Written by Bonnie Sitter.
World War 2 began in September, 1939. By then, most crops in Ontario had been harvested or were close to it. Farmers though, looking ahead to spring no doubt were concerned. With most of the young men in farm labour enlisting, who would do the work on the farms?
Something had to be done immediately to ensure a steady supply of farm workers or there would be no fresh food the next year. The harvest was not just for people in Ontario, but a good deal of it was destined for other countries at war, particularly England. So the provincial government stepped in and organized the Ontario Farm Service Force to recruit workers from all levels of society, except men of fighting age. The motto was “We Lend a Hand”
Working with the federal government’s Dept. of Labour and the YM/YWCA, a volunteer force was organized into seven brigades to cover the provincial population from age 12 up to 85. These groups covered not only farm families but also urbanites with no farm experience whatsoever. It was a massive undertaking and it worked.
Of the seven brigades organized, the largest by far was the Farmerette brigade. that is, girls 16 to 18 years of age. From 1941 to 1952, 20,000 girls from cities, towns, villages and farms across the province volunteered to do the job, working both in fruit orchards and market gardening farms in such crops as celery, onions, cabbage, cauliflower, asparagus and cucumbers. In the Thedford area there were also fields of peppermint to be hoed, weeded and eventually distilled into oil for manufacturers such as Wrigley’s gum.
The government sought volunteers of girls through the high schools. Speakers travelled to the schools to explain the need of volunteers. Posters were distributed. The biggest inducement by far was an offer to exempt those with good enough marks to forego their final examinations if they promised to work a 13-week stint through the summer. Most girls thought this was a great idea.
Once girls were accepted as volunteers, they were provided tickets to travel to their particular camp. A labour secretary in each camp was the liaison with farmers; the farmers ordered the number of workers required and the secretary assigned girls to specific farms. Camps were staffed by the YWCA with a house mother, a cook and the labor secretary.
Here is a collection of stories that have been compiled for your enjoyment:
In 1952, my girl friend Marlene Mallinson and I journeyed by train from North Bay in Northern Ontario to Thedford in Southwestern Ontario. Neither of us had ever worked on a farm. We were 16 years old. We boarded the train at night , arrived in Toronto in the morning and rushed to catch another train to Thedford and arrived at the camp about 4 p.m. in the afternoon. Our train ride wasn’t the longest. The journey for girls from places such as Geraldton or Timmins took even longer. For many it was their first overnight train ride. Once a Farmerettes arrived they encountered a wide range of accommodation. Some was basic – such as tents, some in motels or Quonset huts, some were boarded in high schools. Our Camp was an old renovated flax mill, covered in wood slats with a large room on the main floor which included an eating area, a small lounge with a jukebox and piano, a kitchen and bedroom accommodation for the staff. In back was a shower room with laundry facilities. The loos were outside behind the building. About 100 girls were in this camp, one of the larger ones and we slept in bunks in a large open room upstairs. Today that camp is occupied by Thedford Legion. Because it was wartime, there were some restrictions on food in the camps just as there was everywhere. Girls brought their ration books from home and submitted them to the housemother. There was a suggestion in a few letters we received from former Farmerettes that the housemother planned and purchased all the food. Some of the money for the budget probably came from the board the girls were required to pay each week which ranged from roughly $4.50 up to $7.00 a week each, depending on the camp and the year. The work was hard, often grueling, especially for inexperienced teenagers. But because we were young we adapted quickly. Some climbed ladders for cherries and peaches and learned how to hang on to the ladder with their feet, particularly when a breeze blew and the trees swayed. At first, most girls were scared stiff of the height; by the end of the summer they were calmly eating their lunch about 15 feet in the air. Many farmerettes worked on market gardening farms where weeding was often done on hands and knees. Being from Northern Ontario, the land of rivers, rocks and bush, I had never seen a large farm field. At my first sight of green onions marching in rows seemingly to the horizon, my jaw dropped. I thought those rows went on forever. Other girls from the North, and there were hundreds, mentioned the same reaction. We weeded those onions on hands and knees, three rows at a time, straddling the middle row. By the end of the first week, we had adapted to the work; by the end of summer, our muscles were toned and hard. We developed marvellous tans. We became very healthy.
Freda Oughtred from Chapleau in Northern Ontario, remembered that before going to Normal School (Teachers’ College) in the fall, she went for a physical and the woman doctor was so impressed with her muscular back she called in another doctor to see it. Other Farmerettes remembered weeding or planting rows of tomatoes with 250 plants in a row. The pay was 50 cents a row.
