What a romantic story, growing up on her family’s prairie horse ranch in Saskatchewan, meeting a cowboy from a neighbouring ranch at a dance, and marrying him! It’s the stuff novels are made of. Merle Stedwell was born in Iowa on December 23, 1900. When she was four-years-old, her family moved to Canada, taking up a homestead. Their first shelter was a sod hut.
Merle grew up on horseback, learning ranching chores and responsibility early in life. Social get-togethers were much looked forward to in those pioneer days and it was at a dance that she met Dewey Barwis, the ranch hand who won her heart.
Now that the news has hit the media that Canada’s oldest citizen has passed on, just a month short of her 114th birthday, we can look back on the half century that she was a part of the fabric of the Sooke community. At first Merle and Dewey Barwis moved about the prairies, raising three children as Dewey, who got a job as stationmaster with the CPR, was posted from town to town.
Meanwhile their eldest son Dewey I. C. (called Dick) joined the Royal Canadian Navy, serving throughout World War II. He married Helene Halladay and the young couple purchased land in Sooke. They raised sons Richard and Terry as he fulfilled his naval commitments. Among his postings were Cornwallis and Churchill, Manitoba, where the growing boys needed to look out for polar bears. After retiring as a CPO First Class, Dick became a counsellor at the Veterans’ Hospital in Victoria, the boys went to local Sooke schools and welcomed a baby sister Levina into the family.
Lured by tales of the mild west coast climate, Merle and Dewey moved to the coast as well, settling alongside their son and his family on Harbourview Road in 1952. I first met Merle Barwis when I was delivering eggs door to door in the 1960s, and always had a pleasant chat with her each week.
Alone after her husband passed away in 1966, Merle lived quietly, but was a welcoming presence for her grandchildren, as they would run across the lawn to visit her in her little cottage by the road. Later on, her great-grandchildren as well would keep up a lively connection to her.
Merle was a very independent and self-sufficient lady, very straight-spoken. She did her own yard chores even into her 90s, and while a good cup of coffee was her mainstay she enjoyed a refreshing bottle of beer as well. It was only in the last decade or so that she needed to move into care at St. Mary’s Priory.
Her grandsons recall how pleased she was when it was determined, in 2012, that she was the oldest living Canadian. Besides her daughter and family in Saskatchewan, she is survived in Sooke by her daughter-in-law Helene, grandsons Richard and Terry and their families, and granddaughter Levina. Her family is rightfully proud of their illustrious forebear.
Who could have foreseen that the young girl who rode horseback across the prairie in the moonlight with her suitor so long ago, would be recognized in 2014 as a woman of such distinction!
Sooke Region Museum