Plum Street Series

Gourlay Brothers

Robert Gourlay was born in 1792 in Fifeshire, Scotland. His first wife’s maiden name was Cameron and they had 3 children, William, Thomas, and Sarah. Robert married Helen Lawson on October 22, 1822 in Edinburgh, Scotland. They had two daughters, Margaret and Lilly Ann, and three sons, George, James, and Alfred – who would become the owners of “Gourlay Brothers” in Detroit in the 1870s. Margaret was born July 26, 1829 and died in Detroit on March 8, 1918. George was born January 7, 1834 and died December 8, 1900 in Detroit. Lilly Ann was born December 31, 1835. She died May 17, 1860 in New York City. James was born December 3, 1837 and died November 19, 1919 in Detroit. Alfred was born July 31, 1845 and died in Detroit on March 5, 1930.

Robert Gourlay’s children with his first wife:

WILLIAM – born 1815 in Edinburgh. He was a popular comedian and actor, playing roles in Scotland, England, Australia, and America. He married Louisa J. Ryder on Oct. 25, 1841 and had 6 children – Ellen, Jessie, Robert, Corbet, John, and Alice. With his second wife, Susan, William had 2 more children, Minnie and William. The whole family was involved in the theatre. In 1866-1869, he and the family traveled to Australia. He visited New Zealand in 1874 with his collection of curiosities. In the summer of 1880, the Gourlay family made their last stage appearance in Newcastle, England. They presented Mrs. MacGregor’s Levee on July 26-27, 1880.
THOMAS – born 1820 in Edinburgh. He was also an actor. He and daughters Jeannie and Margaret were in the cast of “Our American Cousin” the night Lincoln was assassinated. Apparently, Jeannie had just left the stage when the shot was fired. According to a Feb. 3, 1968 article in The Pocono Record, Thomas covered Lincoln with a flag from the theater and helped to carry Lincoln to a house across the street. The flag is currently at the Pike County Historical Society’s The Columns Museum.

The cast from Our American Cousin the night of April 14, 1865

In the 1841 Scotland census, Robert’s family was living at 219 High Street in Edinburgh where Robert was a tailor. Robert died before the 1851 census, in which the family was still living at the same address. Helen was a draper and her sons George and James were draper’s assistants. In May 1855, Lilly Gourlay married George Welwood Murray in Edinburgh. The next year, Helen and her children left Scotland for New York. George Murray, Lilly, and their son George came in July 1858. In the 1860 U.S. Census, taken on June 5th, Helen and her three sons were living in New York City. George and James were clerks and Alfred was a compositor (a typesetter). Next to Helen lived her son-in-law George W. Murray, his sons George (4 years old) and James Alan (11 months), and Helen’s daughter Margaret. Sadly, Lilly Ann had died the previous month.

On October 21, 1866, James Gourlay married Jean F. Craig in Manhattan. On August 9, 1868, they placed membership at the Plum Street Church of Christ in Detroit. On January 15, 1869, George Gourlay married Maria Stanbery in New York. In the 1870 U.S. Census, Helen and her children Margaret and Alfred were still living in New York City. James and Jean were living in Detroit where James worked in a tailor shop. In the May 8, 1870 Detroit Free Press, an advertisement for Baxter & Gourlay, “fashionable merchant tailors” from New York, stated that they had just opened a store at 156 Jefferson Avenue. On May 1, 1873, Baxter & Gourlay dissolved. Baxter stayed at the Jefferson Ave. store and James occupied a store next to the Detroit Opera House. In 1875, Alfred Gourlay (who had married Laura Andruss in 1872) joined his brother in Detroit and Gourlay Brothers was formed. Their brother George joined them in Detroit in 1878 (I think his wife Maria never joined him in Detroit and stayed in New York with her parents until George divorced her for desertion in 1893). The brothers all joined the Plum Street Church of Christ and were “noted for their musical ability.” According to Boyd, William B. Thompson, ex-mayor of Detroit, used to stand outside the church building and listen to the singing (p. 106).

In 1875, James’ wife Jean went to Scotland with a bunch of her lady friends. According to the Paw Paw, Michigan newspaper The True Northerner for May 7, 1875, “A party of Detroit ladies will shortly leave their hubands, and unaccompanied by any male protector, will proceed to Scotland to see their relatives and recruit their health. The names of the party are: Mrs. A. R. Linn [Jeanette Craig, Jean’s sister], Mrs. John Harvey [Jessie G. Campbell, daughter of Colin Campbell & Caroline Linn], Mrs. James Gourlay [Jean F. Craig], Mrs. C. A. Lorman [Janette Linn, Caroline’s sister], and Miss Emma Haywood [Emma Hayward, John S. Gray’s sister-in-law].” In October 1875, the Plum Street Church of Christ’s Literary Society elected John S. Gray as president, James Gourlay as vice-president, and Alfred Gourlay as secretary.

