Friday, August 31, 2018

Food Will Win the War: Recruiting an Army of Food Savers

The state and federal agencies formed to tackle the food problem during World War I approached the issue from the perspectives of both the producer and the consumer. As we saw in our last post, the New York State Food Commission developed a variety of resources to assist farmers in increasing their crop and livestock yields, including supplying improved seed, providing assistance in pest and disease management, and helping to address the farm labor shortage. These programs were largely successful, but they were only part of the solution. Americans would also have to fundamentally change the way they cooked and ate their daily meals.

U.S. Food Administration poster
urging Americans to save wheat for soldiers
Since women were responsible for purchasing and preparing almost all food consumed in the home, all food conservation programs targeted housewives. The U.S. Food Administration and the state food commissions aimed to persuade women that it was their patriotic duty to adopt wartime food-saving measures, such as wheatless and porkless days. As authorities continually emphasized, there was no shortage of food in the United States; it was a matter of substituting those foods that were not needed or suitable to send overseas with those that were. But Americans were accustomed to a diet that relied heavily upon meat and bread. Meat was easy to cook and it almost always tasted good; bread was cheap and accessible. Could people be persuaded that fish, eggs, and cheese were acceptable substitutes for pork and beef, and that bread made with corn, rye, oats, and barley just as good as that made from wheat?

A small army of women stepped forward to help the government with this difficult task. Since the late 19th century, (white, middle-class) women had been working to establish domestic science as a profession; they had been successful in starting domestic science and home economics departments at colleges and universities (including the New York State College of Agriculture in Ithaca) and sending their graduates forth into the world to work in high schools, settlement houses, and extension services. For many of them, World War I must have seemed like a godsend: finally they would have the opportunity to demonstrate to the wider world just how important their discipline was. The work that women did in the home affected their families, communities, and indeed, the nation—and it was essential that they do it right.

Cornell Home Economics Faculty, 1914.
Bertha Titsworth is standing at far right.
Home economists and experts in “scientific cookery” went to work preparing menus and recipes for wartime foods. Experimental kitchens were set up across the country to test bread recipes, hoping to find the perfect formula that would use less wheat but still be palatable and easy for the home baker to make. They figured out how to make desserts without sugar, introduced housewives to unfamiliar new ingredients like soybeans, and came up with creative ways to use leftovers. They also introduced Americans to the science of nutrition, explaining what kind of foods were necessary to good health and why. They provided assurance that the changes in diet encouraged by the Food Administration would do no harm, and in fact, eating more vegetables and less sugar would probably do everyone a lot of good. 

All of this information was distributed in cookbooks, pamphlets, magazines, and newspapers, and at schools, women’s clubs, and county fairs. The Plattsburgh newspapers regularly published lists of new material on food conservation received by local public libraries, and ran columns of “Victory Menus.” Women in Clinton County also had many opportunities to learn directly from food experts. In July 1917, the Plattsburgh Sentinel reported that “women representing different sections of the county as well as the Grange and various women’s clubs” met at the Farm Bureau office in Plattsburgh “for the purpose of organizing a woman’s branch in farm bureau work as the result of the national campaign for thrift and economy.” Bertha E. Titsworth, extension specialist and faculty member from the department of home economics at Cornell, helped the women to develop the plan. Clinton County would be divided into 15 communities, with four demonstrations held each week. Meetings would be held in “Grange halls, churches or other public buildings,” and the demonstrations of cooking and preserving were to be done by a “trained lady specialist” provided by the state.

Advertisement from the Plattsburgh
Daily Republican for a bread mixer and
food grinder
Later that summer, the Plattsburgh Daily Republican printed an article (almost certainly based closely on a press release provided by the New York State Food Commission), reporting on the success of the “campaign for the enlistment of women in food conservation.” Thirty food conservation experts had been assigned to various parts of the state, “and they are not only advising housewives, but they are demonstrating conservation methods and enrolling women in the movement, with the result that a chain has been established in which the housewife in the remotest corner of the state is as active as those in the larger centers.” The offices of the home economics experts “have become bureaus of information for all questions pertaining to food and food conservation.” 

Not surprisingly, during the summer of 1917, most of the work being done related to methods of preserving fruits and vegetables for the winter. In our next post, we’ll look more at the canning craze of 1917-18 and the related war garden movement.


“Food Conservation: Circular Letter Issued by the Conservation Department of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs,” Plattsburgh Sentinel, May 19, 1917.

“Food Saving in N.Y. State,” Plattsburgh Daily Republican, June 22, 1917.

“Women in Farm Bureau Work: County Organization Perfected at Meeting in This City,” Plattsburgh Sentinel, July 3, 1917.

“Women’s Aid in Food Campaign Now Being Sought in Every County of the State of New York,” Plattsburgh Daily Republican, August 14, 1917.

“Class in Cookery at Young Women’s League,” Plattsburgh Sentinel, October 9, 1917.

“Public Library Notes: New Books on Household Organization and Food Conservation,” Plattsburgh Sentinel, February 12, 1918.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Food Will Win the War: Women, Boys, and Tractors Wanted!

