Early Elora druggist sampled his own wares – and died

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

The oldest piece of store advertising on Mill Street in Elora is the mortar-and-pestle symbol inscribed on the second storey of the building now occupied by Sweet Distractions.

Obviously, this was the mark for a drug store. It was probably first applied in 1871. The paint seems to have been of a very high quality, because the sign is still clearly visible, though no drug store has occupied these quarters for a century. (Note, the sign has been repainted since the original publication of this column in 1992.)

The building itself can be dated only approximately. The probable date is 1861. The earliest known occupant, and in all likelihood the first, was R.J. Smith, who operated a book and stationery store here beginning in the final weeks of 1861.

Over the years, Smith expanded his stock to include various fancy and luxury items. He eventually added lines of garden seeds, photographs of famous people, and eyeglasses. Smith’s business remained steady through the 1860s, but he was by no means prosperous.

Though the quarters are rather narrow, Smith divided the store in two in the fall of 1867. He was able to gather all his stock into one side. The other half of the store became a drug store, under the management of Richard Newman.

He had worked in Guelph for several years in the wholesale drug business of Nathan Higinbotham. He was a younger brother of Walter Newman, Elora’s first private banker. It is entirely possible that this drug store was operated as a branch of Higinbotham’s Guelph operation.

Newman remained in the drug business in Elora for only about two years. His drug store passed through the hands of a number of proprietors in rapid succession. This turnover of businesses was typical of Elora’s retail sector in the 1860s and 1870s.

Following Newman’s departure, R.J. Smith resumed proprietorship of the whole building, continuing the drug business, with books and stationery as a sideline.

In 1869, he took in a partner, Dr. W.R. Pentland. Unlike many of the physicians and pharmacists of the time, Pentland had a reputable educational background as a graduate of the University of Toronto. He made up and dispensed medicines between consultations with his patients. His doctor’s office and surgery were conveniently located upstairs.

Pentland and Smith dissolved their partnership early in 1870, and sold the drug business to their clerk and pharmacist, Henry Kirkland. Smith moved to Port Perry, and started a drug store there.

The restless Dr. Pentland practised medicine briefly, then left Elora for a time, only to return in 1873 to purchase another drug business. He left Elora again in 1875, and was last reported in the drug business in Chatham.

For a time, Kirkland seemed to be building a good business. He had received his training in Nottingham, and was perceived as a refined and intelligent man.

His father in England had provided the money for the purchase of the drug business. Kirkland took an active part in the community, particularly in church affairs and the Masonic lodge. He seemed destined to be a leader of Elora’s business community.

With poor water supplies and no sewage facilities, intestinal complaints were common in Elora in hot weather in the 19th century. Henry Kirkland offered custom-made remedies for these complaints. Such medicines were of two types. One kind was based on herbal and vegetable compounds. The other was heavily laced with narcotics. Both could contain large proportions of alcohol, which was used to keep other ingredients in solution, and to act as a preservative.

Soon after acquiring the store, Kirkland began drinking heavily. Rotgut whiskey began to cause him stomach trouble, and he began to take increasingly larger doses of opium to quell the cramps and discomfort. Within months, he was swinging between alcoholic binges and drug-induced stupors.

The business began to suffer, and with the store closed for days at a time, his drinking habit became a matter of public comment. Still, there was widespread shock in April 1872 when his wife found him dead in the middle of the night, after one of his binges.

An inquest was held, at which Kirkland’s drug habit became public for the first time. There was also evidence of domestic violence, and the regrets of Kirkland’s friends that they had been unable to reform his habits. He was in the practice, it seems, of sampling virtually everything in his stock of drugs.

The jury ruled death due to an overdose of laudanum, a mixture of opium dissolved in alcohol. Henry Kirkland was only 28. In addition to his widow, he left a young child.

Kirkland’s successors in the drug business displayed more moderate habits.

A few weeks after Kirkland’s death, the business was acquired by Charles Perry, a druggist from Fergus, where he had eight years of experience in the trade.

Perry quickly built up a large business, and within a couple of years he was the leading druggist in the village. All the evidence suggests that the mortar-and-pestle sign dates to the 1870s, during Perry’s ownership of the store.

In 1877, Perry moved to larger quarters on Metcalfe Street. The move and expansion were at the wrong time, and two years later he was bankrupt.

His store on Mill Street was taken over by another druggist, T,P. Smith. He enjoyed more success than Perry, carrying on through difficult years in the early 1880s. T.P. Smith became one of the village’s most active leaders, with the board of trade and on council. He served as reeve for four years.

Smith abandoned the Mill Street site in 1892, when he built a handsome white brick building at the comer of Colborne and Geddes Streets. (This building was later occupied by the Bank of Montreal, which demolished it when it constructed its current building.)

The drug store on Mill Street has been gone a hundred years, but Charles Perry’s sign remains as a symbol of the time when Mill Street was the main commercial street of Elora.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Jan. 7, 1992.

Thorning Revisited