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‘It wrenches the heart strings’

Brenda Small guesses that hundreds more people are buried at these sites, unaccounted for and without a name.
Brenda Small guesses that hundreds more people are buried at these sites, unaccounted for and without a name.

Hundreds buried without a name at former Marshalltown poor house

MARSHALLTOWN, NS – The people who lived, worked and died at the Marshalltown poor house and were buried on its property have not only been forgotten, but ignored.
Brenda Small, a woman whose own grandmother was committed to the poor house, remembers.
She has begun working with others to acknowledge those who were buried without a name.
“It wrenches the heart strings. It doesn’t matter that it was 100 years ago – it still feels fresh,” she says.

The burial sites
It is known that more than 200 people are buried near the former poor house in Marshalltown. And it is believed there are hundreds more onsite, on the property also known as the Alms House.
Small has started a group, the Marshalltown Alms House – Voices for Hope, which now has nearly 400 members.
While Small and other Digby County residents have known that people were buried on the former poor house land, no one knew where.
It wasn’t until new property owner Jerry Schofield had the land surveyed that the exact spots were found after abnormalities in the landscape appeared.
The sites look unassuming – it is hard to see that hundreds of people are buried beneath the grass. One is much smaller than the other. The larger site dates to the late nineteenth century and the smaller to the twentieth.
No one has come forward with an exact number of people buried at the site. What is known, however, is that they were not all from the poor house.
“Indigents, or in other words society’s least wanted, were all buried here. African Nova Scotians, indigenous people, the sick and the poor are all among the dead buried here,” says Small.
Small has also heard of graves that once existed, marked by a simple number, believing these could be babies that were born and died at the poor house.
“It sickens me to think that babies could also be among those buried here, and we don’t even know their location.”
Her and other group members’ objective is simple – to give the people buried on the property a name.
“These people were cast away. They meant nothing to anyone. I want everyone to know that each and every one of them means something to me,” she says.

The personal connection
Small’s own grandmother, Mildred Rice, was committed to the house as a mentally ill person in September 1928 and never returned home.
The only memory Small shares with her grandmother is one of seeing her after she’d died, lying in her casket.
She was allowed one hour to say goodbye.
A tear rolls down her cheek as she recalls seeing her grandmother – who remained in custody after the house closed and died in a Bridgetown poor house in March 1966 – that one time.
“I find solace in the fact that she wasn’t buried here – she’s buried next to my grandfather. But it makes me think about those who’s final resting place is here, and their anonymity,” she says.
Fellow group member Dorothy Doucette also had distant relatives – Kinneys from Westport – who lived at the poor house while it existed.
“It bothers me. These people are here, forgotten,” she says. “People really didn’t care about them. But we need everyone to know that we care about them.”

Memories on the land
Many years before owning the property, Schofield spent countless hours down by Seely Brook as a child with his mother.
He saw people who worked there but never spoke to them. His mother would bake cookies and fill a basket to bring with them to the property to feed everyone.
Schofield is in line with Small and Doucette and will ensure the grave sites are protected as long as he owns the land.
“This is one of the most peaceful places, and I want to ensure it stays that way. It’s the least I can do.”
Small plans to install a memorial with all names of people who are known to be buried at the site to honour and remember them.
Schofield is also thinking of getting a bench inscribed with his mother’s name to sit at Seely Brook.
“Our greatest hope is just for these people to have a name, and to be remembered,” says Small.

Paving project threatens graves
Another worry facing Brenda Small is the proposed construction of a roundabout and highway in the area.
The land bordering the current Highway 101 in Marshalltown designated for road expansion, at first included the smaller burial site.
 “There’s no way I’ll stand idle and let these people be paved over.”
These original construction plans have been altered and landowner Jerry Schofield remains committed to ensuring the graves are protected.
Small is grateful to have found a partner and ally in Schofield, since the property’s previous owner did not allow her and other group members access to the land where the graves are located.
She hopes for more cooperation in the future should plans change and once again threaten those buried at the site.
“These souls have suffered enough. We will not pave over them,” she says.

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