A Student’s Life in the Summer ’42

The years go by — how many since 1942? And I am still here!

It was a great privilege to return in July 2017 to a place that I treasure in my memories: Vineland, Ont. This was the experimental farm on the Niagara Peninsula where I and two other girls from OAC spent the summer of 1942 with different horticultural jobs.

We anticipated an introduction to various experimental procedures, possibly leading to new varieties of corn or some other harvest. One strategy was to cover the plant to avoid ad hoc pollination and then to introduce pollen from a desirable plant. Tasting the new product was also a part of our job.

While such experimental procedures were welcomed, the bulk of our work included scrubbing old plant pots for future re-use – something I suspect is now done by a machine. We improved on this monotonous job by singing and storytelling. I have also many memories of travelling in the back of a pickup truck from orchard to orchard to attend to various jobs. The best one was to test new peach crosses directly off the new tree.

While today’s Vineland Research and Innovation Centre is strictly a working place, without residences (human or horsey), this was not the case in my time. Faculty lived in homes across the street, while the greenhouse and stable staff had houses on the station.

That first year, there was only a male dormitory. When it came time to decide how to house four single women, including one from a Toronto lab, the station created Spinster’s Hall in a large empty house. Although the original furnishings were sparse, female residents of the station were quick to add from their surplus. Their most memorable contribution was a picture of Queen Victoria – perhaps to keep us honest!

Three daily meals were provided to all students (at cost) by a cook in her small assigned house. Lake Ontario and a wharf were only five minutes away and there was also a tennis court, ready for a nightly workout. What more could you want? I was happy to join the tennis. As far as I recall, there were enough of us, between faculty and students, for a personal game rating, and even to field a team to compete Saturday afternoons in St. Catharines.

Once a group of us were rounded up to visit a dance at the nearby Vineland community, although specific details escape me.

Graduate students from the University of Toronto and some professors in plant pathology came down from Toronto to use the station’s equipment. The expert staff included provincial entomologists Peter, who was hard of hearing, and Bill, who had a speech impediment. One day they were working in the field when a man came by and asked for directions. Bill could not articulate an answer and Peter did not hear the question, so the man walked on – a story now more meaningful to me in light of my personal hearing degradation.

In 1942 the war was still on, and we would often see training planes from the nearby St. Catharines air base overhead. One small plane splash landed in the lake close to shore. It was good luck that the pilot survived.

The station housed a great barn filled with women called Farmarettes. Since the fit men were off to war, farmers lacked field hands. City girls moved to the farms to perform many simple but essential jobs. I befriended a couple of the Farmarettes. What a surprise when, a few years later, I met one of them as my future sister-in-law!

I was the only girl from the summer of 1942, to spend a second year and then a third year at Vineland. By then, there was no more Spinster Hall, and I roomed with a worker’s family.

With another OAC girl, I inspected the nurseries of the Niagara Peninsula for the entomologist of the Ontario government. [Not sure about the point here on: Yes, our appointment was a witness to the changing times: replacing one man with two girls – a single woman working alone in a field was not an option to be considered! With gasoline scarce during the war, our mode of transportation was a bicycle. That this gender replacement had other effects that were soon apparent: girls became upset with minor happenings in the kitchen, during their lunch, i.e. the changing of crying babies, etc. We also objected to sharing a single bed, while paying separate rent. It did not take us long to find another place. We moved out on the next week end.]

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