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Pioneer women of West Kootenay: Ralphia Weir Stitt McLean Borrow

I’m not sure who the first woman to work for a West Kootenay/Boundary newspaper was, but it may have been Harriet Haire Smith, a daughter of C. Dell Smith, proprietor of the Ymir Mirror.

The paper’s Jan. 30, 1904 edition noted: “Miss Smith of the Mirror business staff is visiting her friend, Miss Adie at Waneta.” I presume she was Dell’s daughter, but can’t say for sure. At the time, Harriet was not yet 16. The family moved to Victoria after the newspaper folded a few months later, but I don’t know what became of her.

When the Nelson Daily News established a network of correspondents throughout the Kootenays starting in about 1909, doubtless many were women, but I can’t say for sure as all dispatches were published anonymously.

By the early 1910s, Mrs. M.J. Vigneaux was contributing a regular column of social notes to the Daily News, but I’m not sure if any women held staff positions in editorial departments before the 1920s.

I am confident saying the first woman to edit a newspaper around here was Ralphia McLean, who took the reigns of the Arrow Lakes News in 1923.

Ralphia McLean, date unknown, but 1923 or earlier

(Arrow Lakes Historical Society 990.010.02)

She was born Ralphia Weir Stitt, sometime between 1880 and 1884 (sources conflict) at Spencerville, Ont., the daughter of Joseph and Jane Stitt. Her father was a farmer.

She attended public school at Spencerville and graduated high school at Kemptville, where she showed an aptitude for journalism. She joined the staff of the Prescott Journal, where she remained for six years, then took a job with the Ottawa Free Press, where her duties “brought her in contact with many leading statesmen and politicians of that time.”

The 1911 census finds her in Ottawa, rooming on East Bank Street with several trauma care nurses. Her occupation is given as writer at a publications office.

After three years in Ottawa, she married fellow Spencerville native Dr. Ernest Henry Sheridan McLean, “the result of a youthful romance.” He was between nine and 13 years older than her and had graduated from Queen’s University faculty of medicine in 1891.

He soon came to Revelstoke, where he was appointed medical health officer for West Kootenay, covering Nelson, Revelstoke, and Ainsworth. He returned to Ontario in 1894 to marry Maude Hamilton, and brought her west. They had daughters Jean, born in 1896, and Catherine, born in 1900. Catherine likely died in infancy, as she is not listed with the family on the 1901 census. Ernest and Maude divorced sometime before 1911.

After Ernest and Ralphia married, they returned to Revelstoke where they lived for five years. Ralphia was a member of the Literary Society and was elected president of the local chapter of the Women’s Canadian Club, which was devoted to the study of arts, literature, and history. The group was involved in the war effort, organizing donations for soldiers overseas.

Through her interest in these organizations as well as the Presbyterian Church and politics, Ralphia “became widely and favorably known throughout not only the Kootenays but in various portions of the province. Her services as a speaker were much in demand during campaigns in which she espoused the cause of the Conservative party.”

She became secretary of the Kaslo-Slocan Conservative association and was a key supporter of Billy Esling, a newspaper publisher in Rossland and Trail, who was elected Conservative MLA for Rossland in 1921 and later spent 20 years as MP for Kootenay West.

In October 1916, the McLeans moved to Nakusp, where Ernest took charge of the local cottage hospital and was also appointed CPR surgeon for the area. “Both the doctor and his clever wife will be greatly missed from the social life of Revelstoke, where they have always been extremely popular,” the Mail Herald reported.

They bought the Haig house on Broadway, where Save-On-Foods now stands, and converted a portion into a doctor’s office. Ernest also bought Wakelin’s drug store.

A highlight of their time in Nakusp was the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire on Oct. 18, 1919. Ralphia greeted them as they disembarked from the SS Bonnington and appears with them in the photo below.

Duke and Duchess of Devonshire (Governor-General Victor Cavendish and Evelyn Cavendish) and party outside of Cottage Hospital, 417 Francis Street, Nakusp, October 1919. L-R by heads: guard, Duchess of Devonshire, lady-in-waiting, Duke of Devonshire, unknown, Ralphia McLean, Miss Allen, Tom Abriel, Bert Herridge, unknown, Lewis Edwards, Mrs. Bill Bailey (matron), unknown matron.

(Arrow Lakes Historical Society 2001.037.100)

The 1921 census found Ernest and Ralphia living in Nakusp with her widowed mother. They also had an 18-year-old servant, possibly named Lydia Henke, although the writing is hard to read.

Ralphia was a charter member of Nakusp’s Order of Eastern Star, formed in 1921. She was voted the first Worthy Matron of the chapter, and went on to become Worthy Grand Matron of the Grand Lodge of BC in 1927.

Frank Rouleau established the Arrow Lakes News at Nakusp on June 28, 1922. That was the same year fire consumed Lewis Edwards’ building on Slocan Avenue, prompting Edwards to rebuild on Broadway Avenue, which soon became the commercial centre of town.

Ralphia was named editor of the News in November 1923. In Bugles on Broadway, Milt Parent wrote: “Busy producing the Kaslo paper, Rouleau hired Mrs. Ralphia McLean to edit and print the Nakusp edition in an office in the Somers building.”

That month a story appeared in The Vancouver Sun (pictured below), in which Ralphia reflected on the town’s recent progress:

Since the fire of Nov. 14 last year the business section of Nakusp has arisen on a more imposing and modern scale on an entirely new business thoroughfare, Broadway. The town now presents an attractive appearance, and situate as it is on the shore of the Arrow lake at its widest part, with scenery — water, mountain, and vale — of great beauty, is a delight to residents and visitors alike.

