Being Neighbours: Cooperative Work and Rural Culture, 1830-1960 | College of Arts

Being Neighbours: Cooperative Work and Rural Culture, 1830-1960

being neighbours book cover

by Catharine Anne Wilson.

McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2022

How neighbours working together in cooperative work bees played a vital role in agricultural progress, the viability of the family farm, and rural culture.

Throughout history, farm families have shared work and equipment with their neighbours to complete labour-intensive, time-sensitive, and time-consuming tasks. They benefitted materially and socially from these voluntary, flexible, loosely structured networks of reciprocal assistance, making neighbourliness a vital but overlooked aspect of agricultural change.

Being Neighbours takes us into the heart of neighbourhood - the set of people near and surrounding the family - through an examination of work bees in southern Ontario from 1830 to 1960. The bee was a special event where people gathered to work on a neighbour’s farm like bees in a hive for a wide variety of purposes, including barn raising, logging, threshing, quilting, turkey plucking, and apple paring. Drawing on the diaries of over one hundred men and women, Catharine Wilson takes readers into families’ daily lives, the intricacies of their labour exchange, and their workways, feasts, and hospitality. Through the prism of the bee and a close reading of the diaries, she uncovers the subtle social politics of mutual dependency, the expectations neighbours had of each other, and their ways of managing conflict and crisis. This book adds to the literature on cooperative work that focuses on evaluating its economic efficiency and complicates histories of capitalism that place communal values at odds with market orientation.

Beautifully written, engaging, and richly detailed and illustrated, Being Neighbours reveals the visceral textures of rural life.

“Catharine Wilson renders visible the social bonds of neighbouring and the complexity of rural life. Her in-depth examination allows a greater understanding of the inherent tensions in these work arrangements and the neighbourhoods that sustained them, dismantling some of the romantic glow of rural culture in a ‘simpler time.’One of the most important works on rural culture in many years.”

            - Joe Anderson, Mount Royal University and author of Capitalist Pigs: Pigs, Pork, and Power in America

Awards and Accomplishments:

  •  Finalist for the Canadian Historical Association's Best Scholarly Book in Canadian History Prize

  • Co-Winner of the Champlain Society's Floyd C. Chalmer's Award, best book on Ontario's History in 2022

  • Winner of the Ontario Historical Society's J.J. Talman Award, best book on Ontario's history in the last three year


Cathy Wilson headshot



             Catharine Anne Wilson, FRSC, is the Francis and Ruth Redelmeier Professor in Rural History at the University of Guelph and founder and director
             of the Rural Diary Archive website.
             Part of the McGill-Queen's Rural, Wildland, and Resource Studies Series (number 16 in series)
             464 Pages, 6 x 9,  44 photos, 9 tables, 3 diagrams, ISBN 9780228014720, November 2022
             Formats: Cloth, Paperback, eBook



Listen to the Rural Books Podcast about the book, hosted by Shauna Rae and broadcast to 420 communities in Canada.

Listen to the Active History/History Slam Podcast about the book, "Cooperative Agriculture: What's Old is News," with Sean Graham.

Watch the Book Trailer for Being Neighbours

Watch the Book Launch Talk by Catharine