Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine History Article April 2007.
On Researching Rita
By Lauren Coodley
There are four ways to write a woman’s life: the woman herself may tell it, in what she chooses to call an autobiography; she may tell it in what she chooses to call fiction; a biographer may write the woman’s life in what is called a biography; or the woman may write her own life in advance of living it, unconsciously, and without recognizing or naming the process. –Carolyn Heilbrun
In response to my query for information about Rita Bordwell, Lee Mitchell writes: “I’m a retired Battalion Chief from the Napa Fire Department. I’m a docent and the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Napa Firefighters Museum at 1201 Main St. Many of us old timers knew Rita Bordwell. When I was first hired by the City of Napa in 1965 she used to stop by for a visit with the ‘fire ladies.’ She always had a story to tell and would remind us that her father was one of the original volunteer firefighters on the Pioneer Engine Co. here in Napa in the late 1800’s. We have a picture of her in one of our display cases at the museum. She was a very special lady to all of us who knew her. If you have time, please stop by the museum and maybe we can provide additional information.”
I did stop by the museum and admired her photograph. From Retired Captain Bob Foley I learned that Rita Harren Bordwell had written the first history of the Napa Fire Department, covering the years between l859 to l962. He leafed through drawers and handed me the only copy. I read that her grandfather William Kennedy, who had sailed around South America to get to California, had been both Deputy Sheriff and prisoner guard for the County between l879 and l900. His marriage to Ann Hogan, who traveled here by covered wagon, is reportedly the second on record at St John’s Catholic Church.
Bordwell tells how in early Napa, before l859, the only resources to fight fires were wells and pumps: “Women and girls pumped, men passed the buckets.” In l859 the first volunteer fire company was founded; by l873 the Napa Hook and Ladder Company had been added. Bordwell describes the vaudeville shows held at Napa High to raise funds for the volunteers, and the New Year’s Balls held at the Opera House, where the Napa Band played until midnight, when refreshments were served and the dancing continued until 5am.
“My father [Charles Harren] served between l884 and l886. He was injured by a falling burning wall and resigned at the request of the Mother—but he never missed a fire as long as he lived. We have a picture of my father in his uniform holding the bugle which was used to call ‘the boys’ together.”
When there was a fire, “everyone turned out” to watch the friendly competition between the different volunteer fire companies. She praises Henry and Ed Manasse of Sawyer Tannery, whose own firefighting organization, the Reliance Hose Company, who “always offered assistance” to the town.
In l907, the town created its first paid fire department. The new fire station was built at the site of the old Central School on First Street in l926. The fire chief and his family lived on the west side of the building, the “boys” stayed in the east. The Chief’s wife organized a sewing club to help the needy, and the fire station opened the first repair shop for children’s toys. The crews also distributed Christmas trees for the community out of the station.
Captain Foley remembers how Rita Bordwell organized the museum: “She shamed the guys into getting their photos for us.” In her own hand, she inscribed the names of all the firefighters on the backs of the 589 photographs she collected.
Another letter came from John Tuteur, 5th District Supervisor from 1973 through 1980.
“Rita Bordwell became famous as the 6th Supervisor after her retirement,” writes Tuteur. “She attended almost every Board of Supervisors meeting and kept copious notes on everything. I, along with all of my fellow supervisors, attended her memorial service when she died in the mid-1970s. There is a plaque commemorating her service as the 6th Supervisor somewhere on the County downtown block.”
Karen Schoenfeld adds eloquently to the information provided by Tuteur: “For those of us involved in County government—particularly during the 60’s and 70’s—Rita was known as the ‘sixth’ Supervisor. She religiously attended Board of Supervisors meetings and I am sure there is still a plaque in her honor located behind the County Administration building on Third Street. At the time I first met her in the mid-60’s she was a petite, elderly lady who would generally inquire ‘are my roses too red?’ This was in reference to the rouge which was generally pretty heavy on the cheeks!”
It is important to complete the biography of a woman like Rita Bordwell, to follow up all the leads suggested by my readers—to interview the docents at the Firefighters Museum and Ted Wigger for first person accounts. The records of her memorial service need to be found, along with the plaque commemorating her service as the 6th supervisor—during an era in which (continuing to the present) there has never been more than one woman at a time on a five member Board.
Historically, women were in the newspaper only twice: upon marriage and upon death. Rita Bordwell, born in the late Nineteenth Century, challenged the conventions about what women should do and be. She wrote a history of the labor movement in Napa in l963. She wrote her own history of the fire department and organized a firefighter museum to preserve that history.
Her biography should tell us what she did with her friends in the evenings, what she read, what movies mattered to her. Where did Rita shop, and get her hair done? What could her diaries and letters tell us about the life of a woman living on her own in Napa in the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties? Are there photographs of her home? What meals did she cook in her own kitchen?
Where is the bench that honored her? Sharon Sanders believes it is embedded in the concrete in the large common area between the Hall of Justice and the Criminal Court building, surrounded by deciduous trees.
In the Napa Register, February 22, l975, is her obituary: “Napa County’s ageless “sixth Supervisor” Rita Harren Bordwell is dead… Born at the corner of Second and Randolph Streets in l885, Rita Bordwell enjoyed a noteworthy “career” in the Napa Valley as the wife of a contractor, secretary to labor organizations… and friend to many, a kind word on her lips for others every waking moment of the day.
Mrs Bordwell is survived by her sister, Birdice Phillips of Napa (for whom Phillips school was named). Her late husband, Edward Bordwell, was a building contractor who constructed Milliken Dam. Rita resided at l568 Palmer Street.
Bordwell’s funeral services were held at Treadway and Wiggger and she was interred at the family plot at Tulocay Cemetery.
Barely three months later, on my first trip to Napa, I stood at a phone booth in front of the courthouse at Second and Coombs, a block away from her birthplace, looking for a place to rent. I would teach women’s history for three decades at the community college before I had the opportunity to learn about “Napa’s Great Lady.”
Sources: “Firefighters Honor ‘Napa’s Great Lady’” by Astrid Edington, Napa Register, October 4, l969.
Obituary, “Sixth Supervisor Rita Bordwell Dies,” Napa Register, February 22, l975
History of the Napa Fire Department from l859 to l962 by Rita Harren Bordwell.
Writing a Woman’s Life by Carolyn Heilbrun, l988
Correspondence from John Tuteur, Karen Schoenfeld, Lee Mitchell and Sharon Sanders
Special Thanks to Captain Bob Foley and the Firefighters Museum