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Migration, Farming and Rural Diaries: Interview with Professor Catharine Wilson, The Rural Diary Archive

    Zoom interview – 25 October 2023

    The Rural Diary Archive, hosted by the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, is one of WEMovʼs stakeholders. It is founded and directed by Professor Catharine Wilson, a historian who has specialized in immigration, farm tenancy and cooperative work.  

    Camelia Zavarache: Thank you so much for taking the time for this meeting. So, I will start the first section of our interview. On the University of Guelphʼs webpage, one can read that you are an historian and a professor who has been focusing on immigration in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Could you tell us why you chose to specialize in History and what has drawn you towards migration?

    Professor Wilson: Well, my parents built a log cabin in the basement of our 1960s bungalow and filled it with family heirlooms, so there were pieces of furniture, photographs and trunks full of really unusual things such as long braids of hair that had been cut off in the 1920s when some of my female ancestors bobbed their hair. I loved working down there, doing my homework with the coal oil lamps and the wooden stove on, and thinking about the past. I wanted to know more about my ancestors. They had migrated sometime between the 1790s and 1860s to Canada, so that is what got me interested in migration and in everyday life in the past.

    Camelia: You have mentioned the braids of hair; I remember my grandmother … because here when children turn one,a lock of hair is being cut and kept as a memory and I remember that she had that in her house for one of her children who had passed away as a child. When I was a child, I saw that blond lock of hair. It is amazing how people tend to …

    Professor Wilson: Yes, memorialize. 

    Camelia: It is something so biological in a sense, material … I did the same for my daughter actually.

    Professor Wilson: These were long braids of hair.

    Camelia: I have never heard about something like that. But it was the bob which was trendy at that time, right?

    Professor Wilson: Right, yes.

    Camelia: At the time when you defended your Ph.D., what were the most important archives documenting migrant settlers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and their day to day lives?

    Professor Wilson: Well, there was no internet then, so it was a matter of going into archives to work and my particular project was a case study of 100 families on both sides of the ocean, the same 100 families and their migration. That group of families came from the Ards Peninsula in Northern Ireland and then migrated to an island in Canada called Amherst Island. So, for me the most important archives were the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland and the National Archives and Provincial Archives here, as well as church archives, because I was using census records and land records and any other available sources that were available. Women were pretty shadowy figures in the census and the other records because the record keepers were primarily interested in male household heads, but through the census,you could see the number of children women had and through civil records you could see when some of their children had died. I was really lucky to have contemporary artists on each side of the ocean, so I could see in their paintings and sketches what women were doing; they might be drawing water from the bay or feeding the chickens. I could see how they dressed. And I also got in touch with descendents on both sides of the ocean, so I had some family stories. For example, Jane Filson was a young woman who migrated with her parents in the 1850s, and she sewed into her petticoat 500 dollars’ worth of silver and made the journey with that wealth hidden in her petticoat. I wasn’t lucky enough to have any letters or diaries, but I could tell, from the material that I did have, that women migrated either as young women in their teens and early twenties with their parents or as newlyweds with their husbands. So, they never travelled alone; they were always part of a larger family unit. And I could see that family and friends cushioned the journey and helped them settle into their new home in Canada. From the Poor Law Inquiry, I learned that on the Ards Peninsula the men were finding it extremely difficult to find jobs after the Napoleonic wars and that spurred their family migration. The women had to go out and work, and they plaited straw hats and embroidered Irish linen for the urban and export markets. It was income from this putting-out system that helped finance their migration. The Poor Law Inquiry indicated that in some cases they were the primary breadwinners back in Ireland. But, when they came to Canada there was no market for that kind of thing, and they were reduced to non-remunerative jobs such as cooking, housework and raising the children. So, it was a big change for them, and it may have meant that they lost some independence and power within the family unit. But at the same time, they were absolutely essential to the whole pioneering process and played a very important role that way. 

    Camelia: That is so interesting. Just a question: if someone were to focus on the same topic now would they have access to any different sources from what you had in the late 1980s, when you were researching for the thesis?

