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Skip Navigation LinksSimcoe County > Archives > For Home and Country: Exploring Women’s Institute records at the Simcoe County Archives

For Home and Country: Exploring Women’s Institute records at the Simcoe County Archives


The Women's Institute (WI) formed in Ontario in 1897 as a women-focused offshoot of the Farmers' Institutes. The Department of Agriculture of Ontario initially sponsored both programs, with the expressed purpose of the WI being the promotion of home economy and practical education for rural women. In practice, local WI branches served as non-denominational social clubs where women could gather with friends, learn, and organize.

Mrs. J. Wiggins and Mrs. A McDermid, the first Secretary and Director of the Severn Bridge Women's Institute
 TR-2005-87     ​Mrs. J. Wiggins and Mrs. A. McDermid, the first Secretary and Director of the Severn Bridge WI, East Simcoe District WI Tweedsmuir History, pg. 52​

Women's Institute branches have been active in Simcoe County since the early 1900s. They have had a well-documented, very important role in local heritage preservation. In 1928, Simcoe Area Director Agnes Stocking (Waub​uashene WI) and Area Secretary Elizabeth Sutherland (Stroud WI) petitioned the Public Library in Barrie for a small space in which to house a Simcoe County Museum. ​​

Agnes​​​ Stocking, 1944

971-15   Agnes​​​ Stocking, 1944,  Simcoe Area WI Tweedsmuir Vol. 11925-71, pg. 27

Elizabeth Sutherland, Simcoe Area Women's Institute Secretary

971-15   Elizabeth Sutherland, undated
  Simcoe Area WI Tweedsmuir Vol. 1, 1925-71, pg. 28

As the collection grew, the Simcoe County Museum was relocated first to the Registry Office in Barrie in the 1930s and then to its permanent home on Highway 26. The local branches were likewise instrumental in the establishment of a county-level archives. It was through their efforts and dedication that the Simcoe County Archives was founded in 1966 as a County Centennial Project. Through their continued support, the Simcoe County Archives was also able to start an in-house microfilming program. 

Simcoe County Women's Institute Museum, ca. 1934 ​984-103    Simcoe County Women's Institute Museum, ca. 1934

Simcoe County Museum and Archives, ca. 1970

Simcoe County Museum and Archives, ca. 1970

from the Simcoe County Archives Photograph collection

​Another major project undertaken by WI branches has been the creation of community history books, known as Tweedsmuir Community History Books (or Tweedsmuir Histories). The women of the WI created these records to document the settlement history of their towns, but the books also serve to illustrate the social history of their communities throughout the twentieth century. They provide an incredible amount of information for historians, genealogists, and researchers.

971-15​ Decorative cover of a Simcoe Area WI Tweedsmuir

The Simcoe County Archives has been the main repository for local Women's Institute records for over 50 years. The Archives hold branch minutes and administrative records as well over 200 Tweedsmuir Histories and branch scrapbooks​. This blog post will explore the history of the Women's Institute in Simcoe County, with an emphasis on the role of the branches in the collection and preservation of local histories.

​A Brief History of Federated Women's Institute in Ontario (FWIO)

The establishment of the Federated Women's Institutes of Ontario is credited to Adelaide Hunter Hoodless and Erland and Janet Lee. Adelaide Hoodless, born in Brant County in 1857, was a tireless educational reformer. Her passion was for the education of women, specifically in the areas of domestic work, health and sanitation, and household labour.

An address given by Mrs. Hoodless at the Ontario Agricultural College at Guelph on the subject of educational programing for rural women caught the attention of Erland Lee, a member of the South Wentworth Farmers' Institute, and his wife Janet. Together, the three endeavoured to establish a “Women's Department of Home Economy in affiliation with the Farmers' Institute". The organization would eventually come to be named the Women's Institute and its official constitution was adopted in Stoney Creek, Ontario on February 25, 1897.

Within the first ten years of the WI's existence in Ontario, it was reported that 400 local branches had been founded across the province. These local Women's Institutes came to be organized under the umbrella of the FWIO by Areas, Districts, and Branches. ​

​East Simcoe District WI members meeting in Orillia, around 1910

TR-2005-87     East Simcoe District WI members meeting in Orillia, ca. 1910

East Simcoe District WI Tweedsmuir History, pg. ​9

The Women's Institute in Simcoe County

As a county largely comprised of rural communities, it is no surprise that the WI took root in Simcoe County. Over the course of the WI's history in the county, there have been over 130 individual branches established. While many of these have since disbanded or amalgamated, records for many of the individual branches survive and have been deposited at the Simcoe County Archives.

West District WI members meeting near New Lowell, around 1919

980-38  West District WI members meeting near New Lowell, ca. 1920

West Simcoe District WI Tweedsmuir Vol. 1, pg.18

​​​​Some of the earliest WI branches to form were in Wyebridge (1901), Cookstown (Sr Branch, 1901), Bond Head (1902), and Creemore (1902). Women's Institute districts formed relatively early to represent the growing number of branches in different parts of the County. The original four districts were:

  • Simcoe South District, formed in 1901
  • Simcoe Centre District, formed in 1902
  • Simcoe West District, formed in1902
  • Simcoe East District, formed in 1910

Subsequent districts later formed and various reorganizations took place. The Simcoe North District formed in 1949 and the Simcoe Kempenfeldt District was created in 1966. The former took on some existing branches located in the north end of the County, while the latter absorbed various branches from the Simcoe South and Simcoe East Districts.

Today, Simcoe County's WI are again organized into four districts:

A major development in the history of Simcoe County's Women's Institutes took place in 1925, when the Simcoe Area was formed.

