No, they don't plant trees - Glimpses of the Past with Karen Webster
Among the resources for a person interested in genealogy are the obituaries of days gone by.
Recently, the volunteers at the Blyth Repository of History were asked about a group called C.O.F. that was mentioned in an ancestor’s obituary. These letters stand for the Canadian Order of Foresters (C.O.F), a fraternal organization that once was very active in this area.
The origins of forestry groups did indeed begin with wood cutters in England in the 1700s. Woodcutting was a dangerous occupation and if a man was injured or killed, his widow and children were looked after by fellow woodcutters.
This benevolence evolved into the creation of insurance. At each Foresters’ meeting, the question was raised “Are there any who are sick or in need of assistance?”
The fraternal Foresters have had many names throughout the years, such as the Royal Foresters Society, the Ancient Order of Foresters, the Canadian Order of Foresters and the Independent Foresters. It was the Canadian Order of Foresters that grew in this area.
The C.O.F. was organized in November of 1879, with their head office in London, Ontario, and soon local men were forming their own courts. These courts were numbered by the order of when they received their charter. Court Maple Leaf in Clinton was number 10, Court Princess Alexandra of Brussels was numbered 24 and Court Belgrave received the number 48, denoting that these courts were created soon after the Canadian Order of Foresters began.
Some of the local courts were called by the name of the town or village they were in, while others chose different names. Among the local courts were: Court Benmiller; Court Constance (Kinburn); Court Pride of the West (Londesborough); Court Princess Royal (Wallace); Court Sunshine; Court Bluevale and Court Sherwood (Lucknow).
Officers in the local courts had titles that reflected the era of the English woodcutter, thus the head of a court was called the Chief Ranger. Other curious titles were that of the Woodwards, who visited the sick and carried out other duties as directed, and the Beadles, who were the guards to the court.
The Foresters had two functions; that of an insurance company and a fraternal branch as well. In old minute books of the Foresters are records that members, who were injured or ill, were entitled to a weekly sum of money until such time as they were able to resume their livelihood. A letter in the Goderich Signal of 1895 from Mrs. Margaret Malloy to the Benmiller Foresters expressed her appreciation for all the support during her husband’s illness and for the $1,000 benefit she had received after his passing.
In the early years of local Forestry, annual Demonstration Days were held. The fifth demonstration was held in Brussels in 1894, with participation from courts in Paisley, Pinkerton, Walkerton, Mildmay, Cargill, Harriston, Palmerston, Listowel, Atwood, Ethel, Bluevale, Wingham, Whitechurch, Lucknow, Ripley, Kincardine, Tiverton, Wroxeter, Gorrie, Fordwich, Cranbrook, Walton, Seaforth, Blyth, Auburn, St. Helens and Belgrave.
This event included football matches, marching bands, a track and field meet, banquet and concert. During the demonstration, it was announced that $258,000 in benefits had been distributed to members and to their families.
Although the original courts were made up of men, women were eligible for membership by the turn of the 20th century, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that women’s courts were formed in this area. Some of these were Court Constantine in Kinburn, Court Sepoy in Lucknow and Court Fascination in Benmiller.
Although the C.O.F. was a national fraternity, this area was well represented in executive positions. Robert Elliott of Wingham was the High Chief Ranger in 1899, Rev. Joseph Williamson, also of Wingham, was the High Chaplin and, more recently, Rev. Stanley McDonald of Londesborough was elected High Chaplin in 1973, a post he held for 19 years.
Throughout the years, different social events were held in communities in which the Foresters operated. A look through old local newspapers tells of: a box social in Port Albert in 1918; oyster supper and literary contest by the Pride of the West Court in Londesborough in 1891; and concerts at the local Foresters’ halls.
Courts Constance and Constantine in Kinburn were for many years the hosts of a gigantic chicken barbecue that was held each June. Court Benmiller held an annual snowmobile marathon in the era when snow cover was reliable. Later, a duck race was held in association with the Benmiller Inn.
National competitions were popular with Dominion Curling especially predominant. Forester courts located all throughout Canada held provincial trials to determine which courts’ curling teams would advance to the finals. Goderich was the site of at least two of these national events.
The Canadian Order of Foresters raised funds for cancer research for several decades. In 1979, letters started arriving at courts soliciting support for a young British Columbia man who planned to run across Canada to raise funds for cancer research. The Foresters were supporting Terry Fox even before the rest of the country realized who he was.
After slightly more than a century, the Canadian Order of Foresters ceased to exist and was taken over by the Independent Order of Foresters. It seems that all things have their season of growth and then of decline. The two remaining Forester Courts in this area ceased to exist in the early 2000s, Kinburn in 2012 and Benmiller shortly after that.
The Canadian Order of Foresters left a rich heritage of community support, such as fundraising for cancer research, local hospitals and the prevention of child abuse and aid to victims of fires as well as the fellowship that is the result of striving for a common good. Well done, Foresters, in liberty, benevolence and concord.