The Women's Institute: A Group That Has Made a Difference

The Women's Institute is a group of rural women that has made a difference to the quality of both urban and rural life in Grey County and across the country. 

It's quiz time! Do you have any idea who promoted the idea of mandatory stopping for school buses showing flashing lights? Do you know who came up with the notion that signs should be posted at all railway crossings? Here is a hint. The same organization was also responsible for the implementation of three-point rear seat belts in automobiles. 

If you answered that it was a government, you are only partially right. These ideas were generated by an organization who then convinced political officials of the importance of these changes. The group behind these actions and many more innovative legislative resolutions was the Women's Institute. 

The first branch of the Women's Institute was formed in Stoney Creek, near Hamilton, in February 1897. The second branch was created in Whitby, Ontario.

On Sept. 15, 1900, the long history of the Women's Institute in Grey County marked its beginning when that organization marked the beginning of its third branch in Kemble. 

One of the driving forces behind the creation of this Grey County branch of the Women's Institute was Mrs. James Gardiner. Shortly after the creation of the Whitby branch, Mrs. Gardiner spoke to a group of men and women at a meeting of the Farmers' Institute in Kemble. The topic of her speech was "Man Works from Sun to Sun, but Woman's Work is Never Done". 

Beginning in August 1900, Mrs. Gardiner travelled from door to door in the Kemble area inviting women to attend a meeting at the library. The purpose of the meeting, she told her listeners, was to form a branch of the Women's Institute. 

At that historic meeting, Mrs. L. Smith was named honourary president, Mrs. Gardiner was elected president, Mrs. Daniel Davidson held the office of vice-president, Mrs. Franklin Wilcox became the treasurer and Mrs. George Beckett was selected for the position of secretary. 

In 1919, the various branches of the Women's Institutes across Ontario, formed the Federated Women's Institutes of Ontario. 

Once again, Grey County women can claim an important role on this historic occasion. The first president of this organization was Mrs. William Todd of Orillia. But she had a strong Grey County connection. Prior to her marriage to William Todd, she had been Harriett Hanna, born and raised in the Grey County community of Flesherton. 

In 1953 a Grey County woman, Mrs. Gordon MacPhatter, was elected to the presidency of the Federated Women's Institutes of Ontario. She held this office until 1956. 

Mrs. MacPhatter, the first resident of Grey County to hold this office, had also been a member of the Kemble branch which was the first Grey County branch of the Women's Institute. 

When the Women's Institute was originally formed, its founders viewed its purpose to be that of domestic health and welfare. In fact, the constitution and bylaws listed in the formation of the original branch at Stoney Creek, lists as its object: "to promote that knowledge of household science which shall lead to improvement in household architecture with special attention to home sanitation, to a better understanding of the economic and hygienic value of foods and fuels, and to a more scientific care of children with view of raising the general standard of health of our people". 

The outstanding contribution of the Women's Institute in leading the fight to improve the standard of all aspects of society is something we should all be thankful for.

The Women's Institute of Grey County has also played a large role in the preservation and promotion of the heritage of this region. They have been at the forefront of the drive to create and maintain both the Grey County Museum and the Grey County Archives. Their Tweedsmuir History books, which they maintain with great pride and detail, provide an important insight into the life of rural women in this region. 

The information used in this article came from documents in the Grey County Archives which boasts one of the largest collections of Women's Institute records in the province of Ontario. 

A version of "The Women's Institute: A Group That Has Made a Difference," originally appeared in my Local History column in the Owen Sound Sun Times.

More Grey County Pages

12-year-old Walks to Owen Sound in 1851 from the journal of a teenage boy's experience travelling with his brother in the untamed Upper Canadian wilderness.

1st Grey County Building in 1852 was only built after many hurdles were overcame.

Dr. Anna Henry  from Markdale, was a medical trailblazer for women doctors in Canada, who helped lay the groundwork for the establishment for Women's College Hospital.

Egremont Township endured the usual growing pains of a pioneer community, but its early history records times when it was embroiled in a few contentious issues. 

Euphrasia Township in the early years when spelling the name was a problem for those who called it home and those that wanted settle this new Grey County township.

Georgian Bay's 1st pioneer settler arrived on the western shoreline long before any other settler reached the area.

Grey County Heritage: A Valuable Resource which is rich and varied, as an important resource for future use for business, political, and many other purposes.

Grey County's Creation in 1852, laid the framework for organizing a county in the last wilderness in the southern region of what would become in the future the province of Ontario.

An Unlikely Hero From Grey County (Part 1) found his way from the farming community of Flesherton to missionary work in the Ottawa Valley, and beyond.

An Unlikely Hero Vs. The KKK (Part 2) Our hero from Grey County took his missionary zeal south of the border and ultimately crossed paths with the infamous KKK!

