EXETER – Author and photographer Bonnie Sitter’s latest book Onion Skins and Peach Fuzz: Memories of Ontario Farmerettes digs into the little-known story of young women who left their homes to work on farms during the Second World War to address the labour shortage from the war.
Sitter learned about the farmerettes as she downsized after the passing of her late husband, Conrad Sitter. As she went through old family photos she stumbled upon a photo of three women in work clothes sitting on a car. The photo was labelled “Farmerettes, about 1946” and piqued Sitter’s interest.
“I had never learned about farmerettes,” said Sitter. “I thought it was about time that I started learning.”
Sitter said that as she began asking around about the farmerettes she was unable to find anybody who knew their story or who they were, so she decided to research them. Her research culminated in her writing an article for the magazine the Rural Voice, which unknown to her at the time, would put her on the path to gather all of her research into a book.
Sitter’s article found its way into the hands of Shirleyan English, a retired journalist with the London Free Press who spent a summer in her youth as a farmerette.
“She actually had worked for my in-laws on the Sitter farm in 1952,” said Sitter. “She dated the man that became my brother-in-law. We could have been sisters-in-law.”
Sitter said that English described the time as “the best summer of her life” and looked back on it fondly.
Sitter said that in 1995, English put an article in papers across Ontario searching for people who remembered the farmerettes. She received about 300 letters responding to the article.
Sitter said, “Not all of them told their stories… but there were enough that could be the basis to start a book.”
When Sitter learned about the 1995 article and the responses she immediately said that they were going to write a book.
While English took on the task of writing about how the farmerettes began and their daily lives, Sitter began reading through the letters and searching for their writers.
Sitter said that she often ran into dead ends while searching where numbers had been disconnected or relatives said that they weren’t around anymore, but that trend of cold trails didn’t last.
“I did meet with some success, “said Sitter. “I started realizing that since nobody knew about these people, I needed to work really hard and get the book out as quickly as possible… I wanted the ladies who are still around and have their letters in the book to be able to read their stories. That has meant so much to them.”
Sitter said that farmerettes haven’t received the recognition they deserve in Canada, and that she hopes she can help change that.
“It’s an important story that hasn’t been told,” she said.
Onion Skins and Peach Fuzz: Memories of Ontario Farmerettes is available at locations throughout Huron County and from Sitter and English.