On April 14, 1917, New York State Governor Charles Whitman issued a proclamation stating that the following Tuesday, April 21, would be Agricultural Mobilization Day. Whitman called upon the state’s farmers to “assemble in their respective communities, through their organizations, to hear reports on the present situation and to make definite plans for meeting, locally, the greatest food production problems that they have ever been called upon to solve.” While all New Yorkers would play a role in the production and conservation of food, it all began with farmers. As Whitman said, “The man who tills the soil and produces the food for the soldier in the field and his family at home is rendering a patriotic service, as truly as is the man who bears the brunt of battle.”

Men, boys, and women were all called upon
to do their patriotic duty 
One of the first problems that the Production Bureau of the Food Commission aimed to assist the farmer with was the shortage of agricultural labor. The young men who were enlisting or being drafted into the armed forces were, in many cases, the same men who ordinarily would have been working on the farms of New York. Other men had left the country in favor of higher-paying jobs in war-related industries. The commission set up a central employment bureau to connect farmers seeking help with experienced farmhands looking for work, but it was also evident that new groups of workers would need to be recruited.

Teenage boys were the obvious first target. The Department of Education approved the release of boys age 14 and up from school attendance if they were performing farm labor (girls were also eligible, though it appears that many fewer of them took advantage of the program), and they were encouraged to register as members of the Boys’ Working Reserve (also known as the Farm Cadet Program). The State Bureau of Employment coordinated the placement of boys on farms, working with farm bureau agents and local school districts. The state agricultural schools provided basic training to the boys before they were sent out to work. The boys were supervised by school authorities, who also inspected the job sites and ensured that the workers had suitable living quarters. By September 1918, over 12,000 boys had been placed on farms throughout the state.

New York State also took the rather bold step of creating a program to enlist women farm workers. The Food Commission hired eight women farm labor specialists, whose job was not only to recruit women workers, but to convince farmers that they should hire women. Many farmers were skeptical about women’s abilities to handle agricultural labor, but the fact that they could pay them less than men undoubtedly won some of them over. Women workers had to be at least 18 years old and pass a physical examination, and they were not permitted to work more than 54 hours per week. Like the boys of the Working Reserve, they were carefully supervised, and their workplaces and living quarters were inspected.

“Girls of Cornell Farm Unit Women’s Working Reserve
at Work in Hay Field”
The Food Commission’s aim was to find students and women with seasonal employment who were available during the summer, and indeed, “a large proportion of the women registered were college girls, teachers, stenographers, clerical workers, saleswomen, and a few industrial workers.” Women sent out to work sites in groups, and they lived together in communal housing and pooled their resources to hire a cook and a supervisor. Official reports and media stories about “farmerettes” made clear that the women worked hard but also produced the impression that the experience was something like attending a particularly vigorous summer camp, with plenty of exercise, fresh air, and wholesome food. As for employers, according to the commission, even those who were skeptical at first “have become warm advocates...and have found what a woman may lack in strength is often made up in her interest and intelligence.”

A Tractor School at the New York State College of Agriculture
If human workers could not be found, farmers might turn to technological solutions to the labor problem. In 1917, most farmers in New York State still depended upon man- and horsepower, but it was becoming evident that tractors had the potential to revolutionize agriculture. One tractor could do the work of three men, each with a team of horses. The Food Commission acquired a fleet of 70 tractors, which it then rented out at reasonable rates to farmers who could not afford to purchase their own. The commission also ran tractor schools throughout the state to educate potential owners or renters on their use and maintenance. A tractor school for Clinton, St. Lawrence, and Franklin counties was held in Malone in March 1918, and there was sufficient interest in Clinton County for another one in Plattsburgh in December. By then the war was over, but it was clear that tractors were a permanent part of the agricultural landscape. The announcement for the tractor school also noted that it was open to both men and women, as “women have proven in so many ways that they can handle highly technical work.”

In addition to addressing farm labor shortages, the Bureau of Production also provided resources for battling pests and crop diseases, supplied seeds and inspected seed corn and potatoes, and started programs to increase the production of essential commodities, particularly wheat and pork. While most of their work was directed at those who farmed for a living, they also encouraged anyone who could possibly do so to start their own gardens. Since much of this wartime garden activity overlapped with the work of the Bureau of Conservation, we’ll discuss it in more detail in our next post.


“School Cadets Harvesting: State Defense Council Takes Steps to Provide Farmers with Help,” Plattsburgh Daily Republican, September 6, 1917.

“Tractor Use Instruction: School to Be Held in This City December 16-20,” Plattsburgh Daily Press, November 21, 1918

Report of the New York State Food Commission for Period October 18, 1917, to July 1, 1918

Pam Brown, “Farming for the War,” New York Archives v. 11, no. 1 (Summer 2011)

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Food Will Win the War: The New York State Food Commission

Last month’s Centennial Summer Fair at Miner Institute gave us the opportunity to learn more about the history of food and farming during World War I. From large enterprises like Heart’s Delight Farm to vacant-lot city gardeners, all Americans were urged to do their patriotic duty by producing and conserving food to the best of their ability. Not only were they responsible for feeding themselves, they also had to provide for the United States army overseas and assist with food relief efforts in Europe. The United States had abundant agricultural resources, but organization was required to use them effectively. This will be the first of three blog posts exploring this topic in more depth. Here we’ll present a broad overview of the federal and state agencies created to “win the war in the kitchen.”