    Professor Wilson: Yes, I think they could do more now. I mean at that time I did have the luxury of a database andcomputer, but now there is so much on the internet, so many family historians have uploaded their histories, and we have Oh my Goodness, it would have been so much easier for me if had existed back then. So, yes, I do believe people are able to gather much more about women today than they would have in the 1980s. 

    Camelia: Thank you so much! You have already answered the question on how women migrants were depicted so I will move to the next one: do you notice any trends in migration research, are researchers more interested today in making women visible than they were a decade or two ago?

    Professor Wilson: Yes. The early migration histories really focused on government policies and shipping regulations,and the general conditions in the sending and receiving countries, and they really had very little to say about the actual migrants. So, what was different about my research when I was doing it in the 1980s and 1990s was that there was more emphasis on individual migrants, and my research was part of a number of transnational studies that emerged in that time period. Still, it was really difficult to write much about women because they werenʼt visible in the sources unless a historian had letters and diaries. And this was not because people werenʼt interested in women; they were interested, itʼs just that the sources were not readily available. And, as I mentioned earlier, now with all these digitized collections it is much easier to connect the bits of surviving evidence and make a bigger picture about women’s lives and their contribution to the whole migration process. Still there is an awful lot that needs to be done to make women migrants visible and to understand their contribution to the sending and receiving countries, and this is where WEMov is so important and why I think digitizing the diaries on the Rural Diary Archive is really important too.

    Camelia: Of course. So, I will now move to the second section of the interview. Your name is directly linked to the Rural Diary Archive; you have initiated a very innovative and significant project which is relevant both for its academic purposes and for engaging with the public in a direct way. Could you tell us more about this project, how it started and what its aim was?

    Professor Wilson: Sure. Several years ago, my mother gave me my great-great-grandmother’s diary and I started reading it, and I was absolutely hooked. It inspired me to write first an article and then a book about cooperative work bees. These were events when neighbours got together to raise a barn or a quilt or clear a field. They were known as “bees” because the neighbours were working like bees in a hive. And when the article got published, very distant relatives of mine started contacting me from California, New England and Australia to say that they had other diaries belonging to our great-great-grandmother, Lucy Middagh. And I thought it was really interesting because when great-great-grandma Lucy passed away, her diaries were distributed amongst her daughters who then migrated with their husbands to other parts of the world, taking the diaries with them. So, women and diaries were on the move. I was veryexcited to bring these diaries together. These relatives and I, though we have never met in person, have transcribed all of great-great-grandma Lucyʼs diaries online. So, I then started collecting other diaries and created the Rural Diary Archive in 2015. Itʼs a crowdsourcing website where visitors can go and freely read and transcribe the diaries online. We started out with ten diarists, and we now have over 225 diarists, and they may have written one diary or maybe forty diaries. An increasing number of them are available to read in full text and transcribe on the website. 

    My aim in all this is to make these underutilised documents that are scattered across various archives and personal collections available and accessible to everyone. I think itʼs a very timely project because here in Canada students arenʼt learning how to read cursive writing and can’t read handwritten historical sources. So, none of this would have been possible without the financial support of the Francis and Ruth Redelmeier Professorship in Rural History and the technical support of the University of Guelph Library – and all the donors and volunteer transcribers. And the site is continuing to grow. In the collection, a third of the diarists are women, so currently we have 81 womenʼs diaries. We either have the diary or we profile the diarist and tell you where you can access it. We only have one woman’s diary that covers her experiences prior to migrating, the migration process itself and her settlement in the new country and that was written by Sarah Welch Hill. We do, however, have some migrating male diarists and they, on occasion,mention their wives. I wish they mentioned their wives a lot more, but they donʼt. Benjamin Freure is one of those, he migrated from England, and he mentions how some of the women in the village were giving his wife Phoeba food to take on the journey and how seasick she was during the migration process. Then it would seem that, once they settled on a farm, Ben had much greater ability to meet new people and connect with his new host society than Phoeba did, and we hardly hear anything about her. Once or twice, she journeyed with him to markets. So, I think it was perhaps harder for women to make new connections. We have a lot of other women diarists who write about their life after migration, as settlers, and their contributions to life in Canada and their movements within the province. When women married, they often had to move to a new community with their husband, and so we see the challenges theyfaced in creating new networks of support in a community where they didnʼt know anybody. Some of those diaries are quite interesting. And then we have some women who travel for pleasure or travel to go to school and further their education, or travel to visit relatives further away. So, we can see women on the move in that case too. All the time though, they are travelling with men, either with a husband, a brother, a nephew because there are so few institutional supports for women and itʼs dangerous.

