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Bond Head Women's Institute celebrating 100 years of community service

After one false start in 1902, the Bond Head Women's Institute became a key part of the community

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Bond Head Women’s Institute.

There were plans to celebrate the centennial with an old-fashioned strawberry social, at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Bradford, featuring Ruth Ann Onley, wife of former Lieutenant Governor David C. Onley as guest speaker, entertainment by Glenda Paxton of the Paxton Orchestra – a popular group in the Bond Head area in past decades - and a luncheon of fancy sandwiches and strawberry shortcake.

Plans were well in the works, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

The Strawberry Social has been postponed, for now, but current president Leila Lloyd has shared the history of Women’s Institute, and in particular, the story of the Bond Head W.I.

The roots of Women’s Institute go back to 1897. "Isolation was one of the main reasons, way back, for forming Women's Institute," Lloyd said. "People were seeking connections," very much like today - but back then, the educational role of W.I. was even more important. 

It was 123 years ago that Adelaide Hoodless first launched an initiative to educate and empower rural women, so often isolated and cut off from social and educational opportunities.

There was already a Farmers’ Institute – an organization that brought rural men together, to learn more about advances in agriculture and animal husbandry.

Hoodless, driven by the loss of her own 18-month-old son, who died as a result of drinking contaminated milk, wanted to focus on domestic science and hygiene – providing educational opportunities and access to information to farmers’ wives, and bringing rural women together.

One young farmer, Erland Lee, heard Hoodless speak and was so impressed that he invited her to address a meeting in Stoney Creek, near Hamilton, and launch her idea.

At that February meeting, Hoodless proposed the formation of a 'Women’s Institute' – an organization that would parallel the Farmers’ Institute, and give a voice to rural women.

On Feb. 19, over 100 women turned out for the inaugural meeting of Women’s Institute – and the first branch was formed at Stoney Creek, with 75 members.

According to the Federated Women’s Institutes of Ontario, by 1900 there were over 1,600 members in 33 branches – and by 1904, nearly 5,500 members in 149 branches.

Early on, Women’s Institute took on an advocacy role, pushing for better public safety regulations – including wrappers on bread, the pasteurization of milk, and the painting of centre lines on provincial highways and roads.

The first branch to open in West Gwillimbury Township was the Cookstown branch, launched on July 2, 1901, at the home of Mrs. Wm. Phillips – and the following year, in 1902, a branch was formed in Bond Head.

President of the Bond Head W.I. was Mrs. John Hall; Mrs. Marshall Hipwell was treasurer-secretary. Unfortunately, by 1904 the Bond Head W.I. was having difficulty finding leaders, and the chapter merged with the Cookstown branch.

It wasn’t until June 9, 1920 - one year after the FWIO and the Federated Women’s Institutes of Canada (FWIC) were formed - that the Bond Head Women’s Institute was successfully revived.

That initial meeting saw the election of President Mrs. W.J. Abernethy, vice president Ms. M.B. Hipwell, second VP Mrs. Meek, Secretary/treasurer Mrs. Annie Gertrude (Faris) Stone, and District Director Mrs. J.P. Wilcox.

In that first year, members learned First Aid, held a Halloween social and the first Bond Head Bean Supper, and quickly became a strong social force in the community.

In 1921, the women hosted a Garden Party - buying 50 lbs. of ham to make sandwiches, charging 40 cents for adults, 25 cents for children, and raising the grand total of  $97.50. That's equivalent to over $1,300, in today's dollars.

The Bond Head Women’s Institute formed a Junior Branch in 1921 – which in 1947 became part of the new Tec-We-Gwill W.I. in Newton Robinson.

In 1936, the Bond Head W.I. won the prize for highest average attendance, presented by the District.

The Chapter celebrated its 50th Anniversary in 1970. Among the charter members still active were Mrs. Andrews, Mrs. Armstrong, Mrs. Bradley, Mrs. Kneeshaw, Mrs. Stone, and Mrs. Lister. District President Elva Sutherland congratulated members for their role in the upkeep of the Bond Head Community Hall, park and library, their sponsorship of 4-H, and their service to the community. Guest speaker was Mr. Fred C. Cook, the Simcoe County school superintendent and former Deputy Reeve of after whom Fred C. Cook Public School was named.

It was the Bond Head W.I. that purchased the dishes for the local Community Hall, built the first playground in the park, and planted its flowering crab apple trees. The women contributed towards the memorial plaques and Remembrance Day ceremonies, and paid the local librarian’s salary, until the county took over operation of the library.

The Bond Head W.I. has sponsored local Girl Guides and Brownie packs, visited the sick and shut-ins, and advocated for community improvements – from the installation of traffic lights at the intersection of Hwy. 88 and County Rd. 27, to identifying the need for streetlights at 88 and Sideroads 5 and 10.

“One year, in the days of one-room schoolhouses, they put a washbasin, towels, soap, etc. in the four local schools,” noted a history of the W.I.; even today, the members provide bursaries to local schools, including Sir William Osler P.S. in Bond Head.

"Women's Institutes have been great educators," said Lloyd. "If you educate a woman, you educate a family." 

It's all summed up in the W.I. motto: "For Home and Country."

In recent years, the Bond Head Women’s Institute has produced a series of fundraising calendars – on the disappearing barns of West Gwillimbury; local landmarks; and Canada’s Sesquicentennial – to support annual contributions to Southlake Regional Health Centre, Matthews House Hospice, schools and a future museum.

The group has also provided bears, books and blankets to comfort children in remote northern communities, and Christmas gift packages to the seniors living at The LOFT’s Bradford House residence.

"Women have a different way of looking at things," said Lloyd - seeing the details, as well as the big picture, and working for the betterment of their communities. And, she noted,"For years W.I. has been the strongest women's voice in Parliament."

That may no longer be the case, she admitted, but Women's Institutes continue to make a difference. 

What are some of the other achievements of Women’s Institute in Canada? Signs and signals at level crossings, stop arms and flashing lights on school buses – and mandatory stopping by other motorists, easy-to-understand labels on food products, proper use of slow-moving vehicle signs.

Wherever a practical, safety-oriented need has been identified, Women’s Institute members have been swift to launch a campaign, in addition to hosting ROSE (Reaching Ontario Sharing Education) educational programs for the general public, on everything from proper canning of fruits and vegetables, to international health concerns.