A simple and direct message from the
U.S. Food Administration
Soon after the US declared war on Germany in April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson established the United States Food Administration and appointed Herbert Hoover as its head. Since 1914, Hoover had been directing food relief efforts in occupied Belgium and France, so he was well aware of the importance of food to national security. He also believed that it was possible to tackle the food problem through voluntary effort. Rather than imposing rationing or other government strictures, Americans could be persuaded that it was their patriotic duty to comply with the new food regulations. The Food Administration would provide resources and guidance, but it should work through existing organizations rather than create new bureaucratic structures.

In practice, the Food Administration came to rely heavily upon the states to carry its message to individuals at the local level. In New York, Governor Charles Whitman called for the creation of a Food Supply Commission for Patriotic Service in April 1917, which would immediately address some of the most pressing issues, particularly farmers’ concerns about a shortage of labor and consumers’ worries about rising food costs. Later that summer, legislation was introduced which created a new Food Commission under the direction of a three-man board. William Miner was one of the names put forward as a possible commissioner, though it’s unlikely he would have accepted, given his vehement opposition to all forms of government regulation.

Material produced by the state echoed the
messages sent out at the national level
The newly-constituted New York State Food Commission began its work in October 1917, under the direction of John Mitchell, the former president of the United Mine Workers of America. Within the commission there were three main bureaus: production, transportation and distribution, and conservation, each with its own deputy director. Each division then worked with organizations at the county level to disseminate information and resources. In most places, the county farm bureaus (themselves partnerships between the state agricultural colleges and local farmers) became the vehicle for the food commission’s work. In New York City and a few other large urban centers, other organizations were found that could serve this role.

New York State presented some unique challenges when it came to setting and enacting food policies. It was primarily a rural state, with about half the population engaged in agriculture, but it was also home to the nation’s largest city, with an economically and ethnically diverse population. Policies that were good for food producers weren’t necessarily good for those who were primarily food consumers, and vice versa. There were also the needs of a vast array of other food related industries to account for—processors, shippers, wholesalers, retailers. It’s no wonder, then, that the passage of the state food control bill was a contentious process that took months to hammer out.

Workers in the federal and state food bureaus recognized that food was not merely fuel. It was deeply personal and tied up with ideas about home, family, gender, and nationality. Getting people to change the way they ate—to accept “Meatless Mondays” and “Wheatless Wednesdays”—and the way they thought about food, was no easy task. In our next posts, we’ll look at the ways Hoover and his colleagues approached the food problem from two perspectives: that of the farmer and of the housewife. If food was to win the war, both parties had embrace the cause.


Report of the New York State Food Supply Commission

Report of the New York State Food Commission for period October 18, 1917, to July 1, 1918

Annual Report of the New York State College of Agriculture at Cornell University, 1918

Saturday, July 28, 2018

“Seeing Is Not Enough”: World War I Battlefield Tourism

German Stahlhelm and postcard sent to
Louise and Bertha Trainer, 1921
After an unintentionally long hiatus, the Alice News blog is back with a story inspired by our recent exhibit of World War I artifacts at the Centennial Summer Fair. Most of the war relics in the Alice’s collection were obtained by servicemen who acquired them during their time overseas. However, one battered and rusty German helmet was given to Louise and Bertha Trainer by a friend of theirs who visited the battlefields of Belgium in 1921. Emma Kindl was one of thousands of tourists who made pilgrimages to sites in France and Belgium in the years after the Great War.

While we are accustomed to the idea of battlefield tourism today, we probably tend to associate it with the visiting of sites like Civil War battlefields—places where time has removed the most obvious evidence of their violent past. It may seem strange that people were interested in visiting trenches and ruined villages in the immediate aftermath of the war. But even before the armistice, commentators were predicting that there would be a boom in battlefield tourism. The war had been such a profound and life-altering event for so many people that it seemed inevitable that they would want to witness for themselves the places whose names had become part of their vocabulary: Ypres, Vimy, Passchendaele, Verdun.

Another factor encouraging travel was the decision not to return the bodies of the fallen to their home countries but to bury them on or near the battlefields. Bereaved family members had to travel in order to visit the graves of their loved ones. World War I also produced an extraordinarily large number of bodies that were never identified or otherwise remained unaccounted for. For the families of these missing men, a trip to a battlefield or war memorial was the closest they would come to visiting their final resting place. 

From the Michelin Guide
Ypres and the Battle of Ypres (1919)
Widows, parents, and children did not think of themselves as battlefield tourists but as pilgrims, visiting hallowed ground. Nevertheless, they frequently required guidance to locate the sites they wanted to visit, and a variety of charitable organizations were established in the post-war years to assist families and ex-servicemen. Travel agencies like Thomas Cook offered organized tours of sites associated with the war in France, Belgium, Italy, and the Middle East, and Michelin issued its first battlefield guidebooks in 1919. Volume I of this series, The First Battle of the Marne, stated quite explicitly, “The contemplated visit should be a pilgrimage; not merely a journey across the ravished land. Seeing is not enough, the visitor must understand; ruins are more impressive when coupled with a knowledge of their origin and destruction.”

