In December of 1942, The Hamilton Spectator reported that Farmerettes, Farm Cadets, Women’s Land Brigades and others (23,000 women in total) put in over 10 million hours of farm labour in Ontario during the war. They planted and hoed, hand-weeded, thinned, staked, picked fruit and harvested vegetables. They made a big difference in the war effort by easing the labour shortage.
The advertisements showing men in uniform said “We Can’t Fight If We Don’t Eat. We Won’t Eat If You Don't Help Ontario Farmers This Summer.”
There were details of the various ways to help and most importantly there was a form to be clipped from the newspaper, completed and mailed to Ontario Farm Service Force, Parliament Buildings Toronto. During the same time period, the CBC had a radio program called “Help Wanted”. It aired every Wednesday evening at 7:30 p.m. It was a joint production with Ontario Farm Service Force.
The Farmerettes were expected to work from May until September, and if the girls were in Grade 13, and were in good standing with their grades and worked a minimum of six weeks, they could be exempted from their senior matriculation exams. Bus or train fare was supplied to the closest depot to the Farmerette Camp where they had been assigned. If they worked four months, their return fare was paid by the government.
Young girls signed on and pledged allegiance to the King and confirmed their purpose was to support the Navy, Army and Air Force by assisting in the production of food.
They promised to keep themselves physically fit and mentally alert at all times.
They were given a list of everything they needed. The list included sheets, blankets, pillow cases, towels, laundry and hand soap, a thermos, drinking cup, lunch box and clothes hangers.
Clothing items included bib overalls, work shirts, blouses, socks, pajamas, shorts, rubber boots, Sunday clothes, straw hat and bandana.
Upon arrival at the camp the girls handed over their ration books. The Camp Mother who was hired by the YWCA, was in charge of planning the meals and juggling the ration coupons.
A local lady was hired to prepare breakfast and supper and clean up. Naturally, others were hired to work in the kitchen as girls had to be fed twice a day and seven days a week. No small task! The girls themselves were responsible for making lunches at night, taking turns making lunches for their whole crew. If a girl slacked off and lunches were poorly made, the camp girl responsible could expect repercussions and it wasn’t likely to happen again.
In 1942, 50 girls arrived in Thedford and began their adventure at “The Camp” formally known as Camp No. 6.
Sixty farms across Ontario employed Farmerettes. Their housing that first year was in a building that is now the Thedford Legion. It appears that the number of Farmerettes (or ‘camp girls’ as they were known locally) who arrived in Thedford in 1943 totaled 100. The old Flax Mill was cleaned up to became part of the camp. The first camp had an upper floor that was filled with army bunks and there was very little personal space. The main floor had painted picnic tables that served as the dining area, kitchen, toilets, showers and steel laundry tubs that doubled as bath tubs. A ping pong table was set up along with a small library. The Camp Mother was Mrs. MacGregor and she is fondly remembered as being an extrovert – firm but fair. She was also in charge of curfews: 9:30 p.m. Sunday to Thursday and 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday nights. The Camp Mother and the Labour Secretary had office space on the main floor and from there the farmers were assigned their work crews, sometimes six to eight camp girls went to one farm. Often the crews stayed with the same farmer for the entire work term.
For many of the girls, this was their first experience away from home and some were homesick. Most were not prepared for field or orchard work in the hot sun so sun burns, sun strokes and insect bites added to the aching backs. Yet there was fun to be had and many camp girls returned a second time and brought a sister with them.
In the Thedford area, Dutch onion sets, celery, potatoes, carrots and beets were grown in the rich black fertile land known as “the bog”.
The work day started at the crack of dawn. As soon as breakfast was over the farmer would be waiting for them. In a memoir, one Farmerette said her favourite place to ride to and from the fields was on the fender with her legs wrapped around the headlight. Many times the vehicle was a makeshift pre-war, car-truck combination. Keep in mind there were no seat belts. They simply piled in on top of each other.
As far as the onions were concerned, each girl was expected to weed the little green onions three rows at a time by straddling the middle row on her knees. Noon never came soon enough and the trees offering shade at the edge of the fields looked mighty good. It was a new experience for sure and it wasn’t long until the smell of onions permeated their clothes.
