In June 1968, the United Church in Damascus closed.
The United Church Women (UCW) comprised of women of all denominations of the area felt there was a need for a community group and at the final meeting, they decided to rekindle a branch of the Women’s Institute.
On July 17, 1968 North Wellington District Women’s Institute president Isabel McEachern conducted a meeting outlining the focus of WI, a desire to develop personal growth and the branch’s responsibility to establish educational programs aimed at making the community a better place to live. Agriculture and Canadian industry, citizenship and legislation, education and cultural activities, family and consumer affairs, international affairs, historical research, and current events were topics for discussion at a WI meeting.
Objectives of the Women’s Institute revolved around the motto For Home and Country.
The first president, Alyce (Jackson) Small and 14 women enrolled that evening as charter members.
The desire was to be called the Damascus Women’s Institute and approval had to be obtained from the provincial body. The majority of meetings were held on the second Wednesday of the month September through June at the Damascus community centre, the former S.S.6 West Luther 1887 schoolhouse, which closed June 1966 and was sold to West Luther Township.
Activities of the branch included sponsoring homemaking 4H clubs and an Arthur Fall Fair Queen and Ambassador contests, a community picnic in July up to 1983, and an exhibit in the Arthur Fall Fair.
The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food home economics branch offered short courses on cooking, bread making, sewing, millinery “hats for you.” Some members would take a course, then present it to the group.
A variety of speakers were engaged and we heard of trips to Australia, Spain, Baffin Island, Far East, India, and China.
With the onset of computers, a computer expert introduced us to some amazing uses. Healthy lifestyles program presentations included reflexology, naturopathy, Alzheimers, ion cleanse footbaths, exercise, nutrition, and reading food labels.
OPP community relations officers presented crime prevention tips for rural areas and when traveling alone. A community access officer talked to the group about student monitoring in high schools.
Agriculture and Canadian industry programs included farm safety, bee keeping and apiary, goat and sheep milking, cheese making, soaps and skin creams, and dog kennels.
Over the years, many group tours (including mystery tours) included visits to local Canadian industries and points of interest such as: Weston Bakeries; the Chapel of the Mohawks, Brantford (1973); St. Lawrence Starch Company (1974); Bell Thread (1980); Peter Etril Synder art gallery, Kitchener (1984); Cullen Gardens, Whitby (1985); Agricultural Museum, Milton (1986); Wellington County Museum and Archives (1988 and 1993); Wellington Wood Products (1994), Erland Lee Museum (1976 and 1998): Adelaide Hoodless Home (1973 and 1998); Wellington County administration building as guests of Warden Murray Langdon (1998); Cox Creek Winery (2000); Kamma’s Perennials Minto Green Farms (2004); Gingerbread Doll Museum, Wroxeter (2006); Chapman’s Iris Gardens (2008) and Listowel Landscaping (2008).
Fundraising events included catering to weddings, anniversaries, Christmas parties, business annual meetings (milk producers, co-op), farm auctions sales where a lunch booth was usually set up in a drive shed or back kitchen and a piece of homemade pie was a big seller, bazaars and bake sales and the annual plant sale. A cookbook Cooking with Damascus Women’s Institute was published in 1987.
Donations have been made to charitable organizations such as The Canadian Cancer Society, The Arthur Lions Christmas hampers, Sleeping Children Around the World, Canadian Feed the Children, Salvation Army, New Life Counselling, Ramoth House, Wyndham House, Mount Forest and Fergus Hospitals, local tornado disaster relief funds (twice), to West Luther residents suffering a loss of a home or barn due to fire, the Damascus community centre well drilling and furnishings, and the Arthur Fire Department defibrillator project.
Craft days included making corn husk dolls, Easter egg painting, making an angel, painting a wooden heart, wheat braiding, paper piercing quilt blocks, crayon colouring fabric quilt blocks to name a few. Several members of the group made a quilted wall hanging, House Warming, for the Wellington North District Women’s Institute’s 80th anniversary.
A crayon quilt, flower emblems of the 10 Canadian provinces was made and donated to The Quilt in Stratford to be auctioned at an annual event with all the proceeds donated to breast cancer research in memory of WI member Effie Samuel.
Damascus WI participated in community events such as World Day of Prayer for many years, Township of West Luther Centennial (1981), West Luther Wind Up Party (1998) and International Plowing Match (1984 and 2000) including Women’s Institute district annuals, area conventions, fall rallies, and the 100th anniversary of the Women’s Institute prelude quilt show and barbecue held at the agricultural museum in Milton (1995).
Concern for the safety of the public on township roads initiated two resolutions, one to West Luther council and one to the Township of Wellington North to take action and change the yield signs to stop signs at sideroad and concession road intersections, and to install speed bumps on Concession 2 and County Road 16. Both proposals were accepted.
The Federated Women’s Institutes of Ontario asked each branch’s eldest member to submit Grandmother’s Legacy stories to be published in a book From This Place. From over 500 entries, Hilda Duncan’s story was one of 100 selected to be published. Duncan joined the Conn Women’s Institute in 1945, and when it disbanded in 1984, she joined the Damascus group. Hilda and George Duncan raised a family of eight and with 64 years of active involvement in WI, celebrated her 90th birthday on June 4.
Through the years the Tweedsmuir curator and her committee have produced several Tweedsmuir history books. These books record the history of the community and area.
Subjects include agricultural practices and industries, community events including churches and schools, culture, history of the early settlers, the rural economy, labour, politics, Sports and history and events of the branch.
In 2006, each member created an autobiography with a picture that was entered into the Tweedsmuir book. The books contain a goldmine of information for anyone studying history at a local level.
In 2004, the Wellington County Museum and Archives digitized, indexed, and made available on the internet all the Tweedsmuir histories of WI branches in Wellington County.
A lot of good times, pie baking, memories, and friends have developed over the years.
The years have caught up to the members who found it difficult to carry on.
At the annual meeting of the Damascus Women’s Institute on April 8, 2009, the final vote to disband was held. The results were 11 yes and 5 no.
It was most unfortunate that the members have voted to disband.