From the Michelin Guide
Lille Before and During the War (1919)
The Michelin guides (31 titles in French and 15 in English) all followed a similar pattern. They began with an overview of the battles covered in the guide (“a clear comprehension of the action as a whole is absolutely necessary to a full understanding of the separate engagements”), after which itineraries were laid out. These itineraries were, in some ways, not all that different than those in ordinary guidebooks, including driving directions, histories of towns and villages, and information about churches and other landmarks. But they were also detailed accounts of battles, bombings, and wartime deprivation, often including first-hand accounts from those who had experienced them. The books were lavishly illustrated with photographs, many of them before-and-after views which highlighted the destruction wrought upon the landscape. Using the Michelin guides, the visitor could retrace the daily—almost hourly—progression of the war.

The idea that one could recreate the experiences of the past through visiting the battlefields seems to have been an important one both for families and for ex-servicemen. For the bereaved, retracing the steps of their loved ones helped them feel closer to those they had lost. The journey to the grave or battlefield was an essential part of the grieving process for many people, allowing them a venue to confront their emotions and emerge afterwards in a more hopeful and accepting frame of mind. Some ex-servicemen found revisiting battlefields therapeutic as well. By reliving their pasts and facing their memories, they could come to terms with the effects of the war.

Postcard of the battlefield at Kemmel. A note on the back states that
this field is where Mlle. Kindl picked up the helmet.
Of course, over time, the landscape of the battlefields changed, and it became harder to relive the past. In the early 1920s, the destruction of the war was still very clear. As one guidebook put it, “The ruined villages are as the shells and bombs left them. Everywhere are branchless trees and stumps, shell craters roughly filled in, trenches, barbed wire entanglements, and shelters for men and ammunition. Thousands of shells, shell casings, rifles, gun-limbers, and machine-guns lie scattered about.” Some battlefields and trenches were preserved in their wartime state, either by commercial operators or by Dominion governments (for example, the Canadian government was instrumental in preserving portions of Vimy Ridge), but for the most part, nature and agriculture reclaimed the fields. In this context, souvenirs took on great significance. Locating and bringing home a tangible reminder of the battlefield became even more important as time passed and the material effects of the war were less obvious.


This post is primarily drawn from the David W. Lloyd, Battlefield Tourism: Pilgrimage and the Commemoration of the Great War in Britain, Australia, and Canada, 1919-1939 (Berg, 1998). Other sources on battlefield tourism include Brian Murphy, “Dark Tourism and the Michelin World War I Battlefield Guides,” Journal of Franco-Irish Studies v. 4 (2015) and Caroline Winter, “Tourism, Social Memory, and the Great War,” Annals of Tourism Research v. 36 no. 4 (October 2009). An excellent source on monuments and the memory of World War I more broadly is Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Spanish Colonial in San Diego—and Chazy

Chazy Central Rural School, 1919
The Chazy Central Rural School building which stood from 1916 until 1969 was unusual in many ways. Most rural schools (or urban schools, for that matter) did not have swimming pools, film projectors, or marble-topped cafeteria tables. Also unusual was the choice of architectural style: a blending of Mission and Spanish Colonial elements. Why did William H. Miner and his architect, Frederick Townsend, choose this style—associated with the American Southwest and Mexico—for a school building in the far north of New York State?

Neither Townsend nor Miner seem to have left any definitive statement on the matter, so we’ll probably never know for sure, but one influence may have been the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego. The Panama-California Exposition was one of two world’s fairs held that year to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal. The other, in San Francisco, was much larger, but San Diego found ways to differentiate its exposition from its northern neighbor.

Promotional pamphlet made by the
San Diego Board of Supervisors
At the time of the fair, San Diego had a population of about 40,000, making it the smallest city ever to host a world’s fair. But city boosters saw this as an opportunity to shape San Diego’s public image and attract future residents, investors, and tourists. The exposition’s architecture and landscape design would demonstrate that the city and region had a rich history, while the exhibits would show that it was forward-thinking in technology, industry, and agriculture. Perhaps the city’s biggest selling point was its climate: this would, it was proudly announced, be the first “All-the-year-round” exposition. As one promotional pamphlet exclaimed, “Nowhere else but in this land of favored climatic conditions could such a fair be possible. Here is perpetual Springtime. Here is a climate that couldn’t be more delightful if it were made to order.” By opening the fair on January 1, organizers made the most of the contrast between winters in Southern California and other parts of the country.

The Varied Industries building and gardens
Floods of promotional material about the San Diego fair began to appear several years before it opened, as organizers, the city’s chamber of commerce, and railroads began to drum up interest. Naturally, much of their focus was on the new buildings being constructed in Balboa Park beginning in the summer of 1912. Unlike most world’s fair structures, a number of these were always intended to be permanent additions to the site—and indeed the whole complex proved to be so beloved by the local community that others were also kept and re-used for other purposes, including another fair in 1936. Instead of the classically-inspired architecture that had become the standard at previous fairs, organizers chose the Spanish Colonial as a distinctive and versatile style. The unified design scheme, along with the strong historical and regional associations of the style, would help San Diego’s fair distinguish itself from San Francisco. For many Americans living in the northeast and midwest, this was probably their first real exposure to Spanish Colonial and Mission architecture, and the San Diego fair led to a surge in its popularity. 

