6 minute read

Trapped in Time: The Niagara Apothecary

By Andrew Hind

The Niagara Apothecary is a beautiful 19th century building in the heart of Niagara-on-the-Lake. As the name suggests, for more than a century it served as a pharmacy, dispensing medicine and advice in equal measure to patrons. More than that, it’s also one of the region’s most unique museums.

Today, the building is operated by the Ontario College of Pharmacists. Behind the counter is retired pharmacist and first year museum curator Heather Arnott. “The building is an architectural treasure,” Arnott says. “There is a wow factor as soon as you walk in. It breathes history.”

The building dates to 1820 when it was built for a lawyer named Robert Dickson. His protégé and later partner, and the second man to own the building, was Edward Clarke Campbell, a towering figure in mid-nineteenth century Niagara-on-the-Lake. Born to the community in 1806, he became a lawyer, was elected a member of Parliament in 1840, and a year later, was named judge of the United Lincoln, Welland, and Haldimand. He was an influential man indeed and conducted much of his affairs from what became the Niagara Apothecary.

In the years that Campbell was practicing as a young lawyer, the town pharmacist (‘druggist’ or ‘chemist’ in the vernacular of the day) was Rodman Starkweather, who opened his apothecary on Prideaux Street in 1820.

In his role, Starkweather would have been responsible for mixing and dispensing medicine for the village’s ill. Medicine at the time was primitive by our standards. Many of the remedies were quite archaic, and because there was little in the way of oversight many of the medicines Starkweather provided would likely have included alcohol and narcotics.

In 1833, Starkwather sold his pharmacy to James Harvey, a pharmacist and member of municipal council. Harvey managed the business and served the community until his sudden death in 1851. Harvey’s assistant, Henry Paffard, took over the business and grew it. In 1869, Paffard purchased Judge Campbell’s offices and moved the apothecary there. Henry Paffard was Niagara-on-theLake’s longest serving pharmacist, a total of 47 years. As a reflection of how prominent a pharmacist was in any early town, and how high regard he was held, Paffard also sat as Niagara-on-the-Lake’s longest serving Lord Mayor, 23 years. It was during Paffard’s time that regulations began to be introduced into the pharmacy trade. The Ontario College of Pharmacists opened in 1871, and a few years later the University of Toronto introduced pharmacy programs. Upon his retirement at the age of 74, Paffard sold the business to his apprentice John de Witt Randall. Like his former boss, Randall would be elected Lord Mayor, serving two terms (1907-1909, 1912). He was also warden of St. Mark’s Anglican Church and district deputy grand master of the Masonic Lodge. Randall may have forever been in Paffard’s shadow, but he was a prominent man in his own right. Tragically, Paffard died of a sudden stroke in 1914. Arthur James Coyne, who also owned a pharmacy in St. Catharines, ‘Coyne Drugs,’ stepped in to fill the vacant role of pharmacist. It was never his intention to run both businesses for long, and in the end he only did so for six years until a worthy replacement was found. That man was Erland William Field.

Field had been Randall’s apprentice and would have served as his immediate successor except World War One had broken out in 1914 and Randall had immediately volunteered to served as a member of the Royal Canadian Medical Corps. Shortly after his return from the war, Field purchased the Niagara-on-the-Lake pharmacy from Coyne in 1920. He ran the business for more than four decades, before declining health persuaded him to retire in 1964. Field died a year later, but not before ensuring the historic apothecary’s future was assured by stipulating that the Ontario College of Pharmacists and Ontario Heritage

Trust would have first rights of purchase with an eye towards preservation.

Recognizing its historic value (the building was designated a National Heritage Site in 1968), the Ontario Heritage Trust purchased the building in 1969. With the assistance of the Ontario College of Pharmacists, they began the process of restoring the building and returning it to a 19th century state. Peter Stokes, one of Canada’s most noted restoration architects and a resident of Niagara-on-the-Lakes, supervised the meticulous restoration.

By 1971, the work was completed. An elderly Arthur Coyne was on hand for the ribbon-cutting ceremony that saw the museum officially opened. What he saw must have surely impressed him; the museum is an authentic reproduction of a period apothecary. Almost all the fixtures are original to 1869, as are the black walnut countertop and the store clock. Dozens of jars and bottles line the shelves, many of them formerly belonging to James Harvey, who had them imported from Britain. In addition, early account ledgers and prescription books are displayed.

“Everything is so ornate and beautiful, from the woodwork to the dispensing cabinet. Even the grinder, used for breaking down roots and leaves, is decorative despite being utilitarian,” says Arnott. “My favorite items are the two show globes hanging in the front window, one blue and one red. These large glass vessels were a sort of advertisement of the day, letting people know, in an era when there was little regulation, that this this was an establishment one could trust.”

Arnott is looking forward to greeting guests this summer and introducing them to one of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s historic treasures.

“The Apothecary isn’t just a building with a collection of artifacts. It was a living, breathing pharmacy shop,” she says passionately. You can just imagine who walked these creaking floors before you and all the stories this building could tell.”

“The building”, Arnott continues, “represents not only pharmacy and medical history, but also Niagara history.”

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