According to the Detroit Free Press (8-14-1904), in 1876 at the Gourlay Brothers store, “one of the first illuminated signs in Detroit appeared, formed of gas jets. Of course, it attracted a good deal of attention, and, curiously enough, on the first night the jets were lighted, the sign did not work well and it read as follows: ‘Gourlay’s Shirt tore.'”

John Gourlay, nephew of the Gourlay Brothers

John was the son of William Gourlay, the half-brother of James, George, and Alfred. He became an actor and comedian like his father, beginning at 4 years old. He went with his father to Australia in 1866. He joined a group called The Salsbury Troubadours in America and toured with them in Australia and New Zealand in 1878. Later he joined with comedian Louis Harrison and toured with him for five years. He often visited his uncles in Detroit in the 1870s and 1880s. He married his Australian wife Hannah Lambert in August 1884 in Detroit. The reception was held at Alfred Gourlay’s home at 647 2nd Avenue. In 1887, they returned to Australia, where John continued his career.

In an 1893 article featuring John’s reminiscences, he recounted a story about him and his brother Robert: “We had been separated from childhood, for 16 years. When I was in Chicago I received a telegram from an uncle in business in Detroit, saying that Bob was with him, but was just then in Chicago on business. I took train from Chicago, and Bob sat beside me in the carriage. Neither of us know the other, and Bob proved to be a young man of very taking proclivities. He smoked most of my cigars, and, as the weather was cold, took my overcoat, and wound up by borrowing fifty cents. I found he was well known to the police, for when we arrived at a station near Detroit a policeman called out, ‘Hello, Gourlay!’ I got up and looked out of the carriage window, and he did the same. ‘What,’ I said, ‘is your name Gourlay?’ ‘It is,’ he said. Business, fraternal embrace. As Bob and I are both Scotch, I made him return the fifty cents.”

Of George, James, and Alfred Gourlay, only Alfred had children. He and Laura had a daughter and a son – Helen Lawson Gourlay (1873-1960), who married Vernon C. Fry, and Charles A. Gourlay (1879-1963). In the 1880 census, James and Jean were boarding with Alexander R. Linn and his family. James’ mother Helen died September 15, 1880 in Detroit and was buried in Woodmere Cemetery. In 1884, James Gourlay became a deacon at Plum Street Church of Christ and an elder in 1897.

Advertisements for Gourlay Bros., Linn Bros., and Lorman’s ice company from the “Report of Proceedings of the Michigan Christian Missionary Association at the 16th Annual Meeting held in Detroit, October 4-5, 1884”

In the June 1, 1900 U.S. Census, James and Jean Gourlay were living at 649 (now 3747) 2nd Avenue with George Gourlay and a servant named Anna Mitchell. James’ and George’s occupation was “gents furnisher.” Alfred (also a “gents furnisher”), Laura and their children Helen and Charles were living in the two-family house at 647 (now 3745) 2nd Avenue. Margaret Gourlay, Alfred’s sister, was also living with him. Around this time, the store moved to 153 Woodward Avenue (now 1059).

James Gourlay built this house in Detroit, now at 3745-3747 2nd Ave., in 1880
Gourlay Brothers sign on the left, at 153 (1059) Woodward Avenue in 1909, between Michigan and State Streets – from Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library

George Gourlay, who acted as manager of Gourlay Brothers, died on Saturday, December 8, 1900 at 7 AM at his brother James’ house, where he had been living. The 12/9/1900 Free Press said that George “had left the store in unusual spirits Friday evening, and his jovial and splendid disposition was in evidence, as with his usual pleasantry he joked with the men in the store.” He had been a president of the Detroit Musical Society and had sung before President Lincoln. His funeral was at Plum Street Church of Christ and he was buried in Woodmere Cemetery.

george gourlay
George Gourlay

In 1901, James Gourlay declared bankruptcy with a debt of $23,096.97 and assets of $15,582. His house and $216 in personal assets were exempt. He stated that his petition had nothing to do with Gourlay Brothers (Detroit Free Press, 3/9/1901). In August 1904, James retired from Gourlay Brothers, while his brother Alfred continued the company at 153 Woodward Avenue.

In the 1910 census, James and Alfred and their wives were living at 647 2nd Ave. Margaret, their sister, was living with Alfred and Laura. Laura died on December 8, 1911 at the age of 59 of mitral regurgitation. Jean Gourlay died on July 18, 1916 of hemipligia, which is paralysis on one side of the body. Margaret died on March 8, 1918 at the age of 88 of senility and old age.

Alfred Gourlay remarried on September 3, 1919 in London, Ontario to Mary Talbot. James died November 19, 1919 after six months of “senility of cerebral arteries.” His funeral was held at Plum Street and he was buried in Woodmere Cemetery. He was an elder at Plum Street for many years and was a choir leader. In the 1920 census, Alfred was still living at 647 2nd Avenue. He was listed as married, but Mary was not enumerated with him. His niece, Sara Gourlay, who was his half-brother William’s youngest child. She was 64, while Alfred was 75. Sara had been a nurse in Battle Creek, Michigan for many years. Alfred, at the time living at 1494 Virginia Park in Detroit, died on March 5, 1930 of cerebral apoplexy at the age of 84. His wife Mary was the informant on the death certificate. He was buried in Woodmere Cemetery with his first wife Laura.


