Communities gathered ’round to hear Farm Radio Forum

 In Community

When I was a schoolgirl in the 1940s and 50s I made sure my homework was done by 8:30 on Monday evenings.

That’s when our radio dial was turned to the CBC and our family listened to Farm Radio Forum for a half hour.

Meanwhile all across Canada hundreds of small groups of neighbours in the rural areas gathered together for the same reason.

Farm Radio Forum, a project full of vitality, was popular all across Canada, particularly in the farming areas where, at the time, most Canadians lived. A paper, Read, Listen, Discuss, Act by R.W. Sandwell of O.I.S.E. at University of Toronto, states that the radio forum was the “longest and most apparently successful listening group project in the world… one of the greatest adult educational movements of the time.”

The program ran during the winter months from 1941 to 1965. Small communities could register their interest and receive additional material to supplement what was presented on the radio. The people in the community would gather in someone’s home, a church basement, the schoolhouse or a community hall. Together they listened to the panel discussion or presentation that was arranged for that evening.

Topics ranged from agricultural policy, to food rationing in World War II, whether farm women should work away from the farm, what to do about low farm income, how to organize a labour or machinery pool, health insurance, school nurses and rural electrification.

The last one was a very important one as in the 40s most of rural Canada did not have electricity.

The radios the groups used were powered by batteries, frequently a car battery.

Several questions were posed for the meeting to discuss. They broke into small groups and everyone was free to give his/her opinions. After a certain time limit a report was given to the secretary who wrote the highlights of the discussion on a special form. These were mailed to headquarters where they were collated and a report given the next meeting at the end of the program. These reports went a long way to make rural people feel as though their ideas were important.

The idea for the program came from Orville Shugg who began a career in radio with the 15-minute CBC Farm Broadcast in 1939. The theme song, Men of the Soil, was played at the beginning of the program with the rural people everywhere singing along.

For the 1941-42 season only part of Canada was included: Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes. The next year Western Canada joined in. The techniques of setting up the project were studied and used successfully in Ghana, India and France.

I found that information about Farm Forum was difficult to find primarily because the groups were not formally organized. There may have been a chairperson to call the meeting to order but no money was needed so there were no financial records. The secretary filled in only the form that was mailed in and no additional records were kept.

I did discover a few clues about local groups. In one record Mrs. Mansbridge of New Lowell was mentioned as a contact person, and also Mrs. Buckingham of R.R. 1, Collingwood. Individuals told me there were Farm Forums in Everett and Honeywood. Rockside, west of Duntroon, had a very active group with J. Allan Blair as secretary. Records show that Dunedin had a group for one year only. Lavender had a great deal of local interest with Les Davidson (Harold’s father) one of the leading figures. They did well to invite Bert Smith, editor of The Creemore Star, to attend a banquet they held in the basement of the church. He wrote a lengthy front page story that appeared April 9, 1942. Many speeches were given. Mrs. Brett commented that, “the forum had, through literature and broadcasts, provided interest and incentive to a thinking out of farm problems and possible solutions for them. The social atmosphere created was an outstanding feature with the result that this phase of our community life had been much revived.”

Les Davidson concluded his speech with the words, “if a general civilization is to be maintained, a vigorous rural civilization is needed to provide leaven to the lump.”

Avening had a very enthusiastic group. It was from the Farm Forum that the idea of building Avening Community Hall was initiated. After some discussion Jack Rainbird, who was president at the time, led the beginning of the fundraising. He, Howard Noble, and Lorne Sutherland donated a sum of money as a nest egg. From that beginning more money was raised with fundraising activities. (I detailed some of those in the account I wrote of Avening Hall in The Echo, fall of 2015.) Wallace Timmons (Dorothy Shropshire’s father) took a prominent role in the building of the hall. Now, of course, it is affectionately know as the ACC North.

Back to the Farm Forums of years ago. As soon as the discussion groups gave their reports out came the decks of cards. Euchre was next on the agenda. This may sound like a frivolous activity but to my mind it was the most important part of the evening. It was community building.

The whole family attended the meetings, the children playing in another room while the adults laughed at a trumped play, discussed the evening’s topic or passed around news of people who were ill and needed help. Those were the ties that bound the neighbours together.

And lastly out came the scalding hot cups of tea, cream and sugar, piles of sandwiches often made with fresh homemade bread, cookies and luscious iced cakes. A complete and satisfying end to community building.

This story about Farm Radio Forum could not have been written without the help of Read, Listen, Discuss, Act by R.W. Sandwell, the transcription of Rewind by Michael Enright, both available on the internet, The Farm Radio Forum files at Simcoe County Archives, the Creemore Star microfilms at Creemore Library and these people: Eleanor Elder, Walter Rigney, Dorothy Shropshire, Myrtle Carruthers, Harold Davidson, Margaret Ritchie, Liz Cockburn, Irene Tupling, Helen Aitkin, and Ellen Whitley. Thank you all.

Helen Blackburn is a retired teacher, avid gardener and a long-time contributor to The Creemore Echo. She writes about local history.

Photo: Avening’s Farm Radio Forum put on plays to raise money to build Avening Hall. The cast of “The Improper Harry Propper”, from left: Eric Coker, Rosemary Hammond, Eva Perry, Joan Lennox, Harry Perry, Rita Sutherland, Elton Morrison, Hazel Patton, Jim Patton, Helen Walker, Jessie Carruthers, Jack Rainbird, June Duggan, Gladys Morrison (in black face), Carle Woodward, Verna Weatherall, Betty Coker (director, actor and accompanist).

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