Walking through the hallway of the Wilberforce Red Cross Outpost, volunteer Linda Cameron can almost feel 101 years of history reverberating around the building’s interior walls.
A member of the Wilberforce Heritage Guild, Cameron and the rest of the small team have made it their mission in recent years to maintain and promote the historic site, which is located along Loop Road, a short walk from the hamlet’s downtown. The facility lays claim to a unique piece of provincial history, being the first designated Red Cross outpost in Ontario.
It was established in February 1922 following the efforts of Alfred Schofield, an inspector for the Children’s Aid Society. The situation was quite desperate at the time, Cameron said.
“This was a poor area, and the community was hit hard this one year – a mother died, and four or five children. It was devastating, so Schofield approached the Red Cross in Toronto to see what could be done to improve health care in the region. They agreed to send a nurse and some equipment on the provision the locals come up with a space, keep the nurses and look after them.”
That sparked the formation of the Monmouth Charitable Association. They first rented the building, which had served as a private residence since its construction in 1916, and furnished it. The first nurse, Josephine Jackson, arrived in February 1922.
Cameron said Jackson and the dozens of other nurses who worked in the area until the Red Cross suspended operations in 1959 maintained meticulous records, which helps paint a picture of what life was like for a primary health care worker in the first half of the century.
“When the girls first arrived, there was no running water, no electricity, very few running cars. They serviced an area of 20 sq. kilometres, so any time they went out and made a home visit, or had to bring someone back to the outpost, it was a long haul,” Cameron said. “They used snowshoes, travelled on horseback, dogsleds, and did an awful lot of walking. They did whatever it took.”
Journals kept by Jackson and others, such as Gertrude LeRoy Miller, means there’s record of cases dating back almost 100 years. Holding an invoice, Cameron said patients were usually charged for service. In 1932, following the birth of a child, the mother and baby spent 10 days at the outpost. The mother was charged $1.75 per day, with the baby charged 90 cents per day. The total bill for delivery was $26.50, which was paid in installments over six months by the father.
“We are so fortunate all this stuff was maintained. And it’s available for anybody to look through,” Cameron said.
On top of providing emergency care, the nurses also conducted routine school checkups. They also taught first aid, effective child care techniques, and Red Cross courses to locals.
The outpost has seen a lot of work over the past 20 years, with the guild eager to ensure it’s in good enough condition to support visitors. The volunteer group assumed responsibility of the space in 1991, fought off plans to demolish it and restored it as a museum. The building was designated as a national historic site of Canada in 2003.
Off the main entrance, to the left, is the nurse’s office, which has been retrofitted to resemble what the space looked like in its heyday. There’s a vintage desk, bed, and various tools and items, many of which Cameron said have been donated to the guild over the years. On the right side of the building is a patient room, kitted with more historic memorabilia.
Down the hall is a display room, with timelines and photos recognizing every nurse on record who served the Wilberforce community. Among the many items showcased is a handmade quilt, made by the mother of the first baby born in the outpost. There are old surgical instruments, outdated equipment such as a violet ray generator that Cameron said was believed to cure issues such as dandruff, hair loss, and obesity but have since been debunked, and other things the guild is still working to identify.
The kitchen is to receive a facelift this year and will serve as a revolving display, Cameron said, featuring old cookbooks, aprons and oil lamps.
The three upstairs rooms will feature displays and timelines looking at the history of Wilberforce township, the various organizations that have existed over the years, and a commemoration of Dr. Jacob Neelands, credited as being one of the first dentists for introducing laughing gas during procedures to reduce pain.
The guild is hosting a 101st anniversary celebration at the outpost Aug. 15. Locals are invited to take in a tour of the building, and enjoy complimentary hot dogs, corn roast and homemade cakes. Cameron said there will also be a draw, with the winner receiving a handmade quilt.
Jill Lee, whose mother, Sylvia Battersby, served as a nurse at the outpost, said the guild was looking for new members to help keep the historic site going. The group currently has 38 lifetime members, with around half of those active contributors. A lifetime membership costs $25.
“It’s our intent to acknowledge the women who worked here and the things they went through, how they survived, and how important they were to the community. Without them, there was no health care in Wilberforce,” Cameron said. “We do our best to commemorate this space and the women who utilized it. This space has a rich history, and the only way to maintain that is to keep the doors open.”
The outpost is currently open six days a week, Wednesday to Monday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The 101st anniversary celebration Aug. 15 will begin at 6:30 p.m. For more information, visit redcrossoutpost.org.