The Herb Woman
Author: Greta M. Shutt
Publication Date: 1966
(First published in the Herb Grower Magazine, Volume XIX, Number 2, of Falls Village, Connecticut, U.S.A.)
My mother told me that when she was a little girl, Grandma would hitch up the horse and take one of her daughters out to visit Miss Fry and buy some herbs. Mother had pointed out to me the location of Miss Fry’s herb garden. That was all I knew of Miss Fry, until her photograph turned up in a collection of glass negatives, given to the Guelph Historical Society. These were the work of Mr. Roswell Goldie. Him I did remember. He was one of the Goldie family who owned the Goldie Mill; he was an enthusiastic amateur photographer and a keen historian.
The photograph was so interesting, that the cemetery records were next consulted. Elizabeth Jane Fry had died in 1893 on December 6th. Her age was 99 when she died so she must have been born in 1894. With the date as clue, the next source of information was the Toronto Public Library where there are several files of the Guelph Weekly Mercury. This had to be done by mail and sure enough, a kind lady, Miss Edith G. Firth, located the obituary and typed out a copy for me, as follows:
“Death of Miss Fry. Miss Fry, an old resident of this neighborhood, who died on Tuesday, had attained her 100th year, a remarkable age. She came to Canada 46 years ago with her brothers from Corston, near Malonsborough, Wiltshire, England, being then over 50 years of age. They settled on the farm opposite the Guelph Union Cemetery, where one brother, William P., died 19 years ago. The farm was subsequently sold, and a two-acre plot on the corner of the Elora Road reserved, where the deceased lived until her death. Her brother died 18 months ago in the Hospital, at an advanced age.
Miss (Elizabeth Jane) Fry was a cousin by marriage to Mrs. Elizabeth Fry, the great English prison reformer, whose life and work is held in high honor to this day. The deceased was a woman of great intelligence, and almost to her death was able to read without spectacles. She had taken The Mercury ever since it started.
She was best known because of her success in healing obstinate and chronic sores which had baffled cure and people came from long distance for her treatment, her salves being made from valued receipts which she bought out from England.
She was buried on Wednesday, the funeral service being conducted by Rev. B. B. Williams, pastor of the Congregational Church with which she had been connected for over 30 years.”
So, the picture slips into focus. This wise Quaker lady who knew and loved her herbs, came to Canada in 1847, just before the railroads were built in this part of the province, to keep house for her two bachelor brothers. There is a gas station now where the little white cottage stood in front of the herb garden.
What did my grandmother learn from Miss Fry? Well, Grandma used peppermint tea and catnip tea for her babies’ stomach aches, and what is more, she raised all her babies to adulthood when that was not common. Instead of the universal sage and savory in poultry dressing, Grandma preferred thyme and marjoram. Her cough medicine has been described before in The Herb Grower. It is a simple preparation and effective: One ounce each of flaxseed, slippery elm bark, boneset, and liquorice. Boil gently one and one-half hours in one quart water. Strain. Add a half pound of white sugar and one pint molasses.
After Elizabeth Jane Fry died, two other relatives must have come to Canada, for the cemetery records show that Martha Fry died in 1910, aged 93, and that Elizabeth died in 1939, aged 92.
As in any historical quest, unanswered questions remain. Are there any members of the Fry family remaining in Corston, near Malonsborough, Wiltshire, England? Are there any family records of the herb formulae, especially that miraculous ointment? Perhaps one of Ontario History’s English correspondents can continue the search.