Women’s Institutes: the county’s most significant volunteer group

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

In 1997 rural communities and small towns observed an important anniversary: the centennial of Women’s Institutes (WI).

This organization traces its beginning to a meeting in February 1897, held in a second floor hall in Stoney Creek. From this tentative beginning the movement spread across the province, to all parts of the Dominion, and overseas.

From the beginning, the WI had several goals, as reflected in the motto, “For Home and Country.” Most important was education, particularly practical aspects of household management. The organization also undertook charity work, and took a special interest in children. Equally important, WI branches became social institutions, providing fellowship and mutual support for women.

In the beginning, the WI paralleled the Farmers’ Institutes, which were local organizations, supported by the Department of Agriculture, which disseminated new knowledge to farmers. The Farmers’ Institutes began in the 1880s, and sponsored lecturers and short courses to improve agricultural productivity and the lives of farmers.

The WI had similar goals for rural households and farm women.

At first, the concept of the WI was slow to gain acceptance, but after 1902 growth mushroomed. By 1915 there were more than 800 Institutes in Ontario, with a total membership exceeding 30,000.

In Wellington County, the first WI was organized at Clifford in 1900. Five more followed in 1903: Puslinch, Rockwood, Drayton, Palmerston, and Marden. In the Elora and Fergus area, the first were at Hillsburgh in 1904 and Ennotville in 1914.

The Fergus WI dates to March 1921. It was organized originally as a Junior WI, focused on providing educational and recreational opportunities to young women in their late teens and early 20s. Lily Paton served as the first president, with Isabelle Shortreed as secretary. Soon after forming, the Fergus WI organized a ladies softball team.

By 1927 many of the Fergus members had married, and the group decided to become a regular WI. Membership swelled as older women joined, attracted by the short courses offered on cooking, sewing and nutrition.

The Elora WI is 10 years younger. Responding to a newspaper ad, 25 women signed up as charter members on March 7, 1931. Mrs. Alex Watt served as first president.

The first major project of the Elora WI was to raise money for the relief of farm families on the drought-plagued prairies. During the 1930s the Elora WI assisted the Children’s Aid Society, the Crippled Children’s Fund, and the Red Cross. A major project was a stained glass window for the cemetery chapel in 1935.

Both the Fergus and Elora WI branches did a great deal of support work during the Second World War. Members knit clothing for servicemen, and sent parcels overseas for both soldiers and civilians in the United Kingdom. In 1942 alone, the Elora WI sent 82 boxes overseas. From 1945, the efforts were directed at the homeless and refugees in Europe.

To support these charity efforts, the Elora WI undertook fundraising programs. There were bazaars, garden parties, lunch booths at auction sales, catering, and cook book sales. The WI strawberry tea in Elora became a local tradition.

During the presidency of Irene Kraft from 1950 to 1953, the Elora WI switched its focus from overseas work to several new projects. The group sponsored Robin Hood Cooking Schools.

In cooperation with the Health Unit, the Elora WI held regular Well Baby Clinics. The group committed itself to paying for the furnishings of a room in the new Groves Memorial Hospital, then in its planning stages.

Another project initiated during Mrs. Kraft’s presidency was the Tweedsmuir history. Lady Tweedsmuir was married to Canada’s Governor General in the late 1930s. She was a strong supporter of the WI movement, and she suggested that WI branches compile histories of their own localities.

Eventually, most WI branches accepted the challenge. By the late 1950s, the Elora Tweedsmuir regularly won prizes in WI competitions. Under the direction of Roberta Allan, the Elora WI published portions of the Elora Tweedsmuir in 1982.

Other WI branches in Wellington County ran programs similar to that in Elora, but tailored to the particular needs, abilities and priorities of their own local communities. In the 1950s there were 50 branches in Wellington, making the WI by far the most significant service and volunteer organization in the history of the county.

The Women’s Institutes reached their peak in the 1950s, with more than 1,500 affiliates across the province and a total membership in the 50,000 range. The Elora membership hovered around the 50 mark in these years.

More so than elsewhere in Ontario, the WI branches in Wellington County have taken a particular interest in local history. Long before the Tweedsmuir histories, WI members formed the Wellington County Historical Research Society in 1928. This group sought to compile and preserve details of families and community life.

The Historical Society fostered the preservation of local history through the 1930s and 1940s, when interest in the subject was at an all-time low.

Through lobbying and perseverance, the Historical Society and the WI branches in the county were able to open the Wellington County Museum in 1954. It was one of the first county museums in the province.

Membership in the WI has been declining since 1960, and the average age of members has been going up. Demographics and economic changes explain much of the decline. In the 1950s most new members were newly married women, who sought to improve their child raising and household management skills.

Today, new members tend to be older or retired. Working women seldom have time for an organization like the WI. As well, local community ties have been weakening for several decades, with the disappearance of rural schools and the growing number of commuters among rural residents.

Nevertheless, the WI is still a strong organization, with a provincial membership in the 30,000 range. Most branches are still active forces in their communities, performing valuable charity projects and public service. With the provincial government abandoning some of its social service responsibilities, there may well be a whole new role for the WI in the near future.

In Wellington County, the most enduring achievement of the Women’s Institute movement is the Wellington County Museum. Thanks to the determination and persistence of WI members, it was one of the first. WI members convinced county council of its value, and persuaded the county to renovate Wellington Place as its permanent home.

For the past century, the Women’s Institutes have made our communities better places. We should all salute them as they enter their second century.

[Note: There were over 50 Women’s Institute Branches in Wellington County in 1997. In the 20 years since then only four have not disbanded. The active branches, as of June 2016, are: Alma, Coningsby, Carry-on (which meets in Palmerston) and West End in south Wellington.]

*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on April 9, 1997.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015