​971-15   Simcoe Area WI Officers, 1944
Simcoe Area Tweedsmuir WI Vol. 1, 1925-71, pg. 157​

​This area-level organization would work to represent the shared interests and objectives of all WI branches within the County of Simcoe.  The matter was put forward at a general meeting of the four districts, which took place on August 5, 1925. At that time Agnes Stocking was selected as the first Director.

The first meeting of the Simcoe Area was held in Barrie at the Public Library on July 7, 1926. At that time two committees were formed. The first was to take a general survey of material mortality and general health conditions within the County. The second was a historical research committee formed with the expressed mandate of “preserving the history of our County" (Simcoe Area WI Tweedsmuir Vol. 1, pg. 10). ​

A Letter from Mrs. W. H. Todd, Convener of the Committee on “Pioneer Research", to Mrs. Orchard, October 15, 1926 ​

971-15  A Letter from Mrs. W. H. Todd, Convener of the Committee on
“Pioneer Research", to Mrs. Orchard, October 15, 1926 ​

 Simcoe Area WI Tweedsmuir, 1925-71, pg. 18​

The above letter, written by the Simcoe Area Convention's first Convener of the Committee on “Pioneer Research" Mrs. W.H. Todd, gives a strong indication of the type of historical information that was of interest to local women of the WI. Though the practice of compiling and keeping Tweedsmuir Histories would not officially begin until the 1930s, the activities of this committee can be considered a blueprint for the Tweedsmuir Histories.

​Tweedsmuir Histories

One of the WI's most significant contributions to preserving county history has been the creation of community history records, known as Tweedsmuir Histories.  The object of the Tweedsmuirs is to document local history and ensure its availability for future generations.

The FWIO logo and motto embossed on a Tweedsmuir History

By the mid-1920s, WI members were already undertaking efforts to record local settler history, however it was in the 1930s-1940s that the books became a central focus of the WI. The name “Tweedsmuir Histories" was adopted around that time. The name was inspired by Lady Tweedsmuir​, the wife of the Governor General of Canada​. She had taken a personal interest in the endeavours of Canada's WI and stressed the need to preserve local history. Compiling “village histories" was a common practice for WI branches in England, and it was readily adopted in Canada.

A letter addressed to Mrs. Robert Boyes (Churchill WI)  from Lady Tweedsmuir, dated October 15, 1940 

971-15​     A letter addressed to Mrs. Robert Boyes (Churchill WI)  from Lady Tweedsmuir, dated October 15, 1940,  Simcoe Area WI Tweedsmuir, 1925-71, pg. 20

The project gained momentum as the 50th anniversary for the WI in Ontario approached, with many branches completing the first books in time for the 1947 celebrations. The first Area Tweedsmuir “Curator" for Simcoe County was Mrs. Robert Kell of the Gilford WI (1963-1968). Many Tweedsmuir Histories were also completed in time for Canada's Centennial in 1967. 

Tweedsmuir History Workshop being held at Minesing for the Districts of Simcoe Centre, North and East on April 26th 1967TR-2005-87     ​East Simcoe District WI Tweedsmuir History, pg. 97​

​Tweedsmuir Histories exist in a variety of forms, but the majority are organized into albums or scrapbooks. Many are bound in the official blue and gold colours of the WI, but others have decorative leather or painted covers. While each Tweedsmuir is fundamentally a unique record of its community, many follow a similar format for the collection and presentation of historical information. Some frequently included categories are:

  • Branch histories
  • Membership profiles and biographies
  • Settlement and community profiles
  • Local anniversaries and special events
  • Local fundraisers, including war efforts
  • Industrial and agricultural practices
  • Local family histories
  • Farm histories and "House Logs"
  • Public building histories, including churches and schools
  • Profiles of Mrs. Alfred Watt Memorial Scholarship winners
While the original focus of these records was on the early settler history, the books offer a wealth of information about the social history of Simcoe County throughout the twentieth century. 

A Century Farm, or "Farm History" included in the Udney WI Tweedsmuir, ca. 1970

​993-19     A Century Farm, or "Farm History" included in the Udney WI Tweedsmuir, ca. 1970. From the Udney WI fonds​

The Simcoe County Archives holds over 200 Tweedsmuir Histories and scrapbooks created by the County's Area, Districts, and Branches. A working list of all the Tweedsmuir Histories held at the Simcoe County Archives is avail​able for review: SCA Tweedsmuir History Inventory

The prevalence of the WI in the county has meant that the Tweedsmuirs provide wide geographic coverage. This combined with the sheer variety of local history captured collectively make the Tweedsmuirs one of the Archives most important resources.  


The WI has played a major role in the collection and preservation of local heritage materials in the County of Simcoe.  Through the curation of Tweedsmuir Histories and the establishment of local heritage organizations, the women of the WI not only recorded Simcoe County's local history, but also ensured that it would be kept and made available to all citizens in perpetuity.

With the assistance of the FWIO, forty of Simcoe County's Area and District WI Tweedsmuir Histories were digitized in 2019.  These can be accessed through​ the FWIO Digital Collections​.


Ambrose, Linda M., and Margaret Kechnie. “Social Control or Social Feminism?: Two Views of the Ontario Women's Institutes." Agricultural History 73, no. 2 (1999): 222–37. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3744661.

Kechine, Margaret C. Organizing Rural Women: The Federated Women's Institutes of Ontario, 1897-1919. McGill-Queen's University Press, 2003. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7zwfj.

Tennant, Nancy. “Women's Institutes in Peace and War." Social Work (1939-1970) 2, no. 3 (1942): 99–104. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43759704.

The Federated Women's Institutes of Ontario. Ontario Women's Institute Story. T. H Best Printing Limited, 1972.

 “Tweedsmuir Community History Books." The Federated Women's Institutes of Ontario. Accessed September 15, 2021. https://fwio.on.ca/tweedsmuir-history-books/​ 


Further Reading: