Finding Frances
by Barbara Jones, Chelmsford, Massachusetts
   One nice summer day, my friend Carolyn Schaffner called to ask me if I knew where Winchester, Massachusetts was. It seemed an odd question since Winchester is only about 15 miles away from Chelmsford where I live. She was coming to Massachusetts to work as an AHS judge at a show, and wanted to make a side trip to Winchester. She then explained that she wanted to go there to see what information she could find about Frances Williams. Her brain is always churning about something, and this seemed like a great idea.
   Before I get into our adventure, I should say that although I've been a member of the New England Hosta Society since the beginning, I'd never met Frances. I knew her daughter Connie well, but had never even seen a picture of her famous mother. I had learned that nobody in the AHS had a picture of her either. As Frances was one of the most important people in the history of hostas, it seemed odd that nobody even had a picture of her.
   Years ago, I was visiting Connie Williams with the purpose of taking her an award she had won, when she asked me if I would mind doing her a favor. She had a collection of her mother's papers and she wished them to be preserved by the AHS, and asked if I would take care of them. It was my intention to pass them on to the AHS, but Carolyn asked if she could see them first, as she intended writing an article about Frances.
   With the first AHS Convention ever in New England looming less than a year away, it seemed fitting that we should have a picture of our Frances to show everyone. There had to be one somewhere, and Carolyn was determined to find it. I resolved to help her if I could. The hunt was on!  
   Carolyn and I hopped into my Subaru and we set out on our quest. Our first stop would be the library in Winchester (above photo), the town where Frances had lived, to see what we could learn there. Imagine our surprise when we discovered that all around the library were planted 'Frances Williams' hostas! Most were good-sized plants that had apparently been there for years.

'Frances Williams'  on the library grounds

   We entered the library and the people there couldn't have been more helpful, offering comments such as "Would you like a copy of that?", "Here, look at this file", and "I know where we can find that". They set us up in a private room so that we could pore over the treasure trove of information they gathered for us. Some was hard to decipher, but it all was interesting and grist for the article Carolyn had in mind.

   Among the papers there was her obituary from the Winchester Star newspaper. Here are a few of the things we learned that day:

The house where she once lived and gardened

  • She was born Fanny Ropes, but changed her name to Frances when she turned
    21. She graduated from MIT in 1904 as one of the first women graduates of
    the school's landscape architecture program.

  • She was married to Stillman Williams, who passed away in 1925 at the age of
    50. They were both active members of the Winchester Unitarian Church. She
    never remarried. A "Family Group Sheet" lists the Williams children as
    Constance Williams who died in 1998, age 90; Robert Breck Williams, who died
    in 1995, age 85; Stillman Pierce Williams who died in 1988 age 76; Louise
    King Williams, who died in 1995 at age 78. Obituaries note seven
    grandchildren and a great grandson at the time of Frances R. Williams' death.

  • She was given a citation by the then new "Hosta Society of America" (the
    name was a mistake on their part), which had been founded with her
    participation only two years before her death in 1969. The citation was for
    great interest in "Plantain Lilies" and for her donating some 80 cultivars
    to the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University.

  • The Massachusetts Historical Commission has recorded as historically
    significant the Williams House at 234 Highland Avenue described as a large
    Medieval Revival shingle house featuring imitation half-timbering, a large
    overhang and brackets.
   So, we checked every slip of paper the librarians could provide, and were frustrated to find no pictures of Frances. We asked a librarian if there was anything else she might have missed, saying that we were really hoping for a photo. To our surprise, she said "Oh, I guess you didn't see the one on the plaque!". She led us out into a side garden of the library and there it was - a beautiful plaque with a photo of Frances Williams dressed for gardening. The original photo wasn't available, so we had to photograph the plaque for the picture you see here.
   One of the hosta world's abiding mysteries, that of what Frances Williams herself looked like, was finally solved. Carolyn's idea had born fruit! We piled back into the trusty Subaru and were off to a restaurant for a celebration dinner.
The plaque at the Winchester Public Library

Photo of her plant taken by Frances Williams

Reading Room
Library Homepage