Some Remarkable Women from Niagara's Past

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 Fitzgerald 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 in classics.

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 LaMarsh 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 Niagara Falls. 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 long-time friend. 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.” Claire Shuttleworth “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

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