She summed up the area’s major industries and mentioned the work of the women’s institute, amateur dramatic society (she belonged to both), and other groups.

“All together,” she said, “though Nakusp is not booming, the town is developing along steady, permanent lines, best calculated to serve its residents and the big district for which it is the business centre.”

Ralphia’s initial tenure as editor was brief, through no fault of her own. At year’s end, an announcement appeared in the paper:

With this issue of the Arrow Lakes News, we are suspending publication for several months. It is not our intention to close the paper down permanently, but rather until the spring opens up. For some time past, financially the paper has not been a success … so we have [no] other course left open but to close down.

Only one issue Ralphia edited — dated Nov. 29, 1923 — appears to survive, but I haven’t had a chance to look it up. The paper was re-established in March 1924 and sold the following month to Arthur Stanley Sr. of Trail. I don’t know whether Ralphia returned to the editor’s chair, but she may have; the BC Legislative Library catalogue indicates she was editor through November 1928, which seems highly unlikely, but I haven’t yet double checked.

Dr. Ernest McLean was one of Nakusp’s most respected residents, but a drug addiction proved his undoing. Molly Harris (nee Islip) recalled in an interview with Milt Parent that “someone would come to the door and Daddy would go out with them. They were out looking for Doc McLean. He would be holed up in a room in the hotel. They would take him home.”

On July 18, 1924, after an evening playing bridge with Molly’s parents, Ernest was in his office and Ralphia asked him if he was coming upstairs. He said he would only be a minute. She got halfway up the stairs when she heard him fall to the floor, dead. He was 52.

A funeral was held at the McLean home and the procession to the cemetery passed the new hospital, still under construction.

Ralphia met Edward Dodsley Barrow, who was Chilliwack’s MLA, BC’s longtime agriculture minister, and a widower. He was also a Liberal. Ralphia remained an ardent Conservative. Yet on April 28, 1928, they married at the United Church in Nakusp.

Calgary Herald, May 2, 1928

No one was more stunned than Thomas Abriel, one of Nakusp’s leading citizens, who had his own eye on Ralphia. As Dick Blyth told Milton Parent:

Tom never got married but was interested in Dr. McLean’s wife. But he was very formal in that regard. He never did any courting. She used to come and visit us once in a while at the office. One day she came in to say that she was going to marry Mr. Barrow … And I will never forget the change of expression on Tom’s face. It was quite a shock to him.

The couple met either on the campaign trail, through her work with the Women’s Institute — or through Abriel’s connection with the Agriculture Association.

The wedding was conducted by Rev. B.H. Balderston, assisted by Rev. L.J. Thompson. Clara Islip served as bridesmaid and Kaslo-Slocan MLA Sid Leary as best man. Following a lunch at the Leary home, a crowd bid farewell to the couple on the SS Minto as they headed to Sicamous for the first part of their honeymoon.

According to a newspaper account, “Their departure was accompanied by cheers and the sirens of the local mills were answered by the steamer’s own whistle until it was out of site.”

In the provincial election that June, Edward Borrow lost his seat in the legislature. The couple then moved to Chilliwack, where they built a new home called Cottonwoods, a short distance east of Vedder Canal.

Ralphia “readily and easily associated herself with the interests and activities of the community” and “indicative of her talent for organization and leadership, as well as native ability and diplomacy,” she organized the Chilliwack chapter of the Women’s Canadian Club and served as its first president in 1933-34. Also on her lengthy resume: she was president of the Local Council of Women, secretary of the Women’s Institute, and a member of the hospital auxiliary, IODE, and Chilliwack Fair board.

In late July 1934, the Barrows left for England, where Edward — since re-elected MLA — was to study agricultural marketing legislation. They planned to be gone for three months. Days before their return voyage, friends were shocked to learn that Ralphia had died suddenly. She was in her early 50s. The cause was not reported, but she had left on the trip in excellent health. She was buried at Ringwood, Hampshire, England, which was Edward’s hometown.

Her front-page obituary in the Chilliwack Progress of Oct. 18, 1934 enumerated her many community contributions and added:

Withal these many and varied activities in which Mrs. Barrow’s abilities and capacities for doing things and getting things done were evidenced, and through which so many people came to know, value and esteem her, it was her own home that a combination of all her womanly qualities were expressed in the grace, the warmth, the charm and the generosity of the hospitality she bestowed upon those whom she delighted to honor.
The late Mrs. Barrow had a circle of friendship which was province-wide, perhaps no British Columbian woman being more widely or more favorably known, while all across Canada there are many with whom she came in contact, and by whom she was highly respected.

The obituary indicated she was survived by her husband, mother, and second cousin, but did not mention her three stepdaughters — one from her first marriage and two from her second. (Ralphia’s mother moved with her to Chilliwack, where she died in 1939.) Another tribute, seen below, appeared the same day on the women’s page.

In 1935, a bursary was established by the Chilliwack Women’s Canadian Club in Ralphia’s name, to be given to the junior matriculation student with the highest marks in a final test on Canadian history, geography and literature. The last sign I can find of it being awarded is in 1951.

Edward Barrow died in 1956. His papers are held by the Chilliwack Museum and Historical Society.

Ralphia’s brief stint on the Arrow Lakes News is not well remembered, but she is mentioned several times in Milt Parent’s books Bugles on Broadway and Port of Nakusp.

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