over grown landscape that now meets the eye (its amazing how nature can reclaim human cultivation), but the accounts and memories that still populate the minds of those with relatives associated with the place, and a long history of poverty, infirmary, abuse - both physical and no doubt psychological too.

Generally referred to as the "Poor Farm", and historically significant, is the connection that Everett Lewis had to it as an inmate, and later his wife Maud Lewis. Equally significant to the facility is the inclusion of two cemeteries. Today, in these cemeteries are buried a large number of recently identified individuals associated with the poor farm Alms house ( a list that is still incomplete but growing thanks to Faye Lent and Brenda Small) chronicling its lifespan as an Colonialist institution with a legacy and template dating well back to the workhouses of England and the inhuman treatment of the poor. Not a pretty picture, but one that needs to face the mirror.

I pull my car into the driveway of the property, and with a photo reproduced in a book taken shortly before the Poor House burned down by the hand of an arsonist, I position myself roughly where the photographer and Maud Lewis biographer Lance Woolaver was, when the camera shutter opened and closed - recording a ruin in its dying moments. But it didn't die in Lance's mind, or a cast of others concerned with its legacy.

Detail - Poor Farm, Steven Rhude

 But sorry, no ghosts or voices moaning that I can easily register- just the brittle wind snapping at the trees. But an image does come to mind. It's a rug hooking by Laura Kenney, and it's a strange place to conjure up some textile when what I really want is the warmth and comfort of the car:

 The work transposes a Maud Lewis oxen painting with two male cruciform inmates from the Poor Farm, emphasizing the severity of accounts that reflect a veritable history of incarceration of one form or another. The yoke of subjugation and poverty run deep here and humor as they say, makes the unbearable, bearable.  

Inmates, rug hooking, Laura Kenney

 Flipping through notes, a passage from an account of researched abuses comes to mind, ironically entombed in an provincial environmental assessment:

February 2017/ Davis MacIntyre and Associates Limited

The following account from this report provides ample insight into the conditions and
behaviour relevant to the times of the Poor Farm:

“These people were subject to beatings quite frequent[ly]. In case of death many were
buried on the place. They had graveyards there. The people staying there looked after
the dead and built their own coffins in the basement. They would put a person in a
rough box right off the bed, take him down to the field and bury him just like an
There was a man from the North Range area who had died. They sent him down to the
Catholic Church in Plympton to be buried. The priest had to view the remains - that
was part of his job. When he opened the rough box, the man in question was in the
rough box without a stitch of clothes on, just lying on an old blanket that wasn’t fit to
take to the dump.

Their was another man at the poor farm from the Doucetteville area. He was elderly
and quite ill at the time. A priest from Plympton went to the Poor Farm to give the man
his last rites. On arriving at the farm the priest and the alter boy were turned away by
the keeper and not allowed to go in. The priest got in charge of the man who was in
charge of the doings of things at the Poor Farm. He made sure the priest and altar
boy were allowed to go in. They got to the man’s room and found him face down on a
sheet with no clothes on and a very large gash behind his right ear. It had been made
with a blunt instrument. This was way back before Alton [Halton] Haydon took over.

[...] if a young lady [who was pregnant and unmarried] was taken there and had a long
list of mentally ill in her family, she was made to do extra duties in order to have a
miscarriage. After she had the baby, nothing was done to keep the babies alive, and
they were generally thrown in the furnace.”

 I turn back onto route 101 and the communities go by in a blur. Around Ducetteville  the car radio blisters out commentary and "#metoo" hashtags. I wonder what Maud would have made of a hashtag? Women marching and Nova Scotian politicians dropping like flies. Hollywood embroiled in a celebrity gender war of sexual abuse and misconduct - lawyers ringing their hands with glee, male sexual predators devoured by social media - ground up like worms in an old Pink Floyd video.

Prostitute, Spinster, Unwed Mother, rug hooking, Laura Kenney

But then one may wonder what is so significant about Maud's "three pussy cats" ( God knows she painted enough of them), and what exactly makes Kenney's take on it so current? Could one ever look at those cats in the same way?  A prostitute, a Spinster, and an Unwed Mother?

Were we only to learn how to "become good animals" as a friend once conveyed to me from some distant shore across the pond of the internet. The radio is abstract - and the announcer equally so - he has never heard of Laura Kenney, and Marshalltown is only a brief stop on a litany of formulaic weather reports.

However, perhaps I did here the murmuring of some ghosts while observing the Poor Farm in January - in that brittle wind. Maybe through the wind they were saying "Me Too."

Steven Rhude Wolfville, NS