Deborah Willson was an astute Niagara businesswoman who
had a copious amount of courage. She also left us with a mystery.
American by birth, Deborah and her husband Charles relocated
to Niagara in 1788. Seven years later, Charles opened a tavern
along Portage Road at Fallsview where the Oakes Hotel is now
located. Following Charles’s death in early 1812, Deborah took
over the ownership and management of the tavern.
Not long after, the War of 1812 broke out. During the conflict,
Deborah declared herself to be neutral, providing refreshments
along with information to both British and American officers
who stopped at her establishment. This must have placed
her in compromising and even dangerous situations at times.
Nevertheless, her tavern remained open all during the war.
Part of its popularity with the military on both sides was
probably due to the fact that Deborah had two lovely daughters,
Harriet and Statira, both of whom worked in their mother’s tavern
serving food and drinks.
July 25, 1814, was a date Deborah Willson would never forget.
On that day, British and Canadian troops clashed with invading
American forces in the bloody Battle of Lundy’s Lane, which took
place in and around what is now Drummond Hill Cemetery, not
far from her tavern. The conflict, which involved a total of some
six thousand men, began in the early evening and only concluded
around midnight after both exhausted armies had fought each other
to a standstill. The Americans then began a withdrawal to their camp
at Chippawa. Casualties on both sides were extremely heavy.
By mid-evening her tavern had been turned into a makeshift
hospital that was quickly filled. During the dark early hours of July
26th, she counted 60 wagon-loads of wounded men that passed by
her door on their way to the American camp.
Following the war, Deborah, like many Niagara residents,
submitted a war losses claim to the government. Now comes the
mystery. Did government authorities resent her American birth or
have reason to distrust her declaration of neutrality during the war?
Perhaps there was something else about the lady or what went on
in her tavern that was not acceptable, for, on the cover of her war
losses claim application, some official wrote these words, “Reputed
character, destroyed and infamous”.
Niagara’s past is full of extraordinary, fascinating women like
Deborah. Read on to meet a few more ladies whose life stories
deserve to be remembered.
Eliza was a lady who achieved some significant firsts. Born in St.
Catharines, Ontario, in 1858, she began her schooling there and
proved to be an outstanding pupil. In 1881, Eliza was accepted
as a student by Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. This
was during a time when many men had strong prejudices against
women seeking higher education. Eliza persevered however, and
three years later became Queen’s first woman arts graduate. She
was also the first woman from Queen’s to be awarded a gold medal
Eliza went on to study for her master of arts degree and added to
that accomplishment by obtaining a high school teacher’s certificate.
In 1887 she became the first woman high school principal in
Ontario following her appointment to Stamford Collegiate in
what is now Niagara Falls.
A no-nonsense, out-spoken lady, Eliza died in 1932.
Judy was a lady who achieved a high “rank” in Canadian federal
politics at a time when it was overwhelmingly dominated by men.
Born in Chatham, Ontario, in 1924, the LaMarsh family moved
to Niagara Falls when Judy was seven years old.
After graduating from Stamford Collegiate in 1942, she served
in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps from 1943 to 1946. She
then decided to study law and was called to the Bar in 1950, joining
her father’s Niagara Falls practice.
In the Federal Election of 1960, Judy ran for the Liberal Party.
She was elected as the Member of Parliament for the Niagara Falls
Riding, a seat she held until she retired from politics in 1968.
When the Liberal Party under Prime Minister Lester Pearson
came to power in 1963, he asked Judy to become a member of his
cabinet as Minister of Health and Welfare. She became the second
woman in Canadian history to serve in the federal cabinet.
Two years later she was given a new role within the cabinet,
becoming Secretary of State. As such, she presided over Canada’s
centennial year celebrations in 1967 and also established the Royal
Commission on The Status of Women in Canada.
After leaving politics she became a broadcaster and an author
and resumed her law practice.
Judy LaMarsh died in 1980.
Wynnifred (Stokes) Hill
Winnifred Stokes was born in 1902 on a farm in what is now
Following her graduation from high school in 1919, she set out
to find a job. Having an interest in journalism, she applied at the
Niagara Falls Review. The newspaper’s owner and publisher, Frank
Howard Leslie, hired her for one month to sell ads. That one month
turned into a 51-year career with The Review, one of the longest in
Canadian newspaper history. “Wyn”, as she was popularly known,
soon moved from advertising into reporting – Frank Leslie once
described her as “a first-class reporter” in all departments.”
She eventually became city editor and then, in 1957, was
appointed The Review’s Managing Editor, becoming, it is believed,
the first woman in Canada to hold such a position.
During the following year she married Joe Hill who had been a
For many years, Wyn was also involved with a vast number
of professional and charitable organizations in Niagara Falls.
She was the first woman to chair the Niagara Falls Board of
Education, the Niagara Falls Library Board and the local United
Way, as it is now known.
In 1973 she was invested as a member in the Order of Canada.
Winnifred Stokes Hill died in 1977. James Allan, former Ontario
Treasurer and chair of The Niagara Parks Commission at the time,
noted “She did much good for her community, the province and
the country. She was an exceptional woman.”
“From childhood the Niagara has fascinated me.”
So wrote Claire Shuttleworth, a talented artist who painted
many scenes along the Niagara River during the early 20th century.
Born in Buffalo, New York, in 1867, she studied and painted
in various areas of the world such as New England, Bermuda,
Florida, Quebec, Italy, and France. However, Claire always felt
that the Niagara River offered the most wonderful opportunities
for an artist. As she wrote in 1925: “I came back to our Niagara
River with increasing admiration and love for the delicate beauty
of colouring and the majesty of its breadth and its rushing waters.
It suggests to me a great orchestral symphonic poem of which my
rendering must be by brush and palette”.
Accordingly, she laid plans for painting a series of canvases
designed to show the visual sensations the river had to offer. The
Village of Chippawa, along the Niagara River just above the
Falls, soon became an important part of the project. Visiting the
community in 1910, she described it as having “the charm of an
old-world hamlet, yet with a wonderful combination of land and
water subjects for sketching.”
Captivated by Chippawa, she decided to establish a summer
home and studio there, naming it Minglestreams since it was very
close to where the waters of the Welland River (Chippawa Creek).
and the Niagara River met.
In the following years, Claire produced over 100 sketches and oil
paintings portraying various scenes along the Niagara River. They
received great acclaim, with one French critic describing them as
“sparkling with spirit.”
She was also aware that her work formed an historical record,
showing the Niagara River as it was during her years in Chippawa.
Already, significant changes to the environment were taking
place. Concerned about this, she wrote, “The Niagara River thrills
and saddens one. Its beauty is passing away, turned into utility for
the coming generation. I hope that some day my canvases may help
to show what these waters were in their days of beauty and might
and that my labor will not have been entirely in vain.”
Never married, Claire Shuttleworth died at her Buffalo home
on May 7, 1930 at the age of 63. She lies buried in Holy Trinity
Church Cemetery in Chippawa.
Following her death, Claire’s paintings, including the Niagara
series, were sold or distributed. While a few are known to be in private
collections or galleries, the whereabouts of the rest are unknown.
Claire’s summer home still stands on Bridgewater Street in
Chippawa. Happily, as a plaque on the front of the house indicates,
the present owners have kept the name Minglestreams. TM