The success of the First Great Canadian Stone Fence Caper serves as a challenge to other Canadians to celebrate the contributions of early settlers in every corner of Canada.
The first "new" stone fence has been duly dedicated to those whose names appear on the stones and to all the family farms and their owners who made colossal contributions to the establishment of Canada.
Many Canadians, privately and publicly, bemoan the disappearance of old stone fences which are memorials to pioneer labour, but historian Joanna McEwen took action ("The project is a sculpture of 'Place' and I am an artist.") and instigated the Great Canadian Stone Fence Caper. When she suggested building memorials with stones from the crumbling fences, members of three Ontario branches of the Women's Institute (WI) needed little convincing. WI members call it the "first" stone fence, because they hope it is the first of many as other WI branches and communities follow suit with their own stone fences.
The first Women's Institute (WI), transplanted from England, was formed in Stoney Creek, Ontario, in February 1897. For more than 100 years, Women's Institute (WI) members have actively worked together for the betterment of members' families, homes and communities. Their original focus -- domestic science education -- quickly expanded to include personal growth opportunities, government lobbying and health and community wellness initiatives. The Federated Women's Institutes of Ontario and the Federated Women's Institutes of Canada, organized in 1919, continue to offer educational programs and social events to create new opportunities for rural and urban women, locally, provincially and nationally.
The Great Canadian Stone Fence Caper began at a site that had originally been acquired through Women's Institute activity. Years ago, a strip of untouched wooded property between Highway 11 and the 15th line of Oro Medonte was purchased through public donation with the hope of building a university. Later the land, used by local Scouts and eventually known as Scout Valley, was designated as natural parkland. An ugly parking lot which led to walking trails in the park proved the ideal location for the Stone Fence Caper to begin. Perhaps there's a similarly-neglected but high-traffic site in your area, too.
Since the stone fence memorial would primarily be a work of art, the Ontario Arts Council provided a small grant as seed money and encouragement.
WI committee members went to the Simcoe County Archives to search through the township rolls from 1855. They made a list of pioneer land owners in the area surrounding the new park. Then they wrote to descendants asking for a specified contribution to have their family name engraved in the stones of the new stone fence.
WI member, Loreen Lucas Rice, the first woman real estate broker north of Toronto, reports a fantastic response and describes how everything quickly came together:
The Andersons gave us the material from their stone fences on lot10, con14 of Oro. Morris Shelswell and his sons moved the stones. Master Stone Mason Eric Scott set it up with help from Gary Shoebridge and George Scott. George helped us with design. One other large stone, donated by Jack Scott from lot13 con15 Oro, was incorporated into the fence. Then Peter and Mike of Sanderson Monument, cut all 161 names into the largest stones. With the concentrated efforts of many, 150 feet of stone fence was completed and we celebrated right on time.
On October 4, 2003, in sun and wind and rain, about 600 people attended the dedication. Many who had brought stones from their own places placed them on top of the fence. At the end of the ceremony, a rainbow arched itself above the finished memorial as if in Heavenly approval.
It just takes a good idea and someone to act upon it. Joanna had the idea; the three branches of the Women's Institutes picked it up, got to work, with Joanna as director. The community pitched in. There were no ifs, ands, or buts -- the stone fence memorial was needed and it was created. For the hundreds who participated, this was a thrilling revival of the old time community spirit of those whose names were inscribed on the memorial's stones.
"We had participants from Ottawa and Victoria B.C. and lots of places in between," said Joanna McEwen. "I would venture that whereas the barn building and quilting bees presupposed a collective creativity of sorts, this particular sculpture developed from the creative energies of the participating Women's Institutes and was quite untraditional. The fence is just for being, just for being the beautiful thing that we designed and built together -- a stone quilt if you will."
If you or your organization would like to join the Great Canadian Stone Fence Caper, contact Loreen Lucas Rice to find out how to get started.