They’re women known for simply milking cows — milkmaids, according to Oxford — but Richmond once boasted a particularly fearsome group of milkmaids whose thirst for winning outmatched their care for cattle.
The Richmond Milkmaids were Richmond’s popular, prize-winning lacrosse team that found local fame in the ‘20s and ‘30s — a period when few opportunities existed for women to participate in organized team sports.
Now, almost a century later, the team is being honoured as one of 16 initial inductees to the Richmond Sports Wall of Fame, a new installation forming part of a local sports history exhibit opening with the Richmond Olympic Experience at the Richmond Olympic Oval.
It was 1927 that a group of women came together to form a team after quietly honing their skills with equipment borrowed from brothers and friends. Soon the Women’s Lacrosse League formed, with Vancouver, New Westminster and Ladner also fielding teams.
Brighouse Park was home turf and Rudy Grauer served as head coach. To help boost their profile, Grauer initially arranged for the Milkmaids to play a few games between periods of the men’s games, according to Jack Lowe’s 2004 book, Farmers and Milkmaids: A History of Lacrosse in Richmond.
“The Milkmaids were fierce competitors,” noted Lowe. “Sometimes the girls got carried away and when the benches emptied several fights broke out.”
An early report in The Richmond Review documents the first Milkmaids match — against the Vancouver Pirates — in which a running-passing game turned into a much rougher contest.
“A near riot developed during one encounter when [a] local lass had her head split open. Such accidents were rare, but not unexpected, as the gals wore no protective gear. Gloves, shoulder pads and goalie pads came later... As the girls became more proficient in the art of lacrosse, the referees became more proficient in handing out penalties.”
Many of those early Richmond players came from pioneer families, including three with the last name Gilmore, and their games drew hundreds — even thousands — of fans. Occasionally they’d travel to Nanaimo for a game, where crowds were said to be as large as 10,000.
Leslie Ross, author of Richmond Child of the Fraser, suggested the challenges of the Great Depression sparked new local interest in sports such as lacrosse.
“Perhaps because the decade of the ‘30s was a difficult time, recreation became an important factor in the lives of many Richmond residents. Never were the crowds so large nor the interest greater in horse-racing, lacrosse, rugby, and the like.”
The Milkmaids helped build their fan base by collecting wins. The team is said to have won the league’s R.M. Grauer Trophy seven times.
They were also well organized. Uniforms included purple-and-gold sweaters sporting a simple “R” — bought with proceeds from dances held in Steveston. The women would host the evenings and serve fish sandwiches after having canvassed canneries for donations.
By the mid-1930s, fielding a team became increasingly challenging, according to author Lowe. Players were getting older, marrying, raising families or leaving the area, he suggested. Another problem the Milkmaids faced was no farm system — no junior teams learning the sport to advance to the senior level.
“There was also some indication that some of the fathers, who were once players and coaches in men’s lacrosse, were not in favour of their daughters becoming lacrosse players.”
Nonetheless, women’s lacrosse continued. In 1936 the team — now called the Richmond Buddies — turned to box lacrosse and, more often than not, would win the league championship.
The end of women’s lacrosse for the Lower Mainland and all of Canada, according to Lowe, came in 1941 when the Second World War pulled women into the armed forces and the wartime workforce. By that time the team had amassed many wins — including one for the wider community by changing attitudes and inspiring other girls and women to pursue sports.
The Richmond Sports Wall of Fame will honour that legacy when city officials unveil the installation at a public ceremony at the Richmond Olympic Oval 11 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 21. Jim Gilmore, whose mother played for the Milkmaids in the 1920s, will represent the team at the event.
Richmond Sports Wall of Fame inductees:
* 1988 Richmond Colts – boys’ basketball provincial champions
* Pasha Bains – acclaimed basketball player, founder of Drive Basketball
* Lance Carey – Olympian, field hockey coach and builder
* Diane Clement – co-founder of Richmond Kajaks, author
* Doug Clement – co-founder of Richmond Kajaks, sports medicine doctor
* Richard Collier – longtime Richmond Kajaks throws coach
* Bill Disbrow –Richmond Colts basketball coach for 34 years
* Robert Dixon – set Javelin world record at 1934 British Empire Games
* Ray Murao – national kendo champion and head instructor of Steveston Kendo Club
* Richmond Milkmaids – groundbreaking women’s lacrosse team
* Richmond Rockets FC – 1979 U-18 national soccer champions
* Randy Samuel – 82 caps for Canadian men’s soccer team, played professionally in Europe and Canada
* Tony Shaw – international table tennis umpire and referee
* Bobby Singh – only pro football player to win Super Bowl, Grey Cup and XFL championships
* Ronald Williams – three-time B.C. Derby winning jockey, rode 546 winners
* Walter Wu – won 14 Paralympic swimming medals