    Camelia: But they are the ones writing, right?

    Professor Wilson: They are the ones writing, yes, but they are usually travelling with men.

    Camelia: Thank you so much for your response, the project is amazing, it sounds great, and I have seen it actually. The diaries that are registered are reflecting both individual experiences and the decade-long process of running a household. What are the main differences between the two types?

    Professor Wilson: We have one diarist that a Master’s student worked on.  The diarist is Roseltha Goble, and she writes diaries for 62 years. You can really see the change in the way she writes, and I think it speaks to your question. So, as a young unmarried woman she keeps a diary that you would describe as an inner-life-of-emotion diary, so she is quite literary in it, and she is using it for confidences and self-discovery. She’s very inward looking in that diary. When she marries, she then starts a different kind of diary, which is a farm account diary. This is typical, and we see this in so many long running diaries. She writes short sentences with emphasis on the action words and … ‘Going here, doing this’. And she really has to reign in her personal feelings because this is a document now that the rest of the family will look at, it is not private anymore. And in this case, she is living with her in-laws and she doesnʼt like her mother-in-law. And itʼs only with a really close reading that you can see how she is reigning in her feelings and in an encoded language expressing her dislike of her mother-in-law and the desire to live on her own with her husband and children,out of the in-laws’ household.

    So, some of these diaries that are written by individuals, especially unmarried ones are very inward looking whereas most of the farm diaries that have been written by men and women are outward looking. They are talking about what everyone in the household is doing that day, and for women in particular, they often donʼt even include what they are doing. They are recording what the men and children are doing in the household and say very little about their own work, which is disappointing, but they are keeping the family record, and they are recording their husbandʼs work because it is market oriented. Whereas their own work isnʼt that way, and they feel less inclined to keep track of it.  They only do so if they are going to have to refer to prices and quantities or need a memory aid of their own work. And so, you know, for that reason it is a little bit disappointing when you get a female diary. There are exceptions though, we do have women who do speak about their housework and childcare etc.

    Camelia: I have a question though, when they write about the work, the prices, everything that has to do with the household and the farm, are they writing for budgetary reasons or to keep track of something or just to pass on the knowledge to the next generation? Why are they writing?

    Professor Wilson: They are writing these things down as a memory aid in case some disagreement arises with a neighbour for example, so they keep track of all their swapping of work with neighbours. They also keep track of prices, just to be able to see their progress and to document their income. They keep track of weather and bushels of grains harvested so that they can compare from one year to the next and learn from their record keeping what the weatherʼs impact was on particular harvests. These documents also stand up in a court of law, so they would record when someone had paid them rent or paid them money owing for some other reason. If a disagreement arose and it went to court, they could use their diary as proof. 

    Camelia: I see, I understand.

    Professor Wilson: So, you can see why it might not be that important for a woman to record that she made six pies, you know; she might not record that kind of thing.  

    Camelia: Yes, ok. Thank you! How would you define the complex relationship between migration, land acquisition and gender during the nineteenth and twentieth century?

