Wartime history of Ontario Farmerettes an untold tale until this chance photo discovery

Betty Lou Clark of Guelph, Ont., never thought she was being patriotic when she signed up to work on a Canadian farm during the Second World War.

Instead, she considered it an opportunity to gain personal freedom and live away from home for the first time.

“We went because we could get out of chemistry exams and we would get away from the watchful eyes of our parents,” Clark said.

“That was a big inducement — not patriotism — when you’re 16 years of age.”

Clark, now 95, was one of thousands of young women who answered the call to be part of the Farmerette Brigade. It consisted of women 16 years of age and older to work in the Ontario Farm Service program. They worked on fruit, vegetable and truck farms — where produce goes to local markets —in southwestern Ontario and the Niagara region.

With so many men involved in combat overseas, there was a labour shortage and people were needed to farm in order to feed the people of the province and send food to the fight troops overseas.

The government organized groups of people to work the fields including The Famerette Brigade. The program, which started in 1941, was so popular it lasted for several years after the war ended. 

Betty Lou Clark, 95, now living in Guelph, Ont., says she joined when she was 16 at at that age never considered what she was doing to be patriotic. ‘We went because we could get out of chemistry exams and we would get away from the watchful eyes of our parents.’ (left to right Cameron Strassburger, Colin Field and Betty Lou Clark.) (Submitted by Colin Field)

‘These women really did make a difference’

Bonnie Sitter of Exeter, Ont.,  found an old photo while going through her late husband Conrad’s belongings. It showed three young women sitting on a running board of a vehicle. It was taken on her late husband’s family farm near Thedford, northwest of London close to Lake Huron.

On the back of the photo was written: Farmerettes 1946. 

Sitter’s curiosity led her to do some research and eventually, she wrote a letter to a local newspaper asking for women who served as Farmerettes to get in touch with her.

Shirleyan English, a former Farmerette, got in touch with Sitter. English had written a similar newspaper article in 1995 and received letters from 300 women who worked in the Second World War program. 

The two would go on to co-author the book Onion Skins and Peach Fuzz: Memories of Ontario Farmerettes in 2019.

That book has inspired a documentary film that’s in production and the theatrical production is set to take the stage in Millbrook and at the Blyth Festival in 2024.

Sitter still keeps in touch with many of the former Farmerettes.

“These women were really, you know, pretty much set aside and ignored. We were busy learning about the kings and queens in England and not learning our Ontario history. These women really did make a difference,” Sitter said.

“Most of these girls had never seen a farm. They came from all over Ontario places as far as Geraldton and South Porcupine and Kirkland Lake and the city, Toronto and Ottawa and Kingston, These girls volunteered, they weren’t conscripted, but volunteers. They would pay 25 cents an hour and they paid board of $4.50 a week.”

Shirleyan English a former Farmerette poses.
‘It was the best summer of my life,’ said Londoner Shirleyan English. She worked on a farm in Thedford, Ont., in 1952. (Alison Deveraux CBC)

Learning from former Farmerettes

Documentary filmmaker Colin Field says a chance encounter with Sitter at the Celtic Roots Festival in Goderich was where he heard about her research and the book.

Since that meeting and after receiving funding from the London Arts Council and applying for other grants, Field and his crews have been traveling the province speaking with the surviving Farmerettes and hearing their stories.

“I’m learning history and I’m hearing about the humour of the time. I’m hearing about romances and adventures and also an appreciation for the work that goes into putting food on our table. If it wasn’t for these women, girls at the time, the soldiers wouldn’t have had food to eat and the economy would have ground to a halt,” Field said.

“I’m also really learning about the war, but more so, I’m learning about how these women have reflected on those experiences, good or bad, during that time and with the wisdom of life … and what they’ve taken away from it.”

