For Home and Country: The Women’s Institutes of Grey County
“After all, it is the history of humanity which is continually interesting to us, and our village histories will be the basis of accurate facts much valued by historians of the future.” – Lady Tweedsmuir
Women in Ontario faced many challenges at the beginning of the twentieth century, one of the largest being the lack of education in practical household matters. Women had no formal teaching of home care, yet were expected to cook, clean, and raise children in difficult conditions. Women’s Institutes [WI] were created to address these problems.
Adelaide Hoodless, co-founder of the WI, lost her young son because she had fed him raw milk. After learning that boiling the milk could have prevented his death, she became determined not to let the same happen to other women, and envisioned an organization of women who could share their knowledge and skills. She organized the world’s first WI at Stoney Creek with the help of Erland Lee in 1897, modelling it after the prominent Farmers’ Institute. While the Farmers’ Institute focused on the science of farming, the WI would focus on homemaking.
Women’s Institutes exploded in the early twentieth century, with 888 branches and 30,000 members in Ontario alone by 1914. There are still over 300 branches in Ontario. WIs have accomplished many things in Ontario, including mandatory stopping for school buses with flashing lights, signs at railway crossings, the teaching of music and home economics in schools, and even pushing for the pasteurization of all milk for sale. Besides passing resolutions for legal change, individual WIs have contributed to many community projects and produced records called Tweedsmuir Histories.
Tweedsmuirs became even more popular at the encouragement of Lady Tweedsmuir, the wife of Governor General Lord Tweedsmuir. She took a special interest in Canadian history, and encouraged WI members to keep local histories in the late 1930s. These books were called “Tweedsmuir Village History Books.” By the 1950s, there were almost 1,000 WI branches across mostly rural Ontario compiling Tweedsmuir histories, and in 1957 a provincial Tweedsmuir Histories Curator was appointed. Since that time, Tweedsmuirs have become a unique source of history and insight into the development of a community. They are regulated by provincial, area, and branch Curators according to the Tweedsmuir Histories Manual. In 2004, WI Tweedsmuir Curators were awarded the Scadding Award for Excellence by the Ontario Historical Society.
Tweedsmuirs focus on personal histories or local development. They often contain newspaper clippings of major area events, local landmarks, and birth, marriage or death announcements. There are many personal histories and short biographies, as well as histories of land plots or buildings. There are frequently photographs of the community or WI members.
The Archives has 79 Grey County Tweedsmuir Histories available online, having recently added books for Lamlash WI, which disbanded in 2009 after nearly 100 years of service. Lamlash is located in the former Bentinck Township, now part of the Municipality of West Grey. One of the first Tweedsmuirs made available online was the Kemble Tweedsmuir. Kemble WI has a special place in our Archives collection, as it was the first Women’s Institute in Grey County and the third in the world. It was formed in 1897 and still serves the Township of Georgian Bluffs and the city of Owen Sound. Their Tweedsmuir contains over 350 pages of history and more than 200 photographs, many dating back to the early 1900s.
Tweedsmuir Histories are an exceptional resource for scholars, genealogists, and historians alike, reminding us not only of the role Women’s Institutes have played in local history, but also how our own communities have grown and developed into what they are today. Check out the Tweedsmuirs at www.greyroots.com/tweedsmuirs