Wilberforce Heritage Guild member Hilda Clark lifts the seat cover to the commode on display at the Wilberforce Red Cross Outpost Historic House part of a new exhibit Coping with Commodes. Clark said the nurses coped with difficulties related to rural life including remoteness and lack of electricity. Short talks are held every Wednesday at 2 p.m. and this exhibit is on display for the summer. /DARREN LUM Staff

Exhibit offers glimpse of past hardships

It’s difficult to imagine the hardships endured by the many nurses posted at Ontario’s first Red Cross Outpost in Wilberforce since it opened in 1922. Nursing service at the outpost ended in 1957.

Now this building known as the Wilberforce Red Cross Outpost Historic House stands as a testament to these women and offers a glimpse into the past. It’s featuring a new exhibit Coping with Commodes.

Volunteer and the outpost’s biggest promoter Hilda Clark said this modest new exhibit is to draw visitors to learn about these resourceful and resilient women. They were responsible for a variety of efforts ranging from the health care they provided which included the work of emptying bedpans and cleaning diapers along with a range of health-care tasks.

The new exhibit focuses on how the nurses dealt with excrement without electricity and includes artifacts from the outpost’s collection of past decades of operation and donated pieces.

It includes one commode which was returned to the outpost from the Haliburton Highlands Museum 22 bedpans and urinals of all shapes sizes and with unique features to measure fluids. The exhibit also includes several posters with facts on outhouses.

Although this exhibit will only be showcased this summer at the two-storey building the artifacts from

the exhibit will remain in the museum indefinitely. A talk related to how the nurses coped is held every Wednesday at 2 p.m.

Clark said these nurses paved the way for the Red Cross to start other such outpost service facilities across rural Canada. Some were hospitals with up to 30 beds she adds.

She doesn’t believe enough is said about these heroic women and they should not be forgotten.

The Wilberforce Heritage Guild has ensured the outpost continues with restoration and preservation.

Its members have run the museum since they began to lease the building in 1991.

“We have to remind ourselves this is pretty important what we did to get this little building opened … it’s amazing how many things we have there that are either of the year or the actual ones that have been there” she said.

Many of the nurses were highly trained and came from cities or towns with electricity. Despite this challenge many endured and even stayed years working then married and raised families such as Marion Tallman.

The nurses were integral to the vitality of the community being responsible for assisting with bringing babies into the world and with keeping men and women alive.

Clark said the nurses were the first and only responders for emergency medical care in the community. Particularly when the nurses started to have their own vehicles and were able to drive.

They were often called upon to transport residents for medical care.

During the outpost days hot water was boiled on the stove. It was the same water not only used for medical procedures but also for the nurses to clean themselves after a long day.

“Imagine not even being able to shower after you’ve been out helping deliver babies and ride back on a hand-cart on the railway or whatever. There was a lot of coping that went on and figuring how to do things” she said.

Clark speaks proudly about when the outpost and the nurses received recognition for their dedication to the community when the building was named as a national historic site in 2003.

The Wilberforce Red Cross Outpost plaque reads: Here and elsewhere dedicated women provided health education and badly needed nursing care with minimal medical backup facilities and equipment often travelling and working in difficult conditions.

Guild memberships are open to anyone with an annual $2 fee and a lifetime fee of $25.

The outpost is located at 2314 Loop Rd. and is open every day (except Tuesdays) from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. during July and August.  Take a virtual tour of the museum at www.haliburtonhighlandsheritage.ca.