By Sue Tiffin
Ninety years ago after the Norland Women’s Institute was organized on Sept. 11 1929 women gathered at the home of first president Leslie Stephens. They paid their annual fee of 25 cents and they got to work.
The organization offered a chance for women to socialize outside of the home but also to learn through then-offered Department of Agriculture courses and to help fundraise and advocate for people in need in their rural farm communities.
Last week on Sept. 11 the current members of the Women’s Institute: Phyllis McHale Barbara Chynoweth Carolyn Traynor Marion Pearson Joyce Bartley and Pat Watson welcomed the community to an event celebrating the 90th anniversary of the local group. They each spoke to the history of the organization now spread throughout the world – the Queen is a member – and the work done by involved women.
“Did you know they got milk pasteurized?” ask a few women throughout the course of the anniversary event.
The Women’s Institute first began in 1897 in Stoney Creek inspired by Adelaide Hoodless a speaker who had been invited to speak at a meeting of the wives of the Farmer’s Institute on the death of her 14-month-old son believed to have happened because of contaminated unpasteurized milk and the need for greater domestic science education for rural women. She recommended a group to bring women together for such a purpose.
“Is it of greater importance that a farmer should know more about the scientific care of his sheep and cattle than a farmer’s wife should know how to care for her family?” she asked.
A week later 101 women showed up for a meeting and the first formal Women’s Institute organization was started. Supported by the Ontario government the Women’s Institute brought women together from isolated rural communities to learn more about home economics child care and farming methods including poultry keeping and small farm animal husbandry.
“They wanted to learn they wanted fellowship and wanted to know how to improve the lives of their families” said Joanne Lambert president of Gamebridge’s Women’s Institute branch and area president who was attending Norland’s 90th anniversary celebration. “I enjoy it I enjoy the fellowship I love the learning chances we get the new things we learn.”
In their first year the Norland WI had 41 members meeting monthly at homes until January 1939 when the Orange Lodge was purchased and became the Norland Women’s Institute Hall. They hosted fundraising events including pumpkin pie socials bazaars and raffles masquerades and euchre parties; learned how to sew knit make quilts and hats through the Department of Agriculture courses and packed boxes filled with quilts and cake and cigarettes for soldiers during war years. And they gave: contributing toward the purchase of hose for the township fire pump for the new church bell for first aid kits for local schools for the cenotaph and for Norland Library.
Times might have changed but the Norland Women’s Institute is still meeting. In 2015 they sold the hall and began meeting instead at the Norland School Hall Community Centre.
And they’re still helping in recent years donating bears and story books and handbags filled with supplies to a local shelter; purchasing a new sterilizer for the Coboconk Medical Centre and making financial donations to organizations and facilities including the Minden Hospital Ross Memorial Hospital Norland Summer Festival Ridgewood Public School and Kawartha-Haliburton Children’s Foundation.
Members note that many WI branches need more members but said that in today’s society women are working outside of the home and otherwise less likely to have the time to join a group.
“A lot of the young people back in those days and even when I joined a lot of the women were still housekeepers” said Lambert who has been a WI member for more than 30 years. “Now it takes two people working to pay the bills and they don’t have time. A lot of the young people don’t want to volunteer they don’t have time. They’re too busy running their children to organized sports and clubs and what have you … [At past WI meetings women would] bring their children the ones who weren’t in school to the meeting. They’d put a quilt on the floor and the children would play while they held the meeting.”
“They don’t have time to make time to come to one more thing” said Chynoweth.
With the motto of “for home and country” the Women’s Institute caused change across the country. Besides pasteurized milk they’re instrumental in having music included in school curriculums sliced bread wrapped in stores mandatory stopping for schools buses poison labels railway crossing signs the teaching of sex education in schools – even lines painted on highways.
Current resolutions of the WI include that the Canadian government develop and implement a mandatory lifestyle program to teach high school students food literacy cooking skills human nutrition and other wellness practices; that the government only support environmentally-friendly projects that do not include releasing of balloons; and that the sale and use of high density discharge headlamps be disallowed.
At the 65th anniversary of the Norland Women’s Institute charter member Annie Watson then 89 years old might have put it best: “The institute stands for helping people in need” she told the Lindsay Post . “I think that is why we have been around for as long as we have.”