People buried at poorhouse cemetery finally get their due
Mary Caughill, chair of the Norfolk Heritage Committee, addresses the crowd gathered at the cemetery of the former county poorhouse on Sunday afternoon (June 5, 2016) for the unveiling of storyboard. In back are Simcoe Coun. Peter Black, Rev. Paul Sherwood of Trinity Anglican Church, and local genealogist/historian Bill Terry. DANIEL R. PEARCE/SIMCOE REFORMER
The long-forgotten men, women, and children who died at the old county poorhouse and were buried without so much as a prayer or tombstone are about to get their due.
On Sunday, a group of people gathered at the spot where 28 headstones are set in concrete – local historians say the dead actually run to 218 – to mark the unveiling of a storyboard.
Up next, heritage officials said, will be a plaque denoting the stretch of green space between a townhouse condo development on Queensway West and the county courthouse as an official heritage site.
After that will come a sign on the highway directing the public to the cemetery.
“This is a start,” Mary Caughill, chair of the Norfolk Heritage Committee, said following the ceremony.
When residents of the home (they were called inmates) died, they were quickly buried on the grounds, often without a funeral or headstone. They included the 17 who perished in a fire that destroyed the first home in August of 1877. The blaze broke out at night and by 5 p.m. the next day, the dead – which included two boys – were buried in a mass grave.
“We pay our respects to each fellow human being, who made their their contribution, however great or small, to our community ,” local genealogist Bill Terry said during the ceremony.
The building, which was rebuilt following the fire, was known as a poorhouse. But it was also a farm and those who stayed there were expected to help work the land.
The residents came from all walks of life. It was the era before pensions and social assistance. The “inmates” included the mentally ill, the blind, the disabled, and men and women who suddenly found themselves without any means of support – widows perhaps or single men who were somehow separated from their families.
“It wasn't a jail. It was more people who couldn't support themselves,” said Caughill.
“It was the beginnings of a social system.”
Terry researched local death records to come up with the 218 who were buried there between roughly 1870 and 1934.
The second “county home” was built after the fire and sat where the courthouse is now located. It served as a nursing home until Norview was built in the early 1960s.
When that nursing home was torn down more than 10 years ago, the property was sold for a condo development and that's when local heritage and genealogical officials stepped in and warned town hall there was a cemetery at the back of the property.
That started the process of getting the site designated and a proper tribute organized.