Beryl (Dusty) Becket remembered her first working day at Goodwin’s farm . “We cut asparagus, “ she said. “No sitting at that place. It was bending over and moving right along in the morning. Switched to strawberries in the afternoon. Again, no sitting or scooting along on your butt. But all stooped over. “Anyway, I really hated asparagus. Couldn’t get me to eat it at home. So what did we have for dinner that night? Asparagus soup, creamed asparagus on toast and strawberries for dessert. I was starving so it was either eat or perish by starvation. By the time I finished dinner I found I really did like asparagus and I still love it. To this day I think of that first meal at Goodwin’s whenever I have asparagus.”
Shirley Riddell described her experience at the Charlie Hammond farm. “I hate Harry Horne's Custard. I've never been a picky eater but that custard was terrible. What made it worse was the frequency that it was served. “Every day of the week at supper time it was Harry Horne’s custard served with the fruit in season. There might be strawberries, cherries, peaches or raspberries served with it. Not one of the Farmerettes liked the "stuff " but they did eat it because they were always hungry at the end of a workday. “We did the evening dishes and cleaned up the table. There was always an ample amount of food but we were always starving by dinnertime. The farmer himself served the dinner to all of us. We had to wait until he dished up every plate before dinner could officially start.”
Bag lunches were carried by the girls to every work site. The makings were set out at camp either in the evening before or next morning and the girls either made up their own or it was organized in teams. Janet Howes and friend Dorothy Livermore, who were at Thedford camp in 1943, said organizing into teams might seem like a fine idea, “but those girls suffering from procrastination were last at the table and most of the sandwich fillings, cookies and fruit etc. were gone. Surprise next day, just pieces of bread and butter, no egg salad, no tuna fish, no peanut butter even, nothing but slices of bread. Naturally, the guilty person got a lot of flack from the rest of her team.”
Many farm wives supplemented the bag lunches the Farmerettes brought with cake and cookies, sometimes lemonade. And the girls were surrounded by food as they worked in the orchards of peaches, cherries and plums or in the fields of strawberries, raspberries and gooseberries in the Niagara area. Most girls snacked on the fruit as they worked. Some ate so many cherries that as one girl reported “we all got the trots.” Like the meals themselves, the offerings for lunches differed from camp to camp. Some places offered the usual cold cuts, cheese, carrots and celery with fresh fruit and cookies. At others peanut butter and jam were staples.
In a few camps, offerings were not so imaginative and some girls reported the choices were limited to pork and beans as sandwich filling or even mashed potatoes.
Mary Fountain was a Farmerette for three summers. “We were fed well,” she remembers “and were encouraged to eat meat twice a day. The farmer provided drinks and clean toilet facilities.” In most cases those drinks were water from a hose, although at some Thedford farms water was in large glass bottles sunk into the ground to keep it cool and which were passed around with no one thinking about germs. During the time of extreme heat in summer the girls were given salt pills daily. Mary Fountain also remembered that the 14 girls working at the Scrivens’ farm during ration times agreed to each bring a bit of sugar from the breakfast table so the farmer’s wife could bake them a chocolate cake. A few days later they had their cake.
Some girls were transferred from the fields or orchards to the local canning factories to can peaches. As they prepared the fruit for canning, they put the pits into a pail so the supervisor would know who was working by just counting the pits in the pail. Olga Culbert and two friends from Geraldton in Northern Ontario were at Camp Clarkson in 1951 and decided to bring their families a souvenir of farms in the south. Each carried a huge watermelon in a paper shopping bag and to save money decided to hitchhike to Toronto to get the train home. Hitchhiking was common among all Farmerettes. It was safe enough in those days and the girls took care to go in groups.
Some girls made a game out of work. Ardyss Daniels remembered the little brown bags in the camp johns for sanitary disposal that she and other girls took to work to fill with cherries. As she described it, “when nature called we would sit in the john and eat cherries and shoot the pits over the partitions. I guess we made our own fun.”
And fun they had. Mostly that’s what the girls remember. Decades later they still recalled their time as Farmerettes as the best summers of their life. There was the camaraderie that developed when they chatted and sang as they worked. There was pleasure in working with others for a common purpose. There was the joy of seeing a different part of the province than they were used to. There were visits to Niagara Falls or hitchhiking to the U.S. where they toured the shops and if you were from the North, you marvelled at the tall buildings. They swam in the Welland Canal , 50 feet deep and forbidden but they did it anyway. It was being chosen with “the best legs in the camp.” Or voting to bestow a Mr. Farmer title at the local fair, based on size of feet, tan, and the size of calluses on the farmer’s hands. And it was the fact of being away from home, enjoying the camaraderie among new friends and making up camp songs.
It was adventure.