Our History, People
Summer love turned into wedding vows for this Farmerette
Curated by Vanessa Cunningham
Storyteller: Isobel Gibson
November 11, 2021
Storyteller: Isobel Gibson, age 91, was part of the historical Farmerette Brigade formed in WWII to address farm labor shortages. Today, Isobel lives in Huron County, Ontario, in the same house that she moved into with her lifelong love, Joe Gibson, in 1951. She is deeply rooted to the place and rural lifestyle that she can’t image ever leaving.
It was a hot summer day in June of 1946, and Isobel was swimming with friends in a “girls only” section of the Bayfield River known as Fifth Paradise, located just outside of her rural hometown of Clinton, Ontario. It was on this day that Isobel first laid eyes on Joe, who was out fencing his father’s pastureland that ran along the section of river where the girls went to swim. When Joe noticed the girls he stopped and took the opportunity to tease them, calling out: “you realize there’s a snapping turtle in there!”. There was a commotion of screaming and scrambling as the girls hurried to get out of the water. It’s hard to forget someone who saves you from a snapping turtle (since there really was one!), especially someone as boisterous as Joe. “Joe, he was just the type of guy that you liked him, you had a good time with him,” Isobel describes.
From that day on, Isobel saw Joe around town. One place she often saw him was at the Teen Town dances, hosted by the local Lions Club. “We danced to Boogie Woogie, Opus Number One, and In The Mood, and all those songs; that’s where we learned to dance,” remembers Isobel. Joe began to take Isobel home from these dances and gradually their relationship grew into what would become a lifetime partnership.
The following year, in 1947, Isobel applied to the Farmerette program. She was 17 years old, in eleventh grade. And like many of her peers, she was motivated to join the brigade as a farm labourer to avoid writing final exams. It also helped that one of her closest friends, Joan Fines, was returning to Farmerette camp for a second season (she’d fallen in love the previous summer with another farm worker, Paul Rempel, whom she later married).
It was May when Isobel and Joan arrived in Vineland, Ontario. The trip involved a train to Toronto, followed by a boat across Lake Ontario to Port Dalhousie, and then a bus to Vineland. Says Isobel: “That took all day and we felt like we were miles and miles from home!”
Isobel and Joan were stationed on the farm of A.W. Smith. The name may sound familiar: A.W. was the brother of E.D. Smith, the well-known owner and producer of jams, syrups, and pie fillings. The girls were boarded in a big farmhouse that contained various rooms for the approximately 20 other Farmerettes there. Isobel and Joan shared a room at the front of the house, which was so small it barely had enough room for the single bunkbed, chair, and bedside stand that they shared. Most of their meager earnings went towards paying for this room in addition to meals, which were prepared by a housemother who watched over the girls.
Days on the farm were long. At dawn, dressed in multiple layers to keep out the cold, damp morning chill, the girls piled onto a tractor-pulled flatbed wagon. They arrived at the fields by 7 am and usually worked for 11 hours, hoeing and picking all kinds of fruits, including gooseberries, currants, strawberries, peaches, and cherries. These are some of the most adored fruits of southern Ontario, but picking them is hard, back-breaking work. For example, gooseberries are thorny. Strawberries are very low to the ground, although reaching them became easier for Isobel as her flexibility increased. And then there’s peach fuzz. “That was terrible stuff cause it would get in all around your neck and underneath your arms and in the bends here,” says Isobel. “Some girls got a rash so bad that they got sent home.” Lucky for her, Joan had learned a valuable trick the previous summer: apply cornstarch to your skin before picking peaches, she said, and you’ll be spared the dreaded fuzz rash.
Peach fuzz was not the only skin irritant – so was the sun! As each day warmed, the girls removed their layers and rolled up their pants legs as high as they could. Indeed, this gave them a great tan. But it left many areas exposed and also resulted in sunburns, including behind the knees and ears, very uncomfortable places to get burned.
But worse than the tiring, long days, itchy peach fuzz, and painful sunburns, was the feeling of homesickness and missing Joe. “It wasn’t like these days where you have instant, constant communication in our pocket like we do now,” says Isobel. To stay in touch, she and Joe wrote each other letters. Joe even came to visit a couple of times. He made the six-plus hour round trip to Vineland on his treasured 1942 war surplus Harley Davidson motorcycle. He’d bought it for $350 using the money he had earned out west in 1944 working on The Harvest Excursion as part of the war effort. Although the trip for Joe on his bike was much faster than the day-long journey it took Isobel to get there, it was still far. But charming Joe managed to stay on site the night he visited Isobel there. “He turned his brown eyes on the housemother and she let him sleep in the kitchen,” says Isobel. “Nobody else had a boyfriend that came and got to stay in the kitchen!”
