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Story of Ontario’s Farmerettes shared in Essex


Co-authors Bonnie Sitter and Shirleyan English pose with their new book, “Onion Skins and Peach Fuzz: Memories of Ontario Farmerettes,” during a special event held at the Essex Railway Station last Thursday evening.

by Adam Gault

A recently published book on the subject of “farmerettes,” young women who helped to run Ontario’s farms mainly during the male labour shortage of the Second World War, was the featured topic during a special presentation the Essex County Historical Society hosted at the Essex Railway Station last Thursday evening.  

Co-authors, Bonnie Sitter and Shirleyan English spoke about their book, “Onion Skins and Peach Fuzz: Memories of Ontario Farmerettes,” during the event.

From 1941 to 1953, 20,000 young women from across the province descended on small town and rural farms to assist with planting, harvesting, weeding, and a myriad of other essential farm services to help support the war effort, and take the place of many young men who themselves were overseas with the war effort.

While sorting through photos following her husband’s passing several years ago, Sitter discovered photographs with three young women in them, with the caption of “Farmerettes 1946” written on the back, taken at her in-laws Thedford (Lambton County) farm during the program.

While researching the subject, Sitter wrote an article for the publication “The Rural Voice” on the subject of farmerettes in 2018, which led to English writing a letter to publication’s editor stating that she had worked on the Sitter’s Thedford farm in 1952.

This led to a meeting between the two, where a collection of letters played a deciding role in the decision to write the book, which would be entitled “Onion Skins and Peach Fuzz: Memories of Ontario Farmerettes.”

“Funnily enough, I had been going to write this story in 1995, when I left the [London] Free Press,” explained English after retiring from her journalism career. “I put an ad in every newspaper from across Ontario that I could think of, and I got 300 letters back [from former farmerettes]. Once thing after another interfered and I never wrote the story. But I kept all the letters.”

Using the letters, Sitter got in contact with many ladies who wrote them nearly 25-years earlier, who were more than happy to share their stories for the project.

Many of the young women who were involved in the program had no prior farming experience, but the hard work and comradery made the experience one of the most memorable and enjoyable summers of their lives.

“When you’re 16, you think this is a fabulous offer. You’re away from home and they’re going to pay you,” English explained. “It’s the comradery between the girls. The work was very hard, especially for people who had never done any farm work.”

Locally, farms in Kingsville and Cottam had farmerette programs during the period, with Boys Brigade drill programs offered in Harrow and Leamington during the same period.

Copies of the book can be purchased online through bonniesitterphotography.wordpress.com, or in person at the Kingsville Archives.

© 2020 The Essex Free Press ltd.

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