In this month’s Founders and Builders Series, we introduce you to one of the CFHA’s early supporters. Our third essay features Elma McGrew Starr and is written by David Newlands.

Elma McGrew Starr
by David Newlands

Elma McGrew Starr (1890-1985) was a birthright Quaker and well-known member of the Canadian Yearly Meeting. She and her twin sister, Edith McGrew Smith, were born on 21 September 1890 on their parent’s farm near Harrisville, Ohio. Her parents were Gilbert and Eliza (Hall) McGrew. The family was part of the Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative).

In 1898 Elma and her sister attended the Friends School near Harrisville Meeting House. She attended the Friends’ Boarding School (now Olney Friends School) in Barnesville, Ohio, graduating in 1909. In 1911 Elma Starr attended the Normal School of Scio, Ohio, where she attained her teacher training. In the fall of the same year she accepted the post of teacher at the Friends School at Norwich, Ontario. Here she boarded a week at a time at each of the pupils’ homes. Her pay was $200 a year. There were fifteen pupils in the school. The school building is now on the grounds of the Norwich Historical Museum.

Elma met her future husband, Elmer Starr, of Newmarket, Ontario during sessions of Canada Yearly Meeting in 1912. In May of the following year they were engaged; they were married in 1915. Elma recalls, “With $30 of my teaching money, I bought a sewing machine and made my wedding clothes, and some for sister Edith.”[1] The couple eventually settled in Newmarket at ‘Starr Elms’, a farm to the east of the town. They attended Yonge Street Meeting regularly throughout the following decades. Although often quietly taking her place in Quaker meetings, she was considered a ‘weighty’ Friend, and other Friends often sought her advice and leadership, both locally and in the Canadian Yearly Meeting.

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They had five children: Francis (1916–2000), Gilbert (1918, d. at age 8 ½ days of Spanish influenza), Harriet Starr Cope (1920–1967), Huldah Starr Stanley (b. 1923) and Stuart (b. 1927).

Throughout her long life Elma Starr was an indefatigable supporter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. She attended provincial temperance conventions and participated in Youth Oratorical Contests that encouraged speaking about temperance in schools. She was leader of the contest in schools for eighteen years, until her retirement in 1955. She continued to be active in the York County unit of the Ontario Temperance Federation until the local unit was dissolved in 1971.

Elma Starr was also an ambassador of Friends Peace Testimony, supporting in her dealings with others and encouraging Friends to be faithful to this testimony.

Elma was confident and constant in her Christian faith and testified to this in meetings and her beloved Yonge Street Meeting. She was actively involved in the Sunday School movement and was a teacher of the Intermediate Class at the Pine Orchard Sunday School. In 1941 she became the President of the Whitchurch Sunday School Convention. She gave the Sunderland Gardiner Lecture at the Canadian Yearly Meeting on ‘Why I am A Christian.’

For many Quakers and the people of the Newmarket community, Elma is best remembered for her simple Quaker piety, her faithful Christian witness, and her commitment to simplicity in daily life. In her autobiography, Contented, she writes, “all my life I have truly desired to know and to follow Jesus, and often I have been blest with a small measure of consciousness of his presence and guidance in various situations.”[2]

Learning at an early age how to make traditional Quaker bonnets, she continued to make them for her own use and for the many people who asked her for one. She could be seen at the Yonge Street Meeting or at special Quaker or community events wearing her Quaker bonnet, a witness to her commitment to simplicity.

Elma Starr was always interested in Quaker history. No doubt her family’s connections with Quakers and her love of Quaker traditions encouraged her. In 1936, when convener of the History Committee of the Pine Orchard and Bogarttown Women’s Institutes, she oversaw the production of Pine Orchard History, 1800-1936. At the inauguration of the Canadian Friends Historical Association, Elma was one of the loyal supporters, eager to see the work of the Association prosper. Elma’s involvement with the restoration of the Yonge Street Meetinghouse is also part of her contribution to the preservation of Canadian Quaker history.

Her beloved Elmer Starr died on 7 July 1973 at the age of ninety-two years. They had been married fifty-eight years. In the following years, Elma lived at Walton Home, a retirement residence of the Ohio Yearly Meeting of Friends (Conservative) in Barnesville, Ohio. For a number of years she returned in the summer months to her beloved Yonge Street Meeting.

Elma Starr died peacefully at the Walton Home on 15 June 1985, ending a “life well loved, to the glory of God and her Savior.”[3]

[1] Elma M. Starr, “Contented.” Canadian Quaker History Journal 73 (2008), 69.

[2] Ibid., 65.

[3] This article is based on Elma Starr’s biography, “Contented,” republished in the Canadian Quaker History Journal 73 (2008): 64-79 (This article can be found online at: https://cfha.info/journal73p64.pdf), and Raymond W. Stanley’s memorial, “A Son-in-law’s Memories of Elma McGrew Starr,” 40-41, and the author’s own reminiscences.


2 Comments

Kenn Harper · September 23, 2020 at 11:28 am

Her son (and my distant cousin) Stuart, passed away in 2019. I knew Elma since I was a small child at Bogarttown Community Club meetings, which took place once a month in the school (now relocated to the historical park at Vandorf). Later, Elma encouraged me to attend the Friends meeting on Yonge Street in my late teens; through her and Elmer’s guidance, I became a member of that meeting. Stuart and my mother were third cousins – in Newmarket, that was considered close. Kenn Harper

Evelyn Schmitz-Hertzberg · September 23, 2020 at 11:37 am

Stuart Starr died July 17, 2019

I remember Alma and Elmer Starr at Yonge Street meeting house and CYM when I was a young person. They made a memorable impression on me with their simple Quaker dress and also their use of thee and thou. This was their outward representation of the Quaker testimonies of simplicity and equality.

“For Thou and Thee was a sore cut to proud flesh, and them that sought self-honour, who, though they would say it to God and Christ, would not endure to have it said to themselves. So that we were often beaten and abused, and sometimes in danger of our lives, for using those words to some proud men, who would say, “What! You ill-bred clown, do you Thou me?”
—George Fox, A Journal, or Historical Account…., 1836

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