As I sit in the renovated kitchen of Erland Lee Museum in Stoney Creek, with a group of women talking about history, direction, and hopes for the future, I once again realize that although we may all be very different, we certainly share many of the same passions.
We talk about Erland Lee Museum, its history, and look at old photographs, and about the importance of the FWIO (Federated Women’s Institute of Ontario). Our conversation is distracted by food and nutrition (As often seems to happen, not only with us women but everyone!) and suddenly everyone is opening up and sharing their own experiences, stories, preferences and even recipes.
Age, ability, physical differences, they don’t matter at this point. Women are so wonderful that way – when many of us gather, we relax, open up and want to share.
Adelaide Hoodless must have felt similarly over a century ago, when she was invited to speak at the Farmer’s Institute Ladies Night in Stoney Creek. The tragic death of her son due to drinking contaminated milk ignited her passion for advocacy and an educational movement for women, and from there forward she spent her lifetime accomplishing profound, unmeasurable tasks to the benefit of everyone then, and all of us today...
These were the beginnings of the Women’s Institute, when in 1897 Adelaide Hoodless, together with Erland and Janet Lee, persuaded 101 women to listen. The initial purpose was to improve the conditions of life for rural women through the promotion of domestic science education. This mandate was soon expanded to include self-improvement, government lobbying and community betterment – causes which still remain strong.
Over time, Women’s Institute Advocacy has included:
Lobbying to make it mandatory for traffic to stop in both directions for school buses with flashing lights
Making mandatory the use of breathalyzer and blood tests to determine sobriety
Campaigning for the listing of antidotes on all products containing toxic ingredients
Lobbying for reflective paint or imbedded markers on the centerlines of highways
Campaigning for using reflective paint on the sides of railway cars
Advocacy for the pasteurization of milk
Current (and visible on their website) advocacy includes:
The lack of knowledge of human nutrition, cooking skills and wellness practices
The lack of veterinarians licensed to care for large animals in rural areas of Northern Ontario
Lack of locally produced and processed chickens in Northern Ontario
Still advocating against the consumption of raw milk
Over the years and quite rapidly, the Women’s Institute grew by bounds and leaps. In 1919, the Federated Women’s Institutes of Ontario (FWIO) was organized to give women a much stronger voice, and later that year the Federated Women’s Institutes of Canada (FWIC) was organized to coordinate the work of the various provincial organizations. Currently across Canada, there are over 10,000 members.
Through the years the Erland Lee Home in Stoney Creek was never forgotten, as it was the birthplace which first united the blocks of strength the Women’s Institute has grown to today. In 1961 the home received its first historical designation, and in 1972, it was purchased by FWIO, and opened to the public as the Erland Lee Museum. In 1995 the museum was designated as a historic home under the Ontario Heritage Act, and in 2003 it was granted status as a National Historic Site of Canada.
As I listen to the history and the women’s stories full of pride for being part of the Women’s Institute and all it accomplishes today, I feel fortunate to be sitting in this little kitchen with them – which although a newer part of the building, carries so much history next to it (If the walls could only talk!)
I’m then taken on a tour of the Museum, as the ladies share its history. The museum itself contains three floors of original Victorian furniture and furnishings, with an emphasis on the history of the Lee family, and the events surrounding the founding of the Women’s Institute. For example, the dining room table on which Janet Lee wrote the first Women’s Institute constitution still stands in its original location. The farmhouse is complemented by an 1873 carriage house, which contains two floors of local history exhibits.
Erland Lee Museum is certainly a local gem worth a visit.
But the journey has not always been a simple one. In 2009, the FWIO closed Erland Lee Museum due to expected deficits and much needed repairs were required as are always in an older building. But women can move mountains, and when a few of the Women’s Institute – calling themselves “Friends of the Lee” – would not accept the decision to close the museum, they became determined to raise the money to make the necessary repairs to the heritage building. Since then, “Friends of the Lee” has raised enough funds to build a separate and accessible washroom, concrete walkway, improve the surrounding landscape, clean up the inside of the building, fix leaks and even reopen the gift shop.
The Friends of the Lee still exists today as a non-profit group, and continues to raise money through events and donations toward the preservation and protection of the Erland Lee Museum.
Today, the Women’s Institute continues to meet on a weekly basis in most chapters. They are supported by the Lee family’s four granddaughters, who participate in meetings and assist whenever possible. The Women’s Institute is affiliated with member societies in over 70 countries with over 9 million members strong, and even Queen Elizabeth, a member of Sandringham Women’s Institute in England, visited the Stoney Creek site on Ridge Road in 1959.
For one hundred years, Women’s Institute members have been working together for family, home, community and country. Members enjoy being part of an active, enthusiastic, dedicated organization with an impressive history, and membership to a local branch provides you with membership to the FWIO, FWIC, and ACWW.
There are currently over 700 branches across the province, and members are encouraged to participate by bringing up their concerns, which are drawn up into resolutions, discussed at Branch, District and Provincial levels, and when passed, sent to appropriate levels of government. Women’s Institute is the perfect example that together, we can move mountains.
I connected with the ladies who welcomed me into their group, even for the day, I am thankful for their warm welcome and realization that being a woman means being part of a much larger purpose, where everything is possible if you work in unison, and stick together. Yes, together women can move mountains! •