In 1952, a 16-year-old girl named Shirleyan English boarded a train from North Bay to Union Station in Toronto at 10:30 p.m. Many of the other girls she was travelling with had never been on a train before.
They were the Farmerettes – a group of teenage girls on their way to perform farm labour in towns across southern Ontario during the Second World War.
The girls were in for a long ride.
“We arrived at Union Station late,” said English. “There was a lady from the department of agriculture or labour there to meet us and she was in a semi-panic because we almost missed our connection.”
They left North Bay at 10:30 p.m. and didn't arrive in Thedford, a community just north of Sarnia, until 4 p.m. the next day.
From there, English and the other girls were led to an old renovated flax mill where they left their suitcases on the second floor under rows and rows of cots.
The bottom floor of the two-storey building housed offices for the House Mother, the Labour Secretary and the nurse. There were laundry rooms and showers, a kitchen, and a lounge.
At dawn, the girls were led to their stations in Lampton County.
“Being in southern Ontario was a really new experience for anyone from the North,” said English.
“The first morning, they took us out to this field. There were onions growing in it and we could see rows and rows of green. I was just aghast. It seemed to go on forever.”
The farmer said, you are going to weed this.
All of this was just a fond memory for English until last year when she stumbled across a magazine article in the Rural Voice written by Bonnie Sitter. She discovered that she and the London-based author/photographer had a strange connection.
“A lot of that magazine article was about the Sitter farm,” said English about how it brought tears to her eyes. “It was like my youth flooding back to me.”
It turns out that the Sitter farm belonged to Bonnie's in-laws. It was the same farm that English was stationed at in 1952.
After becoming acquainted last year, Sitter and English realized they had a lot of information: 300 letters written by Farmerettes themselves, hundreds of black and white photos, newspaper clippings, and more.
That was when they decided they had to write a book.
Onion Skins and Peach Fuzz: Memories of Farmerettes was self-published in September. Sitter ordered 500 copies, and they have already sold out.
The book details everything about the girls' experiences during the war when they met the demand for labour shortages.
The Farmerettes joined a government-run program between 1941 and 1952. Over the course of 11 years, more than 20,000 girls aged 16 to 18 went to work.
Across Ontario, you could see posted advertisements showing men in uniform saying, “We Can't Fight If We Don't Eat.” The government sent representatives all over the province with flyers to hand out in classrooms and high schools. They also sponsored a radio show on CBC called “Help Wanted.”
Shirleyan English saw one of those flyers in the guidance office of North Bay Collegiate. That summer, she and her friend decided to sign up together.
They worked on an onion farm from May to September. As English remembers it, she would have stayed on longer if her mother had let her.
The government program gave the girls a big incentive. Their labour was paid, and if their grades were in good standing after their Easter exams, and they worked a minimum of 16 weeks, they would be excused from writing their finals.
“When we saw that, we thought, what a deal!” said English. “The girls just poured out of the North.”
Many of the girls who joined the program had never even seen a farm before. The work was hard, but English said they got used to it quickly. They weeded and hoed and harvested vegetable and fruit crops, and spent most of their time in the dirt on their knees.
They were paid 25 cents per hour, and every Friday, the House Mother would collect board, which was roughly $4.50.
In addition, the girls had a set of rules to follow. They had a curfew, and if you broke the rules, you would be given extra duties.
“It really taught us a lot of responsibility,” said English.
The process of meeting and writing the book was very serendipitous for English and Sitter. Through a series of chances and coincidences, the project progressed very quickly.
They were able to track down former Farmerettes from Fort Frances to Thunder Bay to Cornwall to Pembroke. Sitter spent her days sorting through letters and tracking people down. English wrote the introductions to each chapter and documented everything from housing to work to leisure time.
The book is a total of 168 pages and pays tribute to the long-forgotten contribution of the Farmerettes in Ontario, who saved the harvest and fed a nation.
“We all thought it was a great adventure,” said English looking back on that summer. “It was a wonderful time.”
The book is now available at locations throughout Huron County and directly from Sitter and English. For more information, visit Bonnie Sitter's website at bonniesitterphotography.wordpress.com.