Barn Raising: A Pioneer Economic and Social Necessity as it provided settlers with an opportunity not only to build a barn, but also build a community.

"Barring Out": A Pioneer School Tradition was a custom which the settlers brought to the new world from England, or Scotland.

Ceylon Ontario: How it Got its Name: It is always interesting how a community got its name, but I doubt any place received its name from a more unique source!

Chatsworth Ontario: First Settlers took advantage of fulfilling the needs of pioneer travellers and built a thriving community in the Upper Canadian wilderness.

Clearing Trees a Daunting Task for Settlers as they worked to fulfill their obligations for their land grant.

Dornoch: or is it Smithville? Originally it was Smithville, then it became Dornoch. But, surprise it is still, in reality Smithville!

First Pioneer in Durham: Archibald Hunter established his family, and a hotel, in what would become the centre of the town of Durham.

Durham Ontario Influenced by the Saugeen River. This river provided a means to create new industries, but especially in the spring it can also pose a menace to the community.

Grey County Bylaws to the 1890s reveal a lot about the financing of local government, especially education in the early days of the region.

John Muir, the legendary naturalist, who promoted the idea of protected nature spaces, spent time in Ontario and I went to help find evidence of his stay in the Owen Sound area.

A Heroic Woman From Grey County who made great changes as a doctor in China in the 1890s and early 1900s.

Jesse James: In Grey County? An interesting question. Did the notorious gangster hide out in Proton Township? We will never know. But it is fun to speculate!

Kilsyth's Train Engine was one for the history books. It brought an evening of joy followed by disappointing news soon after.

The Knight's of Meaford have long history in that Grey County community. Their business forged by early settlers employed many locals and supported the economy.

Leith: Tom Thomson's Birthplace is part of the rich heritage of this community located on the east shore of the Georgian Bay north of Owen Sound.

The Leith Golf Course has provided many families with great memories. The history of this golf course starts, and ends, with the generosity of one family.

Agnes Macphail was a political trailblazer in a part of Ontario that one could hardly expect such radical action for the era in a rural region.

Markdale Ontario: The Beginning: originally known as Glenelg East, but the coming of the railway and the name of owner of the land for the station led to a change of identity.

Meaford's history is one of hardy and entrepreneurial pioneers carving their lives out of the wilderness of what would become Grey County.

Meaford Ontario, first called Peggy's Landing located on the shores of Georgian Bay has a rich history.

Meaford vs Purdytown. Conflict over the name of a new community was not unusual in early Grey County but electing a school trustee was the "hot button" issue in this rivalry.

Pioneer Clergyman: John Neelands was the first to minister to the first settlers' spiritual needs riding on horseback through the wilds of early Grey County.

Pioneer Doctor: Dr. James Smith, a local boy who became a doctor and served his community for his entire life was a testament to Grey County community spirit.

Pioneer Healthcare in Grey and Bruce counties was not administered by doctors, nurses, or pharmacists, no it was the responsibility of the women of the community.

Pioneer Homes in Grey County in the 1840s offered only basic amenities. Homes were basic because clearing the land to earn a living to survive were of paramount importance for those embarking on a new life.

Pioneer Ingenuity created many labour saving devices and methods and quite often helped to create a sense of community.

Pioneer Christmas: A Family Tradition as told to me by may grandparents who experienced Christmas as children in the 1880s and 1890s.

Pioneer Settlement Plans for Grey County began almost two decades before the rest of Grey County was available for settlement.

A pioneer road surveyor's impact on the local history of Grey and Bruce counties could have been dramatic, if it had not been changed by another surveyor.

Pioneer Teachers in Grey and Bruce Counties had a long and arduous task, not to mentions strict and confining job requirements for very little salary.

Plowing Match in Grey County in 1933 the first International Plowing Match held in Grey and Bruce counties and it's success led to more such events in Grey.

Settling Osprey Township: Parts of Osprey were considered too rugged to settle, but today they are prime real estate because of the great view!

Swamp College: Proton Township: this colourfully named institution of education in Grey County has provided many stories to the heritage of the region.

Sydenham Township's First Council undertook the often difficult task of creating a new municipal infrastructure.

The Impact of Snow is not what is Used to be! As snow removal equipment has improved the impact of snow on our lives has reduced significantly from previous eras.

Unique Characters: Nathaniel Herriman lived in Grey County and owned an inn to provide food and and accommodation to early travellers. Each day he performed a unique practice.

Unique Maps: Quilts Guided the Underground Railroad to enable runaway slaves to escape to Canada and freedom from the shackles that enslaved them.

The Women's Institute is a group of rural women that has made a difference to the quality of both urban and rural life in Grey County and across the country.