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Muskoka Women Seized a New Mandate Amidst the First World War’s Upheavals

Article by J. Patrick Boyer

When a 1914 war began, many smugly opined “the fighting will all be over before Christmas.” But eight global empires enmeshed in deadly modern warfare vaporized that glib notion soon enough. The war stretched to almost five Christmases. And, like all wars, it grew. The 25,000 soldiers Canada initially pledged became 500,000 in the marathon slaughtering of 16 million humans. It was not called “the Great War” because it was wonderful, but vast.

In the stubborn dawning of women’s freedom, the years 1914 to 1918 became the sunrise. Caught up in the emotions of war, and subject to the propaganda and censorship mind-control of their societies, women did whatever was required for survival. For Muskokans, that meant serving the British Empire’s “noble cause.” 

As army recruitment kept thinning the district’s workforce, tasks of the missing men became women’s work. Even their “traditional” roles – baking, sewing, knitting, performing music, staging concerts, raising children, gardening and tending the needy – acquired a decidedly different hue in this altered context. Successfully “doing their bit” to win the war, venturing into a male universe which had long corseted them in diminished roles, women developed increasing self-confidence by taking up their new mandate.

In 1908, for instance, Carrie Bowerman Thompson and music teachers Eva Bastedo, Violet Kirk and Wilma Warne had formed the women’s musical group “Clef Club.” At first, they played music for their private enjoyment. Then, with other female musicians, they began annual public concerts in Bracebridge. Now they stepped that up with many patriotic fund-raising concerts, in 1916 earning enough to buy an ambulance for Muskoka’s Overseas Battalion. Transitioning from private to public roles, from personal satisfaction to home front leadership, by this stage of the war was not exceptional but expected.

The home front felt at one with Muskokans fighting along Europe’s western front. That’s what “world war” really meant. In these reciprocating spaces of civilian and soldier, Muskoka’s increasingly self-assured women discovered factory work and driving motorized vehicles, hands-on farming and marking ballots in elections

Young women of wealthier families, drawn by the euphoria of war, sought adventure in dangerous places. Many went overseas as Red Cross nurses or volunteer nursing sisters with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Some 20 Muskoka nurses were among the 2,333 serving overseas, a quarter of all Canada’s registered nurses. They cared for the dying and wounded, administering anaesthetics and morphine in stationary hospitals, field hospitals and casualty clearing stations. Most worked in France, others in England, some with the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, many aboard hospital ships.

May Bird, youngest daughter of Mary and Henry, owner of Bracebridge’s prospering woollen mill, was keen to nurse soldiers and left at the outbreak of war. Nurse Grace Mahaffy, daughter of judge Arthur and Alice Mahaffy, departed Bracebridge to tend wounded soldiers in England, remaining for the entire war. Mabel McGibbon, a descendent of Muskoka’s lumbering Boyd family, went with her physician husband, Peter, to Britain. She assisted with casualties In London while he performed surgeries at the front. 

North Muskoka’s nurses serving abroad included Olga Bushfield, Margaret Duncan, J. Kehoe, Zoe Loy, C. Milton, Jean Moir, Maude Pym and Rena White. Huntsville’s Norma Fisher, in a class by herself, served in a foreign country without going overseas. When America joined the war, the U.S. Navy cast a wide net and Norma fetched up at Brooklyn Harbour Hospital in New York, with military rank in the navy’s nursing service.

In their closeness to battle, nurses danced with war’s risks and rigours. A number died when Canadian military hospitals were bombed; fifteen of Canada’s nurses died from disease; another fourteen perished, with their patients, when Germans torpedoed hospital ship Llandovery Castle.

May Bird, active at the frontlines, tended wounded men at military hospitals in England, Russia and Egypt. In January 1916, writing home from Alexandria, she thanked the Bracebridge Women’s Institute for a Christmas package.

“What big things you are doing at home,” she enthused from Egypt. “Here we are into another winter and still this awful war goes on with little change. As soon as one convoy departs, another arrives and our daily hospital tasks continue.”

Muskokans focused on their daily tasks, too, filling war-orders at the three tanneries and Bird’s woollen mill. Henry Bird even extended Muskoka’s home front closer to the soldiers by opening “Muskoka Rooms” at 20 Craven Street in London. Officers, privates, nurses and “everyone hailing from Muskoka serving overseas” could meet up, get news and relax. The other Bird daughters, Margaret and Catherine, moved to London and took charge. The rooms, “furnished as home-like and comfortable as possible” with writing tables and stationery, offered “light refreshment and smokes, always available free of charge.” District newspapers were on hand. Their register of all visitors, including temporary London addresses, helped drop-ins find friends from Muskoka.

