Jeff Heuchert email@example.com
Where others like it have fallen victim to an aging population and declining membership, the Hampstead Women's Institute has stood the test of time, or, 110 years, to be exact.
The area branch of the Federated Women's Institute of Ontario was started by a group of 24 women in 1903 as a way to educate its members and improve the conditions in the lives of their families. Over time the group's focus would expand to include self-improvement, government lobbying, and community betterment. The branch was one of the earliest to form in the province. The inaugural meeting was held in the small home of Margaret McLaren at the corner of what is today Road 107 and Line 47 north of Shakespeare.
On Sept. 24 of this year, the branch's remaining 12 members, along with family and friends and representatives from the larger women's institute organization and local government, gathered in front of the existing board and batten house at the intersection to unveil a new Ontario Heritage Trust plaque commemorating the women's institute's legacy in the community.
Hampstead WI president, Winnie Trachsel, notes a plaque marking the site of the group's first meeting was placed on the property some 30 years ago, but is located about 30 feet from the road on private property and isn't easily accessible to the public. The new plaque, placed near the roadway, is one way for newcomers and visitors to the area to be introduced to the unique character of the region, she says.
"Local markers stimulate public awareness and pride in Ontario's past," she adds. "They also commemorate significant events which have helped to shaper our society and the many contributions made by women."
According to information collected by Isabel Diehl – granddaughter of first Hampstead WI president, Mrs. Dougal McMillan – for the Tweedsmuir history book, the Hampstead branch was the first of several women's institutes in the area to sponsor the girls' homemaking clubs, later renamed the 4-H clubs, which taught sewing, cooking, and gardening skills.
The Hampstead women would meet monthly to socialize and learn how to perform important domestic duties like soap and butter making, caring for poultry, and cleaning homes. From these meetings the women acquired leadership skills and homemaking abilities. During the war years, they knitted socks and made blankets for the troops.
When a new township hall opened, they purchased a piano. Over the years the women have also contributed to various causes through the Associated Country Women of the World.
Trachsel says it has been the many personal development opportunities that have meant the most to her.
"I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for the WI," she adds. "I was a meek and timid little lady, and the WI has helped me become myself."
The Hampstead Women's Institute may be a far cry from the nearly 70 members it attracted in and around the 1920s, but Trachsel says those who continue to meet once a month and educate themselves about various topics remain as passionate as ever.
"The need isn't there like it was when (the Hampstead branch) originated," she adds, "but we are committed to the community, and as long as we can help and be productive in our work, I guess we'll remain a branch."