Let the Farmerettes Pitch In

As a city slicker, I can’t carry on much of a conversation about farming, but after a recent visit to the South Frontenac Museum, I now know what a farmerette is. I’ve also learned something about educational toys, wartime nurses and Sunday dinners. These seemingly diverse topics all make sense once you know that the museum has chosen 2021’s exhibits around the theme of local life during World War I.

The unusual term farmerette dates to World War I. With farm hands serving abroad in the war, rural areas faced a shortage of people to milk the cows, feed the chickens, harvest the produce and do any number of other chores. The government started a program to address the problem by encouraging women to sign up as farm workers and assigning them to farms that had requested help. These farmerettes usually had no experience in farming. This is where it gets interesting.

Credit: South Frontenac Museum

Not everyone was sure that young women from cities should be doing farm labour or would be able to handle it. At the South Frontenac Museum, I read that fathers occasionally stormed into government offices trying to “find out what their crazy daughters were doing”. In the same Belleville newspaper, there was a quote from a new farmerette working in Frontenac Country. “I am actually becoming a good milker—not that I have milked more than three cows as yet, but I am quicker than I was.”

As you walk in the museum, you’ll notice how bright and inviting it is. It is at first surprising that a stone building constructed in 1903 would have so many large windows given that windows were very costly at the time. I soon learned that it was built as a schoolhouse and was designed to let in lots of natural light. The light would have helped the students focus on their lessons, which was critical since they didn’t have the educational toys we have today. The theory of education at the time was that work and play were two separate activities: schoolwork in the schoolhouse and playtime in the schoolyard. The volunteer committee that overseas the museum has ensured that the property is well maintained and restored to exacting standards. When the old windows had to be replaced, they engaged David White, a local graduate of Algonquin College’s Heritage Program who could replicate the millwork exactly and was able to source old pieces of glass to ensure authenticity.

Credit: South Frontenac Museum

Pride in the museum also stems from a deep-rooted respect for the local men and women who served in previous wars. In the summer of 2021, the museum had an exhibit on the World War I Expeditionary Force that drew recruits from the three local counties: Lennox, Frontenac, and Addington. In all, 1041 young men joined the 146th Battalion, trained in their local communities, went on to 43 days of training in Barriefield near Kingston and concluded with 82 days of training in Valcartier. From there, a train took these patriotic young men to Halifax where they paraded through the streets before boarding a ship to Liverpool and onward to the battlefields of France and Belgium.

Credit: Helen Cutts

The nurses of World War I are also featured. The museum’s curator showed me a leather belt that belonged to a local nurse who had served overseas. As she cared for each soldier, she got into the habit of asking each one if he would give her his battalion badge as a way of remembering him. She attached the badges to her belt and it’s now in the display case at the centre of the World War I exhibit. 

Credit: Helen Cutts

The domestic world during the war is brought to life with a small display of a dining room: the table set with the family’s best china for Sunday dinner. On the accompanying sideboard, a helpful sign tells us what would have been different about this dinner compared to one in the pre-war years. The family would have eaten game more often and would have relied more on preserves. There was an effort during the war to make sure that a good portion of Canada’s meat and other produce was available for the soldiers. In another part of the museum, I had seen an interesting government promotional poster encouraging families to eat locally caught fish, leaving more meat for the soldiers.

Credit: Helen Cutts

The South Frontenac Museum, opened in 2015, is fortunate that the township has been extremely supportive. With the huge number of donated artifacts from the local community, it quickly became clear that additional storage space was needed so that the items could be rotated each year according to themes. South Frontenac Township found the space and now we can benefit from an attractive and well-curated museum.

Credit for cover photo: South Frontenac Museum

Helen Cutts, KAM Visitor in Residence, Writer

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