ON THE TRAIL OF GREAT WOMEN IN ALBERTA – A couple years ago I visited a wonderul museum in Whitehorse. There were tons of stories about interesting miners from around the world, but I was particularly struck by a woman named Lucille Hunter, who was one of the first black women in the Yukon and used to walk 200 km from Mayo to Dawson City every year. I also found it fun to read about Martha Louise Black, a Yukon resident who was the second woman elected to the Parliament of Canada.
The history of Alberta, similarly, is filled with rich stories of pioneer women; women who had just as tough a go – almost certainly harder in most cases – than their male counterparts but made names for themselves that live on today.
If you wander the small but lovingly arranged and attractive Canmore Museum you’ll find great old photos of ball teams and stories of workers toiling for coal for 73 cents a ton. But you’ll also find great stories about women hikers (see photo) and a tiny fireball of a woman named Mary Rodda.
It seems Rodda’s husband managed the rough and tumble Canmore Hotel for some time but died in 1952. Undeterred, Rodda took over and ran the place with an iron fist for 16 years, fending off all sorts of hooligans and drunkards and lord knows what else.
“She had a presence that demanded respect from both quarrelsome miners and government officials,” according to an inscription in the museum, and you can almost picture this tiny woman behind the counter staving off trouble with a stern look, or maybe her hand on a very large stick.
The museum storyboard says local inspectors “were not pleased that a woman was managing the bar, (but) did eventually grant her a liquor license, making her one of the first women in Alberta allowed to run a bar.”
The hotel website said she would sometimes climb on a chair and stand between two fighting miners to calm frayed nerves. There’s a likeness of her doing just that on a wall outside the hotel.
They’re making attempts to restore the hotel. In the meantime, you can still duck inside and find a great pub with pool tables, lots of wood and an old-time bar with many a tale to tell.
A few kilometers up the road is the Whyte Museum in Banff, where you can read about how local businessman Jim Brewster once popped in on his wife, who was alone at their brick bungalow, and announced he had brought a couple of surprise guests, those being King George and Queen Elizabeth, who in 1939 made the first visit to Canada by a reigning British monarch.
“I may forget a lot of things about the royal visit,” Brewster later recalled. “But never my wife’s face when we walked in the door.”
Again, though, I’m most fascinated by stories of women settlers who lived among the natives and hunted and gathered and fended off bitter winter weather in no doubt hugely primitive cabins in the woods, women such as Mary Schaffer Warren. Warren, a Pennsylvania Quaker, first came to Alberta in 1889 and made repeated visits. Her husband, Charles, and her father and mother all died within six months of each other. But she found peace in the Rockies and was inspired to finish a botanical guide she and Charles had started on the flora of the region. With the help of guide Billy Warren, she developed tremendous outdoor skills and is said to be the first non-aboriginal woman to wander through what are now Banff and Jasper National Parks.
Schaffer was such an accomplished photographer, artist and writer that the Canadian government asked her to do an official survey of Maligne Lake in 1911. There was a book written about her called No Ordinary Woman, but it sounds like a pretty good movie plot to me. Maybe with Meryl Streep.
Also you’ll find great stories about Elizabeth Von Rummel, a baroness who lived a life of luxury in Germany but had her home severely damaged in world War I. She came to Alberta after the war and lived on a ranch in the foothills near Millarville In 1938 at age 41, when many folks might think of early retirement, Von Rummel rode by horseback into Mount Assiniboine Lodge and got a job as a chambermaid. She ended up running the lodge as well as famous Skoki Lodge, making hundreds of loyal friends and earning The Order of Canada, which is so cool. She also mentored the infamous Hans Gmoser, the guide who founded Canadian Mountain Holidays.
A great province. With a history of great women.