Women’s Institute

The Chester Branch of Women’s Institute of Nova Scotia played an important role, not only in the life of the community, but also in the founding of the Library and its maintenance for the first fifty years. The group was organized at a meeting held on January 30, 1923. Mrs. Frank Freda, who hosted Chester’s first library and acted as librarian for nine years, was one of the first directors. The minute books, now archived in the Library, reveal that these women immediately started with work for the benefit of the community, putting on teas, garden parties, concerts and lantern slide shows, to raise money to fulfill their many projects.

When the Library was first offered to the community, the Women’s Institute addressed the Municipal Council in session and received permission to sponsor the property until an endowment fund was raised. Mrs. Austen leased the property to them for one dollar for a term of thirteen months or until such time as the endowment fund was completed and the deed was accepted by Municipal Council. At that time, the W.I. asked a Major Holland to come and live in the home and take care of it until the Library and the Endowment Fund were firmly established. He thus became the first librarian/custodian.

On February 6th, 1928 the Chester Branch held its “first meeting in the new Library Building”. The following month, they voted to give three hundred dollars toward the Library Endowment Fund. In April, they voted to make Miss Mabel Mitchell their first representative on the Board of Trustees for the Library. By May, 1937, the minutes note that the W.I., which had been supplying wood for the Library fireplace, was asked to contribute a certain amount each year to the Library Fund, which at that time was exhausted.

By 1943, the W. I. was not only making an annual contribution, but had taken on the task of organizing and hosting an annual fundraising tea on the Library grounds. Minutes from 1946 indicate that Mrs. James Starr, who played a key role in the securing of the Library, was still involved, attending a September meeting where she “carried the members with her on a mental journey through parts of Africa as she reminisced about one of her tours of that country.” The monthly W. I. meetings continued to be held in what became known as the Club Room of the Library. They assisted, as required, with the redecorating of the interior of the building and members assisted with the planting of the flowers in the gardens of the grounds.

WINS 1967 Party
WINS Party in 1967 in the Club Room of the Library, where they dressed up in period costumes in celebration of Canada’s Centennial.

In 1967 the Chester Branch celebrated their 44th birthday: “Roll call was answered by introducing a guest and displaying a family antique. Most members were dressed in old-fashioned costume, while three ladies were very attractive in miniskirts. The Club Room had been transformed into an old-fashioned living room with oil lamps for light during the entertainment.” In 1974, the W.I. decided to donate a plaque for the well on the Regent Street border of the Library property. Dr. M. A. Gibson worded the brass plaque and offered to have it done in Halifax. The minutes note that this was one of the seven original wells dug in this area, before the place was even named. At the Library tea on August 21st, 1975, Sharon Houghton, a direct descendant of Captain Timothy Houghton, was invited to unveil the plaque at a brief ceremony.

At the Annual Meeting on June 5, 1978, the W.I. recognized that there was some doubt as to the future of the Library on account of the financial state of the Endowment Fund. A copy of the deed was read by Mrs. Isabel Marshall that stated that the property, if not operating as a memorial library, will revert to the heirs of the donor – Mrs. Austen. Discussion followed and members expressed sadness that such a thing could happen, but felt powerless to do anything about it. Sadly, at a meeting on September 11, 1978, nine remaining members of the Chester Branch voted to close down operations. A thousand dollar bond was transferred to the trustees of the Library Endowment Fund.

Mrs Marshall
Mrs. Isabel Marshall at Casa Blanca Guest House, her home and business in Chester for many years.

The last entry in the Minute books, recorded at a meeting of former members held at the home of Mrs. Isabel Marshall in November, reads: “We agreed to wait until warmer weather in spring to go to Zoé Vallé Library to clean out the desk we used; and to assemble our records and any other belongings, in an orderly way, to be left there in the room we used for our meetings. After our discussions, Mrs. Marshall served refreshments and we enjoyed a social visit.” The presence of the spirit of the Women’s Institute continued through Mrs. Marshall. She served on the Library Board until 1995 and attended meetings of the Chester Garden Club in the Club Room for some years after.