By Dan Rankin
On Thursday, Nov. 17 at the Town Hall Theatre, Ken Telfer, who organizes the historical seminars put on by the St. Marys Museum, explained to a packed house that the final seminar for 2016 was going to be a very special one. The event, in partnership with the St. Marys Community Players and the creative team behind “Ladies of the CNR,” included two separate but closely-related performances dealing with the lives of women in Perth County during the Second World War.
The first half of the night, entitled “The Home Front 1939-1945” and put on by St. Marys Community Players performers, featured the memories of four women who worked at Maxwell’s in St. Marys during the 1940s. The manufacturing company, once located near where Cascades is located today, operated in St. Marys from 1888 until 1964, making a range of farm implements and household appliances. But, during the Second World War, they switched to producing items to serve the war effort. Another switch taking place at the time was the number of women working outside the home – it doubled across Canada during the war years.
Maxwell’s employed 110 people in 1939. By the war’s end in 1945, Maxwell’s had 165 employees, including 97 men and 68 women. In 1940, some of their first wartime contracts included orders to build tent poles and benches, of which they fashioned over 100,000 each. Later, they also made fuse plugs, and finally, most famously, hand grenades. Maxwell’s constructed 2.5 million grenades during the war – the most of any factory in Canada.
Alongside narrator Rosemary Radcliffe, performers Jackie Kirkman, Fern Pridham, Aviva Kay and Charlene Van Veen read accounts and memories from the time period based on interviews with Doris Nairn, Fern Hogg, Jean Healy and Mabel Ballantine, respectively. Ballantine was seated in the theatre’s front row for the performance. After the show, Christine Rosen, a granddaughter of Healy’s who now lives in London, took time to hug and thank Kay for her reading.
Next up was “Ladies of the CNR,” which its creators describe as a dramatic “Vignette in Progress” detailing the lives of women who became factory workers at the CNR Shops in Stratford during the war. It imagines three former workers sneaking into the old, abandoned locomotive repair shops where they used to work during the war. The performers, Kelly McIntosh, Stacy Smith and Baptiste Neis, then take turns sharing real stories they’ve uncovered, or that have been shared with them, about the women who used to work there.
McIntosh, who conceived of the project, said she sees it “not just as a Stratford story, but a national story, a story about women, and a perspective on our involvement with industry.”
“Our aim is to share and celebrate these women who rose to the occasion, to a moment in history where necessity bent the gender lines,” she said.