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Creepy Cruiser

When we posted Kathryn Hohmann’s first guest blog, we suggested there might be another one to follow. There certainly is, and it’s another creepy one. We’re delighted to share it with you here and welcome Kathryn back.

creepy cruiser

Blame it on the rental car. With every gloomy mile, we seem to be driving in the wrong direction. Then the fog obscures the coastal road, the low horizon closes around us like a tunnel — deeper into the rural province we go, farther from the sunny beach vacation we had planned. The retro style of the PT Cruiser, which always struck me as cheerful, makes me think of a hearse instead of a passenger car and its paint job looks like fresh, arterial blood. I try to write off the damp, the chills. Compared to home in Montana, every place feels clammy but not this wet or so impossibly cold. Something is definitely wrong. There’s no escaping the possibility that East Chester, Nova Scotia is haunted.

Taking refuge in a roadside gift shop, we talk to a friendly proprietor and sip hot coffee. Tucked away on a corner bookshelf, I find a slim paperback called Butterbox Babies. Its stark cover shows a crude, rectangular wooden chamber. Faster than any automobile, its pages take me backwards in time to a dark and bloody chapter in Canada’s past.

***

During the late 1930s, William and Lila Young operated the Ideal Maternity Home in East Chester.  The Youngs understood the attitudes of their times, when both birth control and abortion were illegal, when there was so little community support for unmarried women who dared to keep their babies that families disowned daughters who became pregnant.  So the Ideal Maternity Home set up as a “discreet residence,” charging rooming fees to the unwed girls, and profited even more by sellng babies to desperate childless couples from New York and New Jersey.  Soon the Youngs  were known as the “baby barons” of Nova Scotia, operating their 54-bed facility as a black market baby business. To meet the whims of unsuspecting clients, they matched unrelated infants to “create” twins or separated natural siblings when customers wanted a single child.

There was another, darker truth.  The home had high death rates and some infants, considered “unadoptable” due to physical or mental handicaps, blemishes or “dark skin” were simply allowed to starve.  They were placed small wooden boxes used by the local LaHave Dairy for butter.  These tiny souls were secretly buried in a field behind the “Ideal Maternity Home.”

***

We leave the gift shop but the chills only grow worse.  Unable to take the wheel, I’m engrossed in the book, learning that it will be many years before the Youngs face serious allegations, even longer before their home is closed by authorities, longer still before new laws are enacted to protect young mothers and their innocent children. The extent of the atrocities will never be known.  For the residents of East Chester, the horror continued, seeping into the landscape itself until they confronted their past.  Years later, a group of survivors united to support each other, and worked together to have a monument built in the town square. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butterbox_Babies.  But for the sensitive visitor, in search of a sunny summer vacation, it’s a relief to turn in the keys to the rental car and put an end to a frightening trip back in time.

ABOUT KATHRYN HOHMANN

The author of Soldiers Rest, Kathryn Hohmann, grew up in Minnesota, then moved to Washington D.C., where she worked as a lobbyist and writer for a national environmental organization, concentrating on clean water and clean air issues. She is co-author of a textbook on climate change and emergency management (CRC Press), and an anthology on women and horses (Seal Press). Her writing has been featured in many national magazines and newspapers. She currently lives in Montana. Her website is www.soldiers-rest.com.

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