Originally the Indian Arts Building,
rebuilt in 1996 and now home to the
San Diego Art Institute
The fair’s Director of Works, Frank P. Allen, Jr., wrote that the Spanish Colonial was an ideal choice for exposition architecture not just because it was regionally appropriate but because it encompassed a wide range of styles, from “the ornate and whimsical extravagance of of Churriguersque and Plateresque, down to the simple lines and plain surfaces of the California mission buildings.” While being unified in material and inspiration, the buildings would also show an interesting variety. Art critic and curator Christian Brinton, writing in The International Studio, praised the fair’s buildings as “a distinct step forward in American architecture. Architects who have visited the grounds are enthusiastic over the genuine renaissance of the glories of Spanish art and architecture which they feel will follow the San Diego Exposition.”

Visitors and critics alike agreed that the Exposition’s vision of “Old Spain” in California was a success. However, it also raised some questions about the uneasy place that the Spanish and Native Americans occupied in Anglo Americans’ conception of national history. It was generally acknowledged that the unique qualities of Spanish Colonial architecture came from the combination of Spanish design with Native American materials and labor. This was something to be proud of, something that set the buildings of the Americas apart from their European counterparts. At the same time, most writing about the fair also produced the clear impression that Spanish and native contributions were part of the past. Exhibit material stated in no uncertain terms that while there once had been great indigenous civilizations in Mesoamerica, the great days of the Maya were long past by the time the Spanish arrived. Present-day Indians were described as “living just as they have lived and their ancestors have lived for centuries.” 

Zuni women making pottery as part of the
“Painted Desert” exhibit
Similarly, while the Spanish were given credit for starting the process of Christianizing and “civilizing” the southwest, it was also made clear that Anglo-Americans were now taking on that mantle—bear in mind that since 1898, the United States had also acquired many of Spain’s former colonies. Early 20th-century racial and evolutionary theories presented this sequence of events as inevitable: just as Native Americans had been conquered by the superior Spanish, so too were the Spanish ultimately supplanted by the superior Anglo-Americans. Adopting the Spanish Colonial style (and, it was strongly implied, improving it) was a way to symbolize this transition.

CCRS under construction, 1916
For William Miner and Frederick Townsend, the Spanish Colonial may have seemed like a good choice for Chazy Central Rural School because it was both traditional and up-to-date. It would certainly have stood out as something unique among the other buildings in the village, making clear that this school was different from the old rural school in every possible way. It also could be constructed with modern building materials, such as hollow brick and cement. Although the original school building did not stand for as long as Miner probably anticipated it would, it seems safe to say that it made an impression on everyone who saw it, and it is still fondly remembered today. 

You can still visit many of the Panama-California Exposition’s original buildings in Balboa Park, as well as others that were rebuilt in the 1990s.


Panama-California Exposition Digital Archive

Frank P. Allen, Jr., “San Diego Exposition: Development of Spanish Colonial Architecture,” Fine Arts Journal 32, no. 3 (March 1915), 116-126.

Christine Edstrom O’Hara, “The Panama-California Exposition, San Diego, 1915: The Olmstead Brothers’ Ecological Park Typology,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 70, no. 1 (March 2011), 64-81.

Hal K. Rothman, “Selling the Meaning of Place: Entrepreneurship, Tourism, and Community Transformation in the Twentieth-Century American West,” Pacific Historical Review 65, no. 4 (November 1996), 525-557.

Christopher Schmidt-Nowara, “Spanish Origins of American Empire: Hispanism, History, and Commemoration, 1898-1915,” The International History Review 30, no. 1 (March 2008), 32-51.

Abigail A. Van Slyck, “Mañana, Mañana: Racial Stereotypes and the Anglo Rediscovery of the Southwest’s Vernacular Architecture, 1890-1920,” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture 5 (1995), 95-108.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

William Saunders and His Five Sons (and Daughter)

Of the nine children of James and Jane Saunders, it was the youngest son, William, who achieved the most fame outside the family circle. He, in turn, had five sons who all went on to have quite remarkable lives of their own. So let’s delve more deeply into the lives of Alice Miner’s Uncle William and her notable cousins.

William Saunders in 1897
Library and Archives Canada
Like the rest of the Saunders siblings, William (1836-1914) was born in Crediton and baptized at the Wesleyan Methodist church in Exeter. Shortly after his arrival in London at the age of thirteen, he was apprenticed to a local pharmacist, John Salter, and by the time he was nineteen he had opened his own drugstore. Two years later, he married Sarah Agnes Robinson (daughter of the minister who had performed the wedding of Bertha Saunders and Richard Patton the year before), and they had six children: Annie Louisa (1858-1938), William Edwin (1861-1943), Henry Scholey (1864-1951), Charles Edward (1867-1937), Arthur Percy (1869-1953), and Frederick Albert (1875-1963).

