The Stanstead County W.I. – Celebrating a Century
On May 16th, dozens of cars converged from all directions on the tiny hamlet of Hatley, the drivers and passengers heading there to celebrate a remarkable milestone: the 100th anniversary of the Stanstead County Women’s Institute. Women’s
Institute members from all across the Eastern Townships, Austin, Brome, Bury, Kinnear’s Mills, Lennoxville and Richmond, and as far away as Quebec City, came to congratulate their Stanstead County ‘sisters’, filling every seat in St. James Hall, now the town’s Community Centre.
Orford MNA Pierre Reid and Lucie Lefebvre, assistant to Stanstead/Compton MP Jean Rousseau, were a few of the invited guests and, when Hatley mayor Denis Ferland arrived and was told to sit anywhere, he got a roar of laughter from the room full of females when he said: “I think I’ll sit with Mr. Reid!” The president-elect of the Federated Women’s Institutes of Canada, Lennoxville’s Linda Hoy, also attended along with Sheila Needham, Canada Area President of the ACWW (Association of Country Women of the World), Norma Sherrer, president of the Quebec Women’s Institute (QWI), and Judy Page Jones, president-elect of the QWI.
The Stanstead County Women’s Institute (SCWI), which now includes the Ayer’s Cliff, Hatley Centre and Hatley/ Stanstead branches, was founded in 1915, eighteen years after Canada’s first Women’s Institute was started, in Ontario. Some of its founders included Mrs. W. H. Holmes, of Way’s Mills, Mrs. Ralph Libby, of Ayer’s Cliff, and Miss R. W. Brown, of Smith’s Falls. The mission of all Women’s Institutes is timeless: “To inform women so that they may make decisions which will improve the quality of life for themselves, their fami- lies, their communities, and the world”, and has remained the same over the years.
Scotty Miller, who has been a member of the Stanstead County Women’s Institute for over sixty years, sat at a table of honour along with Lois Cooper, who also joined in the 1950’s. “A long time ago, our Institute used to organize sewing and cooking classes, and medical clinics. We were the first suppliers of hot lunches to school children in this area, we sponsored the school fair, and gave seeds to students, inspected their gardens, then gave them prizes. The Women’s Institute was a great community builder,” commented Mrs. Miller. “Many of the activities that we started were eventually taken over by the schools and the towns,” said Mrs. Cooper who learnt how to sew clothes for her entire family with the Institute’s special classes, an important skill to know sixty years ago in rural communities, when clothing stores were rare. “It was nice to get away from the work at home and the business, the family responsibilities, and come to the Women’s Institute meetings; it was a good connection. And now I can say that I probably know most of the people here today,” added Mrs. Cooper.
However, as Mrs. Miller, in her nineties, said: “Times change.” Although membership in the Stanstead County Women’s Institute was around one hundred at the club’s peak decades ago, and now sits at eighteen, the members are still very active in the community. “We give out scholarships to young women every year, and we take care of a fair exhibit and the Tea Room at the Ayer’s Cliff Fair. We also give money to local elementary schools for their libraries and breakfast programs, and make a float each year for Hatley’s Canada Day Parade,” said SCWI member Phyllis Dustin, dressed in period costume for the occasion. Phyllis’ husband, Melvin Dustin, was the only man helping tirelessly at the event, a former recipient of the Women’s Institute’s Erland Lee Award, given every year to a man who helps a branch of the W.I.
“My grandmother and my mother both belonged to the Women’s Institute. So when my kids were grown, I joined,” said Dyanne Saanum, the president of the SCWI. “When I was five years old my Mom brought me to my first meeting and asked if I wanted to help. I said ‘yes’ and she gave me an apron with ducks on it. I still have that apron, and I still like to help people,” she added.
The hosts of the celebration entertained the close to one hundred guests rather creatively. An original poem, read by two members dressed as men and impersonating ‘W.I. husbands’, was both realistic and really funny as they bemoaned the desserts they saw come out of the oven but never tasted, and losing the use of their tractors during the hay season when a float was needed for the parade. The poem was followed by a skit that had a census taker trying to gather information during a Women’s Institute meeting, with hysterical results. “How many children do you have?” he asked. “We have eleven.” “Can you afford them?” “We don’t buy them!” was the enthusiastic comeback. The census taker was soon chased from the meeting!
Delicious sandwiches, desserts and a beautiful cake made by SCWI member Jean Cass was served after the speeches and comedy, with live music provided by The Castaways as the snacks were enjoyed with coffee and tea, served properly in china cups.
At the end of the event, president Saanum presented a young maple tree to Hatley mayor Denis Ferland, to be planted on the Hatley Commons. And if you doubt the impact of those seemingly inconspicuous gestures of the Women’s Institutes, such as presenting a community with a tree, just take a good look at the magnificent maples that line and define the Hatley Commons today, planted on June 8th, 1939, by members of the Stanstead County Women’s Institute.
If you would like more information about the Stanstead County Women’s Institute, or are interested in becoming a member, call Dyanne Saamun at 819 838-5092.
SCWI president Dyanne Saanum presenting a maple tree to Hatley mayor Denis Ferland in front of St. James Hall with Orford MNA Pierre Reid and Janet McLellan to the left and Judy Page
Jones and Phyllis Dustin to the right.
The longest standing members of the Stanstead County Women’s Institute, with more than 120 years between them, are Lois Cooper (left) and Mildred (Scotty) Miller, seen here with MP Jean Rousseau’s assistant, Lucie Lefebvre.
Seen here at the cutting of the 100th anniversary cake are (l. to r.): president-elect FWIC, Linda Hoy; president of the QWI, Norma Sherrer; SCWI president Dyanne Saanum; and Sheila Needham, Canada Area President of the ACWW.