    Professor Wilson: Well, land policies and inheritance patterns differ considerably from place to place and according to different ethnic communities and they change over time. But generally, women did not own land and so decisions to sell property, to migrate and then to purchase new property were in the hands of men. Now, those men might have asked their wives or discussed it with their wives, you know, about these decisions, but the sources donʼt tell to what degree the men would have done this, so it is hard to say. In my own study of farm tenancy in Ontario, I found that married women could not legally own property but there were a few widows who were landlords or who were tenants running their farms because they had inherited the ownership of the property or had inherited the leasehold of the property. Women are vulnerable when it comes to property and migration, and I think we can really see this in the diary of Sarah Welch Hill. She is that one diarist who writes about her life on both sides of the ocean and she wrote 32 small diaries, in the early nineteenth century. Sarah was born to a gentle family, and she married Edwin Hill in England, who was the owner of a brass factory. In 1844, when her children were just tiny, Edwin decided to sell the factory and moved his family to Ontario to start a farm. Edwin was not a very nice man; he was unusual in that regard, I think. He didnʼt get along with people back in England and he did not get along with them in Canada either. For Sarah, moving from a gentle family in England to a farm in Ontario was a very abrupt change; she now had to make her own bread, do her own laundry, make soap, do all these things that she hadn’t done before. Back home she had had servants to dothose chores, and so in her diary we see her slowly evolve into a farm woman with these new skills. Edwin meanwhile did not do very well as a farmer.  He had a volatile temper, and he was emotionally and verbally very abusive to Sarah and this increased over time, as he experienced financial difficulties and made enemies of their neighbours. And to address his financial problems he spent Sarahʼs marriage settlement and her inheritance. And then he died, just a few years later and left her a widow with two children and very little money. And because of migration, she had no extended family that she could reach out to for support, and she had to go begging amongst her neighbours and others for help. Fortunately, she had a teenage son by this time and together they managed to keep the farm, struggling ahead. So, that is just an example from the diaries of the vulnerability of women in the migration and the setting-up process. 

    Camelia: Yes, of course. Here in Romania also womenʼs right to own land was problematic because we adopted the Napoleonic Code so this was designed to keep women under male dominance, letʼs say. It was changed later.

    Professor Wilson: Yes. 

    Camelia: So, moving on. Farming is by far the most common occupation for many of the diarists registered on the project’s website, and women are also well represented. Was their situation different from that of their male partners? In what ways?

    Professor Wilson: Yes, I think in reading the diaries you learn that every marriage relationship and every family household economy is somewhat different, so in the generalizations that I am about to make I could probably also find exceptions. But generally, their work differs considerably along gender lines. Women managed the household, the garden, poultry, care for the children and the sick. The men made the buildings and worked work with the heavy animals, crops and machinery, and they were more likely to be doing a lot of travelling to market. But there are exceptions so … Like recently I got a diary where a womanʼs husband was a milkman, so he was on the road a lot and away from home. The diarist Lucy Davison ran the farm, and, at one point, she killed a weasel with her bare hands … So, you know, there were exceptions out there. In the diaries, men write about their work, and they rarely refer to women, whereas women write about everyone in the family and what they are doing during the day and don’t say so much about themselves.

    Camelia: They are always invisible.

    Professor Wilson: And they are less inclined to include prices and quantities than men, and I think that is just simply because men were keeping track of things for market purposes, they are more market engaged than the women. 

    Camelia: Ok, thank you! At the beginning of the year, you published a book titled Being Neighbours: Cooperative Work and Rural Culture, 1830–1960. How has female migration impacted family and neighbouring relationships?

    Professor Wilson: Well, women were essential to the whole migration and settling process. It was almost impossible for a man who was married or a bachelor to farm without a woman to look after the meals, the clothing, the family workforce, the children, the household. So, there was always a high demand for wives or for domestic workers, whether it was a man bringing in a sister, or continuing to live with his mother, he needed to have a woman. And widowers frequently remarried and remarried very soon because they needed a woman to take care of the house. And when there werenʼt enough local women, the government imported women from abroad. So, thousands of orphaned girls or surplus women from the UK were brought to Canada for domestic service. Yes, so women were a necessity for farming. And then, drawing from my book on cooperative labour we can see that women were really essential to creating, maintaining and improving the farm and neighbourhood relations too. So, in that book, which is based on the writings of 100 diarists, we find that men held a lot of cooperative “bees.” They gathered to clear the forest, create the fields, build the barns and then harvest crops. But they cannot do that without women because women provide the feast afterwards and that was the first instalment in the payback system. This was not only cooperative work, but alsoreciprocal work, you were expected to return the favour, and food was a big part of that. And the women were also raising the children to be good workers, to participate in the future in this cooperative work. And they held bees themselves. And these bees were sometimes market oriented; they might hold a turkey-plucking bee and then sell the turkeys at Christmas time. But most of their bees were for making homes more comfortable; they were making quilts at these cooperative events or rag rugs. And they organized a lot of mixed gender bees, where they would bring in young people, boys and girls, to husk the corn or pare apples. The young people would court each other but under the supervision of the mother hosting the bee. So, women were very involved in the creation of the farm and in the support of neighbourhood networks for cooperative work that were created and were so important to the sustainability of the family farm throughout the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century, right up to the 1960s. 