Understandably, the other Farmerette girls were a bit jealous…that is, until they found out that Joe had a group of friends that also owned war surplus Harley Davidson motorcycles. This group called themselves the Clattering Pistons, and Joe didn’t have any choice except to return to the Vineland Farmerette Camp with the rest of the gang. The Clattering Pistons only made it out once that summer, but they made the most of it and went on a sightseeing tour of Niagara Falls.
It was on this trip that the memorable photograph of Isobel in the hollyhocks was taken. Joe loved the picture so much that he secured it in the plastic pouch of his favourite brown, felt fedora hat. The picture never left the hat, and the hat never left Joe.
When Joe wasn’t visiting Isobel, he took chocolates to her mother, Florence Chowen, to cheer her up; Joe knew that Florence would be missing her daughter. And when Isobel didn’t have Joe around, she spent her sparse leisure time with the rest of the Farmerettes. The girls passed the weekends in each other’s company, sometimes fishing in a nearby creek, often knitting, and always enjoying their time together. Once they hauled the chesterfield outside and sat under the tree, resting after a long week of working in the fields.
In time, the four months at Farmerette camp came and went.And although there were challenges, Isobel doesn’t have a single bad memory. Instead, she recalls it as a great way to spend a summer.The summer of 1947 was the only season she worked as a Farmerette, but it was a formative time in her life in various ways. For instance, it was here that she started developing her farm skills – Isobel says,“it prepared me for working in the sun and sluggin’ it out all day long!”. It was also during this time that her relationship with Joe began to flourish. When asked if she missed going back to camp, since it was such a special time after all, she joked, “I was so enthused about being a Farmerette that I married a farmer!”.So as it happened, Isobel’s love for a farmer(and farming)eventually led her to the alter in 1951, when she married Joe. By pure coincidence, they moved into the house that Isobel’s grandmother’s grandfather, Christopher Dale, had built around 1867 – do the math, and that puts the house at over 150 years old! The house had gone out of the family at some point, but returned in 1951 when Isobel and Joe moved in.
The house is an Ontario Cottage – a one-and-a-half story home – that sits on 200 acres of land, located just outside of Seaforth in Huron County. This is the place where Joe and Isobel created their rich life with each other as well as with their family, which included their four children John, Joanne, Paul, and Elizabeth.
Isobel and Joe were farmers at heart. Over the years they farmed Hereford cattle, pigs, chickens, and field grains. They also maintained a big garden in the front of their house where they grew just about everything to feed their family. Their farm was part of a larger farming community, and eventually the couple became well-known as among the first owners of a Massey-Harris combine, and for starting the first sweet corn business in their county.
Isobel also had an accomplished life as a farmer, in part thanks to her time as a Farmerette. She demonstrated skills and expertise in working long days outside, understanding the stages of farming, and attending to the diversity of tasks that are part of farming life. Some tasks were quite ordinary, like gardening, ploughing, and hauling grains to the elevator. But animal husbandry was a bit different. The learning curve was steep, and this was not something she did at Farmerette camp. One time she acted as a veterinarian’s assistant to help with the delivery of a calf from a cow with a twisted uterus. During another cow birth, she was basically the veterinarian and had to make a small incision in the cow to help the stuck calf come out. Then there was the time that a cow had pink eye. Isobel rode her Suzuki trail bike alongside the cow in an attempt to spray the purple medication in its eye. “I ended up in the dust,” she laughs. At the end of the day, she couldn’t have done it without Joe. “He helped me do whatever I set out to do,” she says.
Farming was a lot of work, but Isobel and Joe approached the work as a team, always lifting each other up. In a way it was kind of like Farmerette camp, spending the days outside with others with whom you shared a deep sense of camaraderie. Isobel’s experience as a Farmerette gave her the knowledge that this kind of life was possible. And when she found someone to live this life with… well, the rest is history. Isobel and Joe led fulfilling lives, working alongside each other each day. It was their passion for rural life and farming that brought them together, but their deep love for one another is what kept them together. These memories are only a glimpse into their great love story, but it’s clear that it is one to cherish and remember.