A Remarkable Pioneering Lady

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“Sarah Ellen Dow, one of our remarkable pioneering ladies, gets talked about a lot – but always in terms of what she saw, what she witnessed happening in the community as it grew up around here, never in terms of what she did.”

That’s a comment from a presentation I gave recently, on some of the women in Creston’s history.  Much the same can be said about quite a few of the Valley’s female pioneers.  Their obituaries – often the best source of information – might tell us that they came here in such-and-such a year, where their husbands had a fruit ranch or operated a business or whatever it was that the men came here to do. We rarely get any insight into who the lady was or how she passed the majority of her time, the challenges she overcame or the joys she knew.

So who was Sarah Ellen Dow, and what did she do?

Genealogically speaking, she was the daughter of William Goodwin and Mary Ellen Street, born in Buxton, England in December 1874. She immigrated to Canada with her father, siblings, and step-mother (her mother died when she was only three weeks old) in 1880, first to Winnipeg, then to a farm near Moose Jaw (where she, at age ten, was a distant observer of the second Riel Rebellion). In 1887 the family moved to Rogers Pass, then spent three years in Victoria before moving to Kaslo in 1891. There she met John Wilson Dow, whom she married on January 24, 1893.

This is where we can begin to see Sarah Ellen as a person.  J.W. had pre-empted land in the Creston Valley in 1891 and Sarah Ellen joined him here, arriving on March 28, 1893. She later wrote, “I watched the boat steam away on her journey up the river and discovered I was alone in a strange part of the country, not anything but an opening on the riverbank to show where I was.”  Suddenly finding herself, barely nineteen years old and already pregnant with her first child, alone in a place that had no signs of human habitation might well send many a young lady into a panic, but not Sarah Ellen. “While I was waiting,” she writes calmly, “I took a general survey of the country that was to be my future home.”

Sarah Ellen Dow, left, and friend cutting trees

There can be no doubt that she was a courageous young woman (though perhaps a little afraid of snakes). She writes very matter-of-factly about their subsistence living, relying on wild game, fish and waterfowl, as well as the plentiful wild berries, for much of their food.  She was delighted to have neighbours after the fall of 1893, but seemed to take their absence equally in stride. She only hints at the loneliness of that neighbour-less first summer, when “I spent the time wandering about the ranch.” The only thing that really seemed to bother her was the mosquitoes – she says, “During mosquito season it was almost impossible to live.”

She is also quite matter-of-fact about the eighty miles to Nelson – and a doctor – via a rather unreliable steamship service; she writes “It did not pay any of us to be ill; we had to get well the best way we could.” One day, she “took ill, and my friends were very good to me” – a simple statement, and one that masks the harsh reality that even minor illnesses could be very dangerous in a frontier community. The absence of any kind of medical care is underscored by the fact that, of her four children, only the youngest (son David “Pat” Dow) was actually born in Creston. Son Campbell was born in Spokane; daughters Jessie and Mary Ellen (Ella) in Riondel and Kaslo respectively – communities that, unlike Creston, had doctors and midwives.

The Dow family on an excursion on the flats

In later years, Sarah Ellen was very closely associated with the Presbyterian Church. She established the Valley’s first Sunday School, in 1902, for children of all denominations. She was a charter member of the Presbyterian Ladies’ Auxiliary, established in 1907, was elected president of it in 1908, and served in that capacity until 1932. She was one member of the committee of ladies who, in 1909, raised $575 to build the Presbyterian Church. Sarah Ellen organised the Boys’ Standfast Club and the Girls’ Guild in 1909, and was a driving force behind the Church’s Women’s Missionary Society. Her interest in the latter was lifelong: her daughter Jessie was once asked, “When did your mother become interested in missionary work?” Jessie answered, “When she was born.”

When the Church celebrated its 30th anniversary in 1939, Sarah Ellen was recognised, many times over, for her work with the Church and its various subsidiary organisations. Several speeches were made at the celebration honouring her work, and she was presented with a number of generous gifts. But perhaps the greatest testimony of her importance to the Church lies in the fact that its ladies’ auxiliary was being called “the Ellen Dow Auxiliary” as early as 1928.

“Granny Ellen,” centre, with her daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter

Sarah Ellen wrote many articles about local pioneers and happenings which were published in the Creston Review and in newspapers around the province. Scrapbooks full of newspaper clippings she collected survive to this day in the Creston Archives, and her written accounts of the Valley’s pioneer years are a valuable record of the community’s growth. Ironically, Sarah Ellen’s own role in that growth is masked. There are only a couple of clues that hint at the fact that she, with her own hands, helped build the community. One is a photograph, showing her cutting down a tree either for firewood or to help clear the land of their fruit ranch. The other is a speech, written for an unknown occasion by Sybil White but which reads like a eulogy.  It concludes, “If ever you visit Creston Valley, and see the beautiful fruit trees, you can say, ‘I knew the lady who helped … to plant those trees.”

That same speech tells us that “the little thoughtful acts of kindness were as much a part of her life, she brought cheer, comfort, and entertainment to many. Here was a woman of Destiny.”

Sarah Ellen Dow lived in the Creston Valley nearly continuously for sixty years, building  a fruit ranch, building a church, building numerous community organisations, building a record of the community’s history. She quietly left the Valley about 1954, moving to Vancouver where she lived with her daughter Jessie. She died there on March 12, 1964, at the age of 89. Her obituary does not appear in the Creston newspapers.

Originally published March 2013