    Camelia: I see, thank you! So, the ongoing debate on the importance of reorganizing existing archives so they better showcase female perspectives and experiences comes with another challenge, how to make the generators of personal archives and domestic documents with historical value responsible for such sources and encourage them to donate?Digitization gives both appropriate solutions. Given the fact that the diaries you have collected are handwritten and come in all different shapes what is the best way to preserve them? 

    Professor Wilson: I think it is true that digitizing is a great solution. It is time consuming, but I find that the donors are more willing to give you diaries, at least temporarily, to digitize them, because they donʼt have to give up the originals. They can still keep them within their family collections. And making diaries widely available through digitization encourages other donors to come forward. Our family is just one example; when one of Lucy’s diaries went online, and then others arrived on the scene, other people wanted their diaries in the collection. 

    To encourage donors to come forward, I do a lot of community talks, because people often donʼt realize how very interesting and how important these documents are. They think, “Oh, they are so dull, they are so mundane, why wouldanyone ever be interested?”. So, once they realize how very important they are, I think they are more apt to donate. If people do have a diary they want to donate, then I think that the best home for a diary is in a climate-controlled archive, where they are not going to disintegrate, or they wonʼt fall prey to mould and mildew. We have at least one diary that is all crumbling and black at the edges and you are losing words because of mould on it. And, if it is possible, it’s important to make the highest resolution when it comes to digitization and have a trained technician on the scanner and the kind of scanner that is not going to damage the spine of the original. And then of course create back-up copies and more back-up copies. 

    Camelia: I agree. I think the reason I asked this question is because we have this huge problem, here in Romania, with domestic documents, diaries that were written for the family to read, and … For instance, I wrote an article based on this notebook, there were two volumes, written by an elementary school teacher in a rural area, here in Romania. And one of my colleagues found this notebook in a flea market, which was so devastating in a sense, I mean he saved that document of course, and I was able to use that. But at the same time the fact that the teacher left that diary for his son and, I donʼt know what happened to the family, to his son. Anyway, the way these documents just perish, and we never get to them because … we are not referring to personalities, it is ordinary people. And I think it is so difficult to document that. And with the archive of the Ministry of Public Instruction, that I have been using, you never get the genuine perspective of teachers, you always get the perspective that school authorities expected them to have. So, these diaries are so much more important and …How do we make people to realize how important the documents are and donate them to a museum, not necessarily to the national archive, because they have this selection criteria, since these are not important public figures. Like the mundane, why is this important to keep? And this particular notebook was like a scrapbook with photographs …yes.

    Professor Wilson: Yes, I fully agree, and the same thing happens in Canada. We recently received a collection that had gone up for auction at a sale and there were several diaries in the box, and no indication of who the diarist was. Butsome kind individual purchased them and donated them to our collection and it wasnʼt too long until we were able to decipher who the diarist was and, in a sense, bring them back to life, you know, and save their history. And it is not just the one familyʼs history either; we counted the names in one diary over the course of eight months and the diarist had mentioned 180 different individuals by their full names. And so, it is not just one personʼs history that comes back to life, itʼs all the people that they were associated with as well.

    Camelia: The network, yes, of course.

    Professor Wilson: Yes. 

    Camelia: That is why it is so important what you are doing and hopefully we will have a similar project. So, the next question is: do you notice a public interest in discovering the life stories of migrants, male or female? If so, why do you think this happens?  

    Professor Wilson: Yes, there is a lot of public interest out there and that is reflected in the volunteers that we get, the volunteers that do the transcribing. They start with a diarist and then they get to know them, and they get really hooked and they donʼt want to give them up. And, in Canada we have a large Indigenous population, but we also have a large settler society, and they are all immigrants, they are either recent immigrants or they descended from immigrants. And, so they are interested in migration, and for me, these are real life stories, and they are so much more captivating than fictional ones. I think they help us to understand who we are and appreciate the people who came before us.  I find, that for myself and for others who are working with the diaries, there is something that is very powerful and immediate about them, and it affects us personally. Putting ordinary people and their ordinary lives at the centre of history really reaches people, perhaps more so than large scale events and very important individuals.