Laundry was done by hand so it wasn’t done daily. The overalls would practically stand on their own, they got so soiled. Often the girls were too tired to care.
Ten hour days were sometimes necessary. Wages in the early years of Farmerettes were 25 cents an hour. When fruit was picked it was 25 cents for a six-quart basket. A farmerette reported in a letter home in 1946 that she had earned $2 that day.
Room and board was $4.50 a week and paid to the Camp Mother Friday evenings. If poor weather meant no work a calculation was done as to the number of hours worked and the rate was adjusted. Rainy days meant letter writing and reading.
Some Farmerettes found work in canneries. They too would sometimes find the poor weather affected their pay. If the fruits and vegetables couldn't be harvested they certainly couldn’t be canned.
Free time sometimes meant meeting up with the young men in the community. Some Farmerettes met the love of their life, married and stayed in the community. This was the case in the Thedford area.
When gas was available on a Saturday night, the farmers in the Thedford area might make an excursion to the Ipperwash Casino, which was a dance hall and not a casino as we know them today. Music and the chance to dance caused excitement, not only for the girls, but for the cadets at the Ipperwash Army Camp.
Other times a swim in nearby Lake Huron was refreshing and if it happened to be after work the grime of the day was left in the lake. Most camp girls had never seen Lake Huron and the beautiful beach where camp fires and wiener roasts could be enjoyed.
A few Farmerettes joined the local Thedford girls softball team called the Whirlwinds. Doris Donald who lived in Thedford laughed when she told me the team’s name. She said they certainly weren’t whirlwinds and she can’t remember how they got their name. When possible they played against teams from Forest and Arkona and other times it was just a casual game in town. Outings were dependent on gas being available. Concerts with music and skits were produced over the years. Locals were invited and funds were raised for patriotic causes
In other areas of Ontario, tomatoes, asparagus, peaches, strawberries and cherries were harvested. In May of 1941, eight girls from Strathroy Collegiate signed up and sewed on the official badge and headed to St. Catharines to work on Canada’s largest fruit and vegetable farm owned by the Schenck family. Their sleeping quarters turned out to be tents with wooden floors. Toilets, showers and a dining hall were constructed on the site. There, the camp girls tried to keep pace with the fast and efficient Polish workers. There were 13 acres of asparagus to cut each morning and it was back-breaking labour. Staking tomatoes and picking off suckers wasn’t a lot of fun either. There were 250 tomato plants in a row and they were paid 50 cents a row.
Norene Pye was 16 and attending high school in Toronto when she signed up to lend a hand in the Farm Service Force in 1946.
Her letters home from the camp near St. Catharines were filled with vivid descriptions of the farms and farmers, the daily grind plus her leisure hours. She even drew sketches of the unusual ladders used for the cherry harvest. She was brave enough to pick the cherries at the top of the trees when other girls refused. Another sketch showed the layout of the camp which was in the middle of the peach orchard and when the peaches started to form they had to be thinned. Her letter described this job, saying it was the best job she had done.
Acres of asparagus, tomatoes and spinach were grown on the Schenck and Tregunno farms where she worked. The process of cutting the asparagus every morning and getting rained out and going back after the rain stopped and getting muddy are all in the news home. None of her letters complained about the meals or living conditions. Her home for the summer was shared with other camp girls in a prefabricated hut called a Nissen.
She described excursions into St. Catharines for shopping and church and even to Niagara Falls and Buffalo. A weekend back to Toronto meant a streetcar ride from St Catharines to Port Dalhousie and then a ferry to Toronto. It didn’t happen often as it took a good chunk of the wages. Dates with local young men who had cars and bicycles were enjoyed. She joined other girls who could swim as they made their way to the Welland Canal for some fun. When the summer was over and it was time to return to high school, Norene had good memories of her summer as a Farmerette despite the fact that she worked hard. In fact, her last letter said she would stay another week if she could. What a treasure to be able to read her letters.
Participating in the Farmerette program offered girls the opportunity to build a strong work ethic while helping the war effort. Memories were made and for most girls, they were good. ◊