Most Muskoka women had no opportunity for overseas service. Channeling their patriotic energies into the war effort entailed raising crops, making blankets, filling vacated store and office positions, raising money, knitting socks and sending care packages. From their kitchens came extensive compilations of recipes, such as The Bracebridge Ladies Cook Book, published “in aid of the Women’s Patriotic League” and sold to raise home front funds. They baked durable fruit cakes and mailed them to soldiers.

Muskoka newspapers carried recipes for baked goods that could be made from “available ingredients.” Whether baking for soldiers or cooking for families, women had to contend with wartime shortages. Huntsville’s Forester, Bracebridge’s Gazette, Gravenhurst’s Banner and the Muskoka Herald listed “alternatives” to flour, coffee, butter, meats and other foodstuffs rationed or no longer available.

To stretch resources, Ottawa also declared “meatless” days. By the winter of 1917, “heatless” days were added, to save wood and coal. Believing further savings could be made using “daylight saving,” Ottawa also used its War Measures power to impose the time switch as a Canada-wide measure. Having no choice, Muskoka families complied. The hour difference played havoc, most of all, with essential cycles followed by farmers – an increasing number of them women.

Women constantly organized community events. Their concerts, dances, picnics, and quilting bees maintained morale, while raising war effort funds. Needlework, certainly a customary activity, was a relaxing yet productive use of spare moments between chores. Just as Muskoka’s sheep farmers and Bird’s woollen mill were in overdrive producing blankets for armies overseas, the district was alive with thousands of clicking hand-held needles.

Muskoka’s women used traditional work to advantage, supporting war, helping advance their position in society. Each week knitting clubs produced socks and scarves while sewing circles made pyjamas, handkerchiefs and wound dressings. A specialty dressing produced by Huntsville’s patriotic women was of white cotton, knitted 13 centimetres wide and a metre long, then wound tight for nurses overseas binding badly damaged arms, legs, heads and torsos. In Raymond, women organized a Women’s Institute branch and knitted socks for the soldiers. Their first parcel, consisting of 10 pairs, was mailed to the Red Cross in Toronto and forwarded across the Atlantic.

Gravenhurst council opened its chambers to Red Cross volunteers for war work. Where at other times resolutions were debated and bylaws passed, women knitted thousands of wool socks and packed hundreds of packets for soldiers containing cigarettes, chocolate, combs, soap, tooth powder and handkerchiefs.

Rosseau’s 18-member Red Cross chapter knitted hundreds of skeins of wool into socks, sweaters, gloves and mitts for “the boys of the village.” The women included toiletries and cakes with their parcels, but adamantly refused to add cigarettes. What was the point of fighting for noble British principles only to then tempt, even encourage, the boys to sin? However, five of Rosseau’s volunteers, less high-minded, considered cigarette smoke incidental to chlorine gas and artillery bombardment, perhaps even a small comfort in such trying conditions. Their breakaway group included smokes in every parcel sent.

Women quilt makers turned the era’s popular “signature quilts” into their war effort, getting people to pay for sewing on their names, then selling raffle tickets for the unique keepsake. Huntsville’s Benevolent Society made a quilt of red-and-white squares, using red-thread on the white ones to stitch the signatures of dozens who’d paid ten cents per name.

In Gravenhurst, the Women’s Patriotic Committee sewed names of 287 south Muskokans into their signature quilt. In its centre they fashioned GRAVENHURST and 1915 CANADA, adding names of town councillors, light and water commission members and themselves: Mrs. Abbey (president), Mrs. Brennan, Mrs. Browne, Mrs. Fournier, Miss Grant, Mrs. Mickle and Miss Mowry. After it was raffled off, nobody expected to see it again. Today, miraculously returned from war-torn Europe, it is displayed in the lobby of Gravenhurst’s town hall.

With letter-writing the only way to communicate between home and war fronts, Great War corresponding was incessant. Copies of Muskoka’s newspapers or clippings from them were a staple postal feature. Mothers, wives, sisters, fiancées and daughters penned letters to their soldiers. Mail service was exceptionally good, yet with wartime disruptions soldiers could go weeks without anything, sometimes getting a bunch of letters at once, other times, nothing. German submarines sank many merchant ships, delivering mail to oblivion. Battles at the western front slowed or prevented delivery. Censors’ intrusive work caused additional delays and complications. Cherished letters from overseas were re-read, shared, bundled in ribbon, saved and carefully treasured, often alongside a family bible.

In 1917, Bracebridge citizens gave each of the town’s soldiers in the 122nd Battalion departing for Europe handsome tan-leather writing kits – a classy version of every mother’s final farewell, “Don’t forget to write!”

When war ended, Muskoka’s women had changed. The momentum was forward. There’d be no going back.

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