The sleeping area of the Farmerettes who worked at Thedford Camp, in Thedford Ontario south of Grand Bend. Sometimes there would be a 100 Farmerettes at this camp. (Submitted by Bonnie Sitter)

Local and rural history

Alison Lawrence has written a play based on Sitter and English’s book. Lawrence, a member of the 4th Line Theatre Production, heard about the Farmerettes during an event with Sitter in Stratford.

Lawrence’s play Onion Skins and Peach Fuzz: The Farmerettes will make its world premiere in July 2024 at 4th Line Theatre Productions in Millbrook.

The theatre company’s mandate is to write plays about rural and local history and Lawrence says this story fits the bill.

The play is a fictionalized version of the narrative she read in the book.

LISTEN | Hear about the Farmerettes who worked on Ontario farms during the Second World War:

The Morning Edition – K-W9:13The Farmerettes worked the farmers fields of Ontario during the Second World War

Featured VideoDuring the Second World War between 20 and 30,000 women worked on farms across Canada for the war effort. Women, some as young as 16 years-old left their families to work in the fields to feed the country. It was part of the Ontario Food Service Program that recruited people to join seven different brigades. One was called ‘The Farmerette Brigade’. Bonnie Sitter and Shirleyan English wrote a book about them called ‘Onion Skins and Peach Fuzz: Memories of Ontario Farmerettes.” The book has inspired a documentary film and a stage play.

“The first step was figuring out who my girls are and what brought them to the camp. And once you’ve found these girls, in my imagination they just start talking to each other and things just sort of grew from there,” Lawrence said.

The play will star six young women who play multiple characters.

“They play the girls in the camp, they play the farmers that they work for, they play everybody. And I think it’s going to be really fun for these girls to get to play a whole bunch of different characters and play women of their own age, but also get to play the farmers that hire them and, in one case, maybe even a boy they fall in love with,” Lawrence said.

Once the performances finish their run at 4th Line Theatre, the play will be staged at the Blyth Festival from Aug. 14 to Sept. 7 as part of the festival’s 50th anniversary celebration

The Blyth Festival and 4th Line Theatre commissioned the show and have been developing it together.

Gil Garratt, the artistic director at the Blyth Festival, says the play will be presented at Memorial Hall, which is a 400-seat theatre he describes as a “living cenotaph.”

colin and bonnie
Colin Field (left) first heard about the Farmerettes from Bonnie Sitter (right) while attending a Celtic Roots Festival in Goderich. He was inspired to make a documentary film. ‘I’ve just been so inspired by Bonnie herself in terms of her bringing the story to life out of nothing really,’ said Field. (Submitted by Colin Field)

‘It’s a forgotten history’

Field says what impresses him the most is how dedicated Sitter is in telling the Farmerettes story. 

“Most people, they do their job and they go on. She’s stayed in touch with every one of these women,” Field said.

“You could just see as I talked to them, I just see how much respect they have for [Sitter] in appreciation for what she’s doing … showing interest in what they did because it’s a forgotten history and she’s really been instrumental in making that happen.”

The inspiration continues for others who want to acknowledge the work of the Farmerettes, too. Oast House Brewers in Niagara released a Farmerettes Farmhouse Ale to mark International Women’s Day this past March while Grove Brew House in Kingsville has a Farmerettes Peach Sour to honour the farm workers.

Shale Ridge Winery and Cidery near Grand Bend also has a Farmerettes Rosé to honour the young women.

This summer, an ice cream is being developed to coincide with the release of the play by the 4th Line Theatre production. It’s also hoped the Farmerette story could inspire a Canadian stamp — and idea which Sitter says received support from Senator Rob Black after he heard her speak.

It’s been a wild ride for Sitter. What turned out to be the best summer of a Farmerette’s life has turned into a passion for her and she’s been able to share the story of the Farmerettes through many speaking appearance at libraries, classrooms and historical society meetings.

“Little did I know on that winter’s day in 2018 that the small photo, two inches by two-and-a-half inches, and three Farmerettes would set in motion a wonderful adventure,” she said.

See also  Rivalry Series heads to Ontario as Canada debuts players

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Back to top button