As a Brock student, you will probably be spending the next few years of your life in the Niagara region. Take advantage of it, because the region is rich with history, culture, and entertainment, often all at once. So take some time and really get to know your new home. You’ll soon realize just how lucky you are.
An excellent place to start is the Niagara Apothecary, a museum in Niagara-on-the-lake, beautifully restored to its 1869 existence as an apothecary, the precursor to the pharmacy.
Walking inside is like taking steps back through time. Back in the day, the apothecary was a central fixture in the community and lives of those who lived during Canada’s early years. It was where people would go for all manner of concoctions, herbs, and miracle cure-alls. All of this is evident in the beautiful wooden furniture, century old glass bottles, and the nearly overwhelming dispensary that adorn the apothecary.
To better understand the Niagara Apothecary over its century-and-a-half lifespan as a functioning pharmacy, and its continued cultural and historical significance today, The Brock Press sat down with Jim Dunsdon, the museum’s curator.
The apothecary was established back in 1820, and the practice of pharmacy was very different back then, explained Dunsdon. Prior to the advent of modern manufacturing, businesses such as the apothecary served people’s medical needs by directly compounding their medications — crafting them by hand. While drugs today are mass produced, the apothecary had a hand in personally compounding all of the medicine needed by the community. Because of this, becoming an apothecary required a great deal of time studying the practice of compounding, and thus a long apprenticeship period.
This is reflected in the history of the Niagara Apothecary, which is a chronicle of several successive apprenticeships spanning the 19th and 20th centuries.
The Niagara Apothecary first opened in 1820 under the stewardship of Rodman Starkwather, who operated it for a number of years before selling it to his apprentice, James Harvey. It was during Harvey’s 1833 to 1851 tenure that the apothecary acquired many of its interesting bottles and containers inscribed with Latin, as was the custom at the time. When Harvey suddenly passed away, the apothecary fell to his apprentice Henry Paffard.
Paffard is responsible for moving the Niagara Apothecary to its current prime location on Queen Street. And not only did he run the apothecary, he also served as mayor of Niagara-on-the-Lake for 26 years, and was involved in many of development of many large scale civic projects. He ran the apothecary for nearly half a century, from 1852 to 1898, before selling it to his apprentice John Randall.
Randall was also a prominent civil servant, serving as mayor for three years. He unfortunately died of a stroke inside the apothecary, and some say his ghost still haunts the building!
Arthur Coyne next took over the pharmacy, the sole owner who was not apprenticed to the previous one. Coyne operated the practice from 1914 to 1922, and was present at the opening of the restored Niagara Apothecary as a museum in 1971.
Erland Field, an apprentice of Randall, took over the apothecary from Coyne in 1922 and ran it until 1964, when he was forced to close it due to ill health, ending its nearly 150 years of continuous practice in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
The history of the Niagara Apothecary in many ways mirrors Canada’s own history. It was built shortly after the war of 1812, where entire towns were burned to the ground. The country quickly rebounded. And then in 1869, just two years after confederation, the apothecary migrated to its new home, the grand building it is known as today.
There is real value in preserving places of historical and cultural significance, says Dunsdon. They allow us to look back and better understand our own history.
“We tend to bulldoze our past in the name of progress. And while there’s some inevitability about that, it is important to preserve what we can of the past to aid our perspective when looking to the future,” said Dunsdon.
The Niagara Apothecary is able to exists as a museum today thanks to the combined efforts of the Niagara Foundation, the Ontario College of Pharmacists, and the Ontario Heritage Foundation, who all worked to painstakingly recreate it in its 1869 existence.
The apothecary’s prime location is sought after, and any number of businesses would love to take it up, explained Dunsdon. Which is exactly why we’re lucky to be able to experience it as a heritage site.
“The apothecary is very much intertwined with the history of the town,” said Dunsdon.
And because we tend to lose the history of many of these things, it’s particularly noteworthy. We get just under 100,000 visitors every year, and they are quite taken by the fact that this has been preserved.”
The apothecary is one of the only pre-confederation buildings left in the area, and its restored state allows visitors to really glimpse what life may have been like for Canadians all those years ago. It exists as one of the few restored pharmicutical museums in North America today. Ironically, Americans make up a significant portion of the Niagara Apothecary’s visitors. Had the War of 1812 gone slightly differently, the apothecary may have been in their territory.
If you’re hungry to experience firsthand the history of the place you call home, the Niagara Apothecary is an excellent place to start.