William Saunders was a good businessman, but he was also interested in the science of pharmaceuticals. His interest in the medicinal properties of plants led him into the study of botany and then to entomology. In the garden of the Saunders home in London, he established an extensive orchard where he studied plant diseases caused by insects. In 1873, William purchased six acres of land outside the city where he continued his work in entomology and fruit and flower hybridization. These orchards were also early laboratories for the Saunders children, where they received their first lessons in natural history by helping their father with his work.

Central Experimental Farm, Ottawa, 1890
Friends of the Central Experimental Farm
By the mid-1880s, both William Edwin and Henry had qualified as pharmacists and were able to take over many aspects of the family business. This left their father free to pursue a new project: the establishment of Canada’s experimental farm system. In February 1886, Saunders submitted a report to the Minister of Agriculture describing what he had learned on his visits to numerous agricultural research stations in the United States, and proposing that Canada establish its own system of farms for research in cereal culture, dairying, animal husbandry, horticulture, forestry, and the application of chemistry and botany to agriculture. Soon thereafter, the Dominion Experimental Farms system was established, with William Saunders as its director.

In 1887, William, Sarah, Annie, and Fred moved to Ottawa, which was the home of the Central Experimental Farm. Four other farms were also established in Nova Scotia, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia. The aim of all these farms was to produce practical results in the form of better varieties of grain, improved livestock, and fruit-trees that could thrive in the Canadian climate. One of its main goals was the development of strains of wheat suited to the climate of western Canada, and to this end, William Saunders appointed his son Charles to the position of Dominion Cerealist in 1903. 

Canadian postage stamp, issued in 2000,
honoring Sir Charles Saunders
Charles had studied chemistry at the University of Toronto and Johns Hopkins, but had been pursuing a career in music in Toronto. Now he took charge of a new department at the Central Experimental farm, the Division of Cereal Breeding and Experimentation and began work on what became known as Marquis wheat. The strains of wheat being grown in Saskatchewan and Alberta frequently matured too late and were damaged by frost. Marquis wheat matured earlier, produced yields as good or better than other varieties, and had excellent milling and baking qualities. By 1920, 90% of the wheat being grown in western Canada was Marquis wheat, and it was largely responsible for the boom in Canadian wheat exports. In 1934, Charles Saunders was knighted for his services to the Dominion.

Although Charles followed most closely in his father’s footsteps, all five sons shared William’s scientific interests. William Edwin ran the family pharmaceutical business, but he also engaged in a dizzying range of other activities, most related to the study and preservation of the natural world. He was an expert ornithologist and a founder of the Ontario Entomological Society, wrote a weekly nature column in the London Free Press from 1929 to 1943, and was instrumental in the preservation of what became Point Pelee National Park on Lake Erie—to name just a few of his accomplishments.

“Silvia Saunders” peony, named
after Percy’s oldest daughter
Arthur Percy and Frederick Albert also pursued careers in science. As his brother Charles had, Percy (as he was known) attended the University of Toronto and then went to Johns Hopkins, where he earned a Ph.D. in chemistry. From 1900 to 1939, he was a professor of chemistry at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. He also carried on the family botanical tradition through his work in the hybridization of peonies. Percy, his wife Louise Brownell, and their four children were beloved members of the Hamilton community, and were remembered fondly by notable students such as Ezra Pound and James Agee (who liked them so much he married daughter Olivia).

The youngest son, Fred, followed in his brothers’ footsteps to the University of Toronto and Johns Hopkins, where his area of study was physics. He taught at Haverford College, Syracuse University, Vassar College, and Harvard University. At Harvard he began research into the field of acoustics, and was able to unite his interests in music and science by studying the mechanical properties of musical instruments, particularly the violin family. Fred also shared the family love of nature, particularly ornithology, and he and his wife maintained a bird sanctuary at their country home.

Cover of Henry’s book Parodies on
Walt Whitman,
Henry Scholey’s path started off very much like that of his brothers. He shared their interests in nature and music, and followed William Edwin to the College of Pharmacy in Philadelphia. For thirteen years he worked with William to run the family business. But in 1898 he closed the business and decided to pursue his interest in music, playing the cello in various orchestras and string quartets in Toronto. What Henry ultimately became known for, however, was his extensive collection of material related to the life and work of Walt Whitman. This included every edition of all of Whitman’s writings (except for the first and last editions of Leaves of Grass). Henry also assembled 219 hand-made notebooks in which were gathered newspaper clippings, book reviews, and other printed material that referenced Whitman, and printed limited editions of books about Whitman. In 1932, Brown University purchased the entire Henry Scholey Saunders collection of Whitmaniana—some 15,000 items—for its library.

And what about Annie, the only daughter? As is so often the case, we know much less about the women of the Saunders family than we do about the men. She never married and continued to live with her parents until they died, after which she may have gone to live with one of her brothers in the United States for a time. By the early 1920s she was back in London, where she remained until her death in 1938, but what she was doing during all this time remains a mystery.

The five Saunders brothers in 1934: Percy, Henry, Fred,
Charles, and William
Also still something of a mystery is the extent of Alice Miner’s relationship with her cousins. The papers of William E. Saunders in the archives of the University of Western Ontario include some Heart’s Delight Farm greeting cards and calendars, which suggest that they kept in touch, at the very least. Certainly the Saunders brothers would have shared many interests with Alice and William Miner, from agriculture to literature. We hope that further study of Saunders family archival material will reveal more connections!