    Camelia: Yes, I agree. Here in Romania I have noticed that for the last, letʼs say, twenty years a lot of diaries, memory volumes have been published, and it used to be like important figures, writers, historians, politicians, the Jewish community, and now I am seeing that it is more and more people like teachers, obviously with an urban background, but still, ordinary people, doing their jobs, going through life. Because story telling is so appealing to every one of us.

    Professor Wilson: Yes, and these are in a sense stories, but they don’t have the same kind of narrative arc as a fictional piece would have, they are real life and so, you know, you are flipping from page to page and maybe youʼve heard enough about the weather and doing chores, and then all of a sudden, you turn the page and all the children in the household have come down with smallpox and before you know it on the very same page two of them have died. And you know, itʼs real life. Or you turn the page, and the barn has burnt down and theyʼve lost their life stock and their crops for that year … Yes, there is real drama in that, real drama. And occasionally personalities show through and lots of information about relationships that you donʼt often get through other sources. 

    Yes, I think they are wonderful. I have never felt so close to the past as I do in reading and transcribing these diaries.

    Camelia: I agree. I had the same feeling when I was reading these notes, he was a teacher, a war orphan born in 1906 I think and I was thinking how three generations separate myself from this man and however we look at things in the same way, in a sense.

    Professor Wilson: Yes, you really get a strong sense of the things that are the same and the things that have changed. 

    Camelia: Exactly.

    Professor Wilson: And … when you are talking about teachers, we have one diarist who is writing in the 1840s, just when our school system is getting set up here and so, like youʼve said Camelia, we know a lot about what the school promoters wanted and what they thought was going on, but here is this diarist Eliphalet Nichols, and at one point he writes that he is sitting on a stump contemplating his future. And, you know, you can see from the diary that he is frequently unemployed, he is constantly having to move, sometimes he is homeless, he is having to teach kids that had never had to sit still and learn before, in a tiny little room that is very poorly equipped. And he describes the interior of his school and what he has in it. And, you know, it is just priceless because itʼs one of the very few examples we have coming from a teacher, of what it was like in that period. 

    Camelia: The challenges they faced; I have seen that also.

    Professor Wilson: Yes, yes. And how the system wasnʼt really that great, it was taking a while to get it in place. 

    Camelia: Yes. Ok, so the last question would be: what do you expect WEMov to bring to you?

    Professor Wilson: Well, I hope that more people will explore the Rural Diary Archive and enjoy reading the diaries, maybe try their hand at transcribing and do some further research into womenʼs lives and their contributions.

    Camelia: You know, Marie told me about the project and then when I was researching for the interview, I lost myself in the page and everything it had to offer. Thatʼs why I am saying that hopefully one day we will have something similar here in Romania because I think it is such an important work. Already we have museums that are collecting family photographs for those families who want to donate them, but diaries, not yet, hopefully we will have that too.

    Professor Wilson: Well, I hope that that dream comes true for you. I thoroughly enjoy the project and the people that I meet. I feel that itʼs a very community-engaged process; you develop relationships with the donors and transcribers,and I enjoy doing the community talks a lot and … yes, itʼs a great project. So, I wish you all the best with yours and if there is some way that I can help…

    Camelia: Thank you! Itʼs really an inspiring work that youʼve been doing and for sure people reading our interview will look into it as well because itʼs so important. 

    Professor Wilson: And I donʼt know how far you got into the website, but students have created radio shows and mini documentaries and a variety of other artistic things based on the diaries in the collection. They are there for people to listen to or watch on the website.

    Camelia: That is so amazing, I havenʼt seen those but I will look for those. 

    Professor Wilson: Yes, so itʼs not just a source for scholarship but also for these creative projects too.

    Camelia: So, these were all the questions, thank you so much for taking the time!

    Professor Wilson: Thank you!  I invite you to explore the Rural Diary Archive: