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Nancy Tillson - Tillsonburg's First Lady

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In honour of International Women's Day on March 8, Annandale National Historic Site presented a special Women's Day Lunch and Lecture on Friday, March 6.

Following a four-course meal with decadent dessert, Laurel Beechey gave a power-point historical presentation on Tillsonburg's First Lady, Nancy Barker Tillson, wife of Tillsonburg's founder, George Tillson.

"She was a power," said Beechey.

"Considering what women back then – 190 years ago when she first came to Tillsonburg – had to do. There were no stores. If you didn't make it, you didn't have it. The wool, the weaving, everything. People have no idea.

"She was our first teacher... I call her First Lady of the Log Cabin of Tillsonburg because there was nobody else to do any of this stuff, which is why we're honouring her on a day to honour women."

About 30 women attended Friday's event at Annandale NHS.

"Back then, there were no women's rights whatsoever. The simple fact that these women could do so much – and did it... Today we look at it and we don't understand it. We have so much in Canada. We don't understand the way she was 190 years ago, there are still people in the world who still have to do all that stuff."

Beechey's story started long before Nancy arrived in the Tillsonburg area, known as Dereham's Forge at the time.

"To really know a person, you need to know where a person comes from," said Beechey, weaving a story of Nancy Barker's family, from childhood through young adulthood and marriage as a 17-year-old in 1809 to 27-year-old George Tillson, subsequently raising a family and moving to Tillsonburg, through late adulthood to become 'Grandma Tillson.'

Beechey spoke of 1841, a tragic time in Nancy Tillson's life, when typhus raged through the area and she had to bury three children and two grandchildren.

"This is the only photo we have of what we believe to be Nancy's cabin," said Beechey. "Times were changing, roads were building roads and more people were coming to homestead here.

"That Nancy worked hard is a given. But that doesn't mean it was drudgery – work was also fun. Nancy was known for leading an expedition... for blackberries.

"Her obit in the Tillsonburg Observer noted, Mrs. Tillson came to Canada with her husband in 1822 and settled with him on the spot where Tillsonburg now stands. It was then an ungrown forest for miles around.

"Nancy Barker Tillson was not only a women who deserves our admiration, but to be remembered with her husband George whenever we talk about the founding of Tillsonburg."

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