T. H. Anstey, “Sir Charles Edward Saunders,” in The Canadian Encyclopedia, Historica Canada, 1985, article published May 16, 2008.

Dan Brock, “In Search of Annie: The Forgotten Saunders,” London and Middlesex Historical Society Newsletter, Summer 2016.

Harry F. Olson, “Frederick Albert Saunders, 1875-1963: A Biographical Memoir,” National Academy of Sciences, 1967.

Elsie M. Pomeroy, William Saunders and His Five Sons: The Story of the Marquis Wheat Family (Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1956)

Ian M. Stewart, “SAUNDERS, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 31, 2017,

P. A. Taverner, “Memories of William Edwin Saunders, 1861-1943,” The Auk: A Quarterly Journal of Ornithology 61, no. 3 (July 1944), 345-351.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Making a New Life in Canada: The Saunders Siblings

Immigrants are welcomed by a woman
symbolizing Canada, 1880
In our last blog post, we looked at the life of the Saunders family in England and their arrival in Ontario. Beginning after the War of 1812, there was a significant wave of immigration from Britain and Ireland to Canada, mainly to Ontario. Most of the Saunders brothers and sisters married men and women like themselves, who had also come to Canada with their families as children or young adults. 

The desire to find suitable husbands for five daughters may have been one of the motivations behind the Saunders family’s emigration. By 1850, about one quarter of the female population in the United Kingdom between the ages of 20 and 45 was unmarried, and the 1851 census showed that women outnumbered men by as many as one million. The problem of the so-called “surplus woman” was one that would occupy commentators in Britain for the rest of the 19th century and into the 20th. But in many parts of Canada, there were more men than women, particularly in newly-settled areas with large immigrant populations.

If seeing their daughters married was indeed one of their goals, James and Jane Saunders were very successful. Shortly after their arrival, daughter Emma (1827-1917) married William Skinner, a family friend from Crediton who had come over to Canada on the same ship. William Skinner, like James Saunders, was a shoemaker, and he established a successful business in London. Emma and William had five children, one of whom, Lillian, was sadly a victim of the notorious 1881 Victoria disaster, in which an overloaded steamboat capsized, killing 182 passengers.

Illustrated title page from Louisa’s
autograph book
The next daughter, Louisa (1829-1870), also married soon after her arrival in Canada. How she met Bernard Trainer, or indeed anything about his early life, remains a mystery. They were married in 1850 and lived in London until around 1855, at which time they moved to Goderich, where Bernard Trainer joined the Huron County constabulary. Louisa and Bernard had twelve children (Alice was number seven) before Louisa died in childbirth in 1870. Unfortunately, we have little personal information about Alice’s mother, and no photographs, but an autograph book in the museum’s archives which she assembled before leaving Crediton suggests that she was a young lady of refined tastes and genteel aspirations.

Ann (1832-1864) seems also to have married in the early 1850s, as did brother Stephen (1824-1889), though I haven’t been able to find out much information about either of them or their spouses. Next in line was Bertha (b. 1834), who married Robert Lynch Patton in 1856 and moved with him to Montreal. The officiant at this wedding was Rev. J. H. Robinson, and a year later William Saunders (1836-1914) married Robinson’s daughter Sarah Agnes. As I noted in my previous post, William was apprenticed to a local druggist and soon opened his own pharmacy. His interest in pharmaceutical plants, horticulture, and entomology led to his appointment as director of Canada’s Experimental Farm system in 1886. William and Sarah’s five sons also went on to have notable careers in science, music, and literature—they’ll get a blog post of their own. The youngest daughter, Mary (1839-1907), was married in 1870 to William Gurd, a gunsmith whose family immigrated from Ireland in the 1840s, and they had three children.
Mary Saunders Gurd

All in all, the Saunders siblings seem to have led mostly ordinary, middle-class lives. No doubt the parents were happy to see their daughters married to respectable and prosperous men, and two of their sons established in their careers, with William ultimately achieving great success and a national reputation. Edwin (1822-1895), the oldest son, chose to follow his own path, however. Soon after the family arrived in Canada, he moved to Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron, where he built a small log cabin and lived by hunting, fishing, and gardening. His nephew William Saunders kept a diary of a family visit to Manitoulin in 1880, during which Uncle Ned helped the five brothers indulge their interests in fishing, hunting wildlife specimens, and sailing. Although Uncle William Skinner is said to have claimed Ned “never did any work,” residents of Manitoulin remembered him as an important part of their small community.

So, although Bernard and Louisa Trainer had both died by the time Alice was a teenager, she and her siblings still had an extensive network of aunts, uncles, and cousins, many of whom lived nearby in London. They would continue to maintain these ties after they moved to the United States in the 1880s.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

From Crediton to London: The Saunders Family Arrives in Canada

Both of Alice Miner’s parents, Bernard Trainer and Louisa Saunders, were immigrants from the British Isles to Canada. Unfortunately, we have very little information about Bernard Trainer’s early life. The notice of his death that appeared in the Goderich Signal in September 1880 stated that he had lived in Goderich for about 25 years. He was believed to have been born in Edinburgh, Scotland, of Irish parents, and had come to London, Ontario “when quite young.” Without any more information, such as the names of his parents, it has proven very difficult to trace his history. 

