by Barbara Jones, Chelmsford, Massachusetts
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
| 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.
Williams' on the library grounds
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
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
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
King Williams, who died in 1995 at age 78. Obituaries note
grandchildren and a great grandson at the time of Frances R.
- 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
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
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.