[George Gourlay obituary]. (January 10, 1901). The Christian Evangelist, v. 38(2), page 50.

Boyd, R. Vernon. A History of the Stone-Campbell Churches in Michigan, 2009.

“Thirty-six years on the stage.” Star (Christchurch), Issue 4750, September 16, 1893, page 1.

Plum Street Series

Vernon C. Fry

Vernon Charles Fry was born on August 29, 1865 at Selkirk, Haldimand County, Ontario to John Fry and Caroline Overholt. His siblings were Frank Dewitt Fry (born July 15, 1868) and twin sisters Lillie and Minnie (born September 17, 1870). In the 1871 Canadian census, the Fry family was living in Rainham Township, Haldimand County, Ontario. Caroline and John, who was a medical doctor, were aged 34. Vernon was 5, Frank was 3, and the twins were 6 months old. Caroline’s father, Aaron Overholt, was living there, too. In 1881, they were living in the same place and their religion was listed as Disciples of Christ. Vernon’s mother Caroline died on March 11, 1891. In the 1891 census, John and the children were still living in Rainham. Vernon was 24 and a dry goods clerk, while Frank was 22 and a student. Lillie, a schoolteacher, and Minnie were 20.

Sometime between 1891 and 1895, Vernon moved to Detroit. He married Frances Anna Louise “Birdie” Colby on June 5, 1896 in Toronto. Their son Stanley was born in Detroit on October 30, 1896. Their next son Colby was born June 28, 1900. Sadly, Birdie died of pneumonia on May 6, 1901. They were living at 121 Bethune Avenue at the time. Her funeral took place at Plum Street Church of Christ.

Vernon Fry - Ford Investor Photo
From the Detroit Free Press, 6/16/1963 issue
(60th anniversary of Ford Motor Co.)

In June 1903, Vernon invested in Ford Motor Company along with other Plum Street church members Alexander Malcomson and John S. Gray, among others. Some sources say he was Malcomson’s cousin, which I haven’t been able to confirm. He bought 50 shares for $5000. According to a May 25, 1953 LIFE magazine article by Sidney Olson, he “paid $3,000 in cash after a struggle of many months with Malcomson and many a jouncing ride in Henry’s car, and pledged another $2,000, which he later paid out of dividends.” He paid the $3000 on June 26, 1903, $1000 in December 1903, and another $1000 in January 1904. After Malcomson was bought out in 1906, Vernon sold his stock to Ford on September 1, 1907 for $25,000. Woodall and Bennett also sold out at that time. If he would’ve waited 12 years, he could have made millions.

Vernon married again on July 15, 1903 in Detroit to Helen Lawson Gourlay, the daughter of Alfred and Laura Gourlay (more about the Gourlay Brothers in another post).

The newspaper account of their wedding sounds impressive:

“The wedding of Miss Helen Gourlay, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. A.L. Gourlay, to Mr. Vernon C. Fry, took place at her home, 647 Second Avenue [now 3745 2nd Ave.], Wednesday afternoon at three o’clock, Rev. Arthur Jackson of the Church of Christ, performing the ceremony. Miss Walton, of Cleveland, was maid of honor, the groom being assisted by Mr. Charles Gourlay, brother of the bride. The bride was gowned in Brussels net over white taffeta, elaborately trimmed with cluny, her only jewels being a diamond necklace, the gift of the groom. A shower bouquet of stephenatis and bridal roses completed a beautiful costume. Miss Walton wore a dove-colored mousseline de soie over pink, trimmed with pointe l’ire lace, and carried a shower bouquet of Madame cusen roses. A reception followed for upwards of 100 guests. The color scheme of the decorating was confined to pink and white, roses and carnations being most in evidence among the hanging vines. In the dining room the table was covered with a white lace spread and decorated with spirea, ferns and la France roses… . The young couple left for an extended trip to Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Toronto, Montreal, Quebec, Nova Scotia, Boston, by steamer, and thence to New York where they will be extensively entertained. The trip will last about 5 or 6 weeks. The gifts were numerous and costly, many from abroad. Krolik & Co., with whom Mr. Fry is is associated, sent a magnificent bowl and standard of cut glass. Miss Gourlay is a musician of rare merit, having received a foreign education, is a member of the Tuesday Musicale and other musical societies in the city.”

Detroit Free Press, July 19, 1903
Vernon and Helen, photo from Vernon’s 1925 passport application at

Their daughter Grace Ethelwyn Fry was born on April 21, 1904 in Detroit. Their next child Margaret Jean Fry was born November 13, 1905. Their third child, John, was born February 1, 1908.

Children of Vernon C. Fry

STANLEY EVAN FRY – born Oct. 30, 1896