The accompanying photo

Sooke’s oldest Canadian

Merle Barwis lived to the grand old age of 113, much of it spent in Sooke

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!

Elida Peers,

Historian

Sooke Region Museum

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Literacy global phenomenon lands in Sooke

A worldwide program Free Little Library boasts more than 93,000 locations

Future space homes could be made of mushrooms

NASA explores use of fungi to build structures in space

All Carlton Cards stores closing in the coming weeks

Schurman Retail Group stores across North America will close, including 79 in Canada

Meet Arthur Heart, Oak Bay Avenue’s resident stickman

Contest winner dubs stickman Art Heart

Four things ‘not’ to do if you run into Prince Harry and Meghan in B.C.

Here is a list of some things you definitely should NOT do, according to the BBC

B.C. RCMP spent roughly $750K on massive manhunt for Port Alberni men

Manitoba RCMP helped with 17-day search through the province’s northern terrain

Island Bakery in Cobble Hill to close

Cobble Hill store in business since 1982

Man killed by police in Lytton called 911, asking to be shot: RCMP

Howard Schantz, also known as Barry Schantz was killed following a standoff at his Lytton home

Canadian public health agencies ramping up preparations in response to new virus

Health officials have said there are no confirmed cases of the emerging coronavirus in Canada

‘Naughty boy’: Monty Python star Terry Jones dies at 77

The comedian has been suffering from a rare form of dementia

Successful end to search for kayakers along the Island river

Father and son located tired and cold, but otherwise OK

Most Read