Preserving Community Histories


Susan Robertson

Susan Robertson will speak on preserving community histories.  In her own words … “Ontario Women’s Institutes started compiling local histories in the late 1940’s and 1950’s.  Each Branch was encouraged to start History books to record the local histories of their village and rural community.  These smaller centres wouldn’t have their histories recorded if locals didn’t do it.  Where were the one room schools located?  Where were the saw mills and who built them?  What did farmers grow and where was their market?  Who were the families that lived on these farms up to 200 years ago and are their descendants still in the area?  Questions like these and many more need to be recorded. The Women’s Institute Tweedsmuir Histories do just this.”

Susuan Robertson is the current Tweedsmuir Coordinator for the Bainsville Women’s Institute and for the Glengarry District Women’s Institute.  The Glengarry books record only Women’s Institute information.  Local history is to be kept up in the Branch Books

Tweedsmuir History Books (or Tweedsmuirs as they are commonly known) capture and preserve local community history in a unique way. They vary in form from a simple scrapbook to an elaborate series of volumes bound in leather, wood or the more formal blue-and-gold cover. Tweedsmuirs comprise a variety of information; for example, they usually include a history of the:

  • local Women’s Institute Branch
  • earliest settlers in an area
  • agricultural practices and individual farms
  • industries that formed the basis of the local economy
  • social institutions and public buildings, such as churches, schools and community centers
  • local personalities, such as war veterans
  • and much, much more!

Beginning in 1962, under the direction of the first provincial Tweedsmuir Curator, Mrs. R.C. Walker, the first Tweedsmuir Handbook was printed. The Handbook served as a guide for local curators and outlined how to go about compiling a local history book. This set of practical guidelines provided everything from the official first pages to the table of contents, to details on the type of paper, adhesives and covers to use. Tweedsmuir History Manuals are still compiled by the FWIO (Federated Women’s Institutes of Ontario) Provincial Tweedsmuir Coordinator for use by Branch, District and Area Curators.

The History of Tweedsmuir Books

The idea of WI members writing the histories of farms, buildings and places of interest at the local level had begun in the mid-1920s. In 1925, a special standing committee of the FWIO was formed known as the Committee for Historical Research and Current Events. The Committee suggested that a little more time be given to the study of local history to gain a greater insight into the lives and thoughts of our ancestors.

By the mid-1930s, Lady Tweedsmuir, wife of Lord Tweedsmuir, Governor General of Canada, took a great interest in the Women’s Institutes in this country. While at a meeting of the Athens Women’s Institute, Lady Tweedsmuir stressed the need for preserving the history of our Canadian people. She suggested that Ontario Women’s Institute Branches keep local history books as the WIs in England did, where she had been a devoted member.

In 1940, a recently widowed Lady Tweedsmuir was delighted to approve that these histories should be named after her late husband, and so originated “The Tweedsmuir Village History Books.”

Because documenting local history was seen as a fitting project to mark the upcoming fiftieth anniversary of the Women’s Institute movement, a campaign was launched in 1945 encouraging every WI Branch in Ontario to prepare a history of their local community before the 1947 celebrations took place.

This proved a popular project, and these local histories were officially named Tweedsmuir History Books in 1947. A decade later the provincial Board reported that 989 Branches across the province were compiling Tweedsmuir History Books. A great boost to these histories was the appointment of FWIO’s first provincial Tweedsmuir History Curator in 1957, Mrs. R.C. Walker. By 1964 she reported that all levels of the organization had begun to take Tweedsmuir Books seriously, with well over 1,100 Branch histories recorded.

Mrs. Walker introduced Tweedsmuir Workshops to the volunteer curators across the province to teach the fundamentals of compiling local history books. To supplement these workshops, she released the first Tweedsmuir Handbook in 1962. “The Women’s Institutes,” writes Dr. Linda Ambrose in For Home and Country: The Centennial History of the Women’s Institutes in Ontario , “were the undisputed authorities in matters of local history, and in 1967 there was a real appetite for all the history they could serve up.”

The Institutes’ expertise in compiling local history was central to the centennial celebrations in most rural communities in 1967. Ethel Chapman, Editor of the Women’s Institute publication Home and Country , said: “They are having a wonderful time. And they are teaching the younger generations Canada’s history in a painless and delightful way.”

Today, the structure of the Women’s Institute is such that Tweedsmuir History Curators at all levels – Branch, District, Area and province – continue to compile Tweedsmuir Books which document WI events and history particular to their community and area. In addition, Curators continue to provide Tweedsmuir workshops and to exhibit the Tweedsmuir History Books at opportune WI and community events for both members and the general public.

    From the website of the FWIO (