Wellington County Museum is one of the most UNIQUE museums in Ontario. Discover what life was like in a genuine former 19th century Poorhouse.
You find them in pretty much every community: grand mansions of the elite now transformed into local museums. Many tell the story, often in worshipful terms, of a particular wealthy family who owned the house, along with some history of the rest of the community.
Wellington Museum is the exception to this practice. Located on the highway between Fergus and Elora, the imposing stone Victorian building that houses the museum once served not as a wealthy man’s showpiece, but as the local poor house. That’s right: poor house. As in “you’re sending us to the poor house”. As in the “please sir, may I have some more?” in the Dickens novel.
Built in 1877, the House of Industry and Refuge, as it was called at the time, was designed to provide permanent accommodation for local people who were unable to provide for themselves, such as the impoverished elderly and people with disabilities and no families to care for them. It may come as a surprise to some to learn that our 19th century ancestors provided what we'd call today "social housing" in any form. But they did.
The poor house was not a homeless shelter in the modern sense. People didn’t bed down for one night; they weren’t kicked out in the morning. They moved in for good – or bad, as the case may be. Once you entered, you were highly unlikely to leave except by the back door, in a coffin. Your destination? The pauper’s graveyard, at the edge of the property.
The poor house provided short-term shelter for some groups as well. For example, young women with children and no means of support could apply for a bed in times of need. Sometimes even children alone, orphaned or abandoned by their parents, lived in the poor house until they were adopted out, often to families looking for cheap labour – servants or farm hands.
On the second floor of the Wellington County Museum, at the start of the exhibit on the poor house (entitled “If These Walls Could Speak: The House of Industry and Refuge, 1877-1947”), you can see the faces of some of the people who lived here on a blown-up photograph. The photograph provides the backdrop for a scale model of the original grounds as it appeared in 1892, showing the numerous buildings and fields that made up the property at one time. This was not just a shelter, but a working farm as well. Those who could were expected to work to earn their keep. Residents worked in the fields, in the laundry, in the kitchen. In this scale model you can see animals grazing, people in the orchards, and a boy fishing at a pond.
Throughout the rest of the exhibit, hanging on the walls, you’ll find other photographs, often of individual residents. One set of two pictures is shocking. The first shows a middle-aged, content and healthy-looking woman in a family setting. This photo was taken before this individual entered the poor house. The second photo shows the same woman but it’s now years later. The difference between the two is incredible. She looks like a war refugee.
One of the rooms in the exhibit displays artifacts from the former residents including furniture, clothing, and crafts. You’ll see the beds they slept in, a wheel chair of one resident, crutches, a floor-style radio, a sewing machine, trunks and clothing. Particularly touching, given the family break-up that all of the residents must have suffered, is a piece of embroidery bearing these simple words: "What is home without a father?"
A modern life-size painting adorns one wall in the exhibition. It's a 19th century scene showing an impoverished woman coming through the front door of the poor house with her children, greeted by the staff. The sign says that staff members of the museum posed for the portrait.
Beyond the poor house: other exhibits at the Wellington County Museum
The rest of the museum is devoted to exhibits on the region in general, with temporary exhibits about special topics such as local businesses or social life. One room devoted to World War I shows a soldier in a wheelchair and a chilling life-size trench complete with human mannequins and rats and the sound of distant artillery.
There’s also a small art gallery featuring contemporary local work, an archives and a bookstore/giftshop where you can buy books about local history. They sell a novel here called “Anna, A Child of the Poor House” that is about a fictional girl who grew up in this very poor house. It’s by Pat Mestern, a local author, and is worth the read. I enjoyed it as much for the character, the story and the mystery as for the history contained in the book.
The Wellington County Museum serves the whole community and tries to tell the story of as many members of the area as possible. But one story stands out above all the others. The poor, who usually leave no trace at all, clearly made their mark on this place. If you visit this museum, they’ll leave an indelible mark on you.
The museum is located on RR#1 between Elora and Fergus Ontario.
For more information
Visit the Wellington County Museum web site at http://www.wcm.on.ca