The Crediton parish church, where James Saunders
and Jane Woollacott were baptized
The Saunders family is more abundantly represented in the records that are available to us. Louisa’s parents were James and Jane Woollacott Saunders, and they were both born in Crediton, Devon, England. James, the son of William and Eunice Saunders, was born in 1792; Jane was the daughter of William and Jane Woollacott, and she was born in 1795. They were married in August 1817, and their first child, Thirza, was born a year later. She was followed by eight more children: Edwin (1822), Stephen (1824), Emma (1827), Louisa (1829), Ann (1832), Bertha (1834), William (1836), and Mary (1839).

Early Methodist meeting
James Saunders was a shoemaker, and he also served as a Methodist lay minister. The Saunders family’s Wesleyan Methodism was a central part of their identity. Methodism was still a fairly new denomination in the early 19th century, but it was growing rapidly. Begun as an effort by Anglican clergymen John Wesley (1703-1791) and George Whitfield (1714-1770) to address what they saw as some of the shortcomings of the established church, it placed great emphasis on preaching, and members were encouraged to meet regularly in small groups for spiritual fellowship and guidance. John Wesley urged members to pursue personal holiness and a disciplined (or methodical) Christian life. He believed that individuals are free to accept or reject God’s grace, and that it is possible to attain perfection, or the overcoming of a will to sin, in this life. Eventually, Whitfield and Wesley divided over doctrinal issues, and the term “Wesleyan Methodist” was used to distinguish his followers from those of Whitfield, known as the Calvinistic Methodists.

Lay ministers such as James Saunders played an important role in Wesleyan Methodism, which originally did not have established houses of worship and relied upon traveling preachers and lay ministers to guide worship and manage the administration of the church. Methodism grew the fastest in those parts of Britain that were being most affected by the Industrial Revolution, and it was most popular among members of the working class and others on the fringes of 18th-century society. Wesleyan Methodism’s emphasis on simple living, self-discipline, and virtuous behavior would have appealed to working people with strivings toward respectability and middle-class status, like James and Jane Saunders.

Mint Lane Chapel, Exeter, ca. 1900
All nine of the Saunders children were baptized at the Methodist chapel in Mint Lane, Exeter, about seven miles from Crediton. The building of permanent chapels was a product of the period after around 1800, when membership numbers were on the rise. In 1798, there were only about 70 members of Wesleyan Methodist societies in Exeter; by 1815, there were almost 300. In 1808, Exeter had become the center of a circuit, or a group of local churches under the care of a minister who traveled among them, and in 1810 the Trustees decided to begin building a new meeting house that would accommodate 700 people. The first services were held at the Mint Lane chapel in 1813.

We don’t know what prompted James and Jane Saunders to leave England in 1849, but they may have been encouraged to do so by their son Stephen, who had already gone to Canada. James, Jane, and seven of their children (Thirza was married by this time, and stayed in England) boarded the sailing vessel Margaret in Torquay in the spring of 1849Like many immigrants, the Saunders family traveled with friends from home, William and Sarah Woodley Skinner and their children. The Margaret made regular trips between Torquay and Québec, carrying emigrants west and returning with loads of timber. This part of the journey took six weeks. After traveling past the falls of the St. Lawrence, they then boarded another boat which would take them up the river to Hamilton, Ontario. There they met up with a Mr. Pickard, who drove them the last 80 miles to London—another two days of travel. The Saunders family arrived in London in late May, 1849.

Photograph of James and Jane
Saunders, taken after their arrival
in London
There the Saunders family would have found an established Wesleyan Methodist community and perhaps reunited with other people they knew from England. Certainly they seem to have settled into their new home very quickly. Later that same year, daughter Emma married the Skinners’ eldest son, William, and in 1850 Louisa married Bernard Trainer. William Saunders became an apprentice to druggist John Salter, and in 1855 opened his own pharmacy, which would eventually lead him to a long and distinguished career in science. The other daughters, Ann, Bertha, and Mary, also married prominent London men, while Edwin, the oldest son, became something of a local legend as “the Hermit of Misery Bay.”

Jane Woollacott Saunders died before Alice was born, in 1862, but James Saunders lived until the age of 87. Although London and Goderich are some 70 miles apart, it would not have been impossible for the Trainer siblings to remain in contact with their Saunders relatives, and indeed there is evidence that they did. We will look at the next generation of the Saunders family—Alice’s mother and her siblings—in our next post.


Information about the Saunders family comes primarily from the birth, christening, and marriage records in the International Genealogical Index, available online at FamilySearch. The family was also recorded in the 1841 England Census (this is the earliest census available).

The account of the family’s journey from Crediton to London comes from Elsie M. Pomeroy, William Saunders and His Five Sons: The Story of the Marquis Wheat Family (Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1956).

Information on Wesleyan Methodism comes from Allan BrocketNonconformity in Exeter, 1650-1875 (Manchester University Press, 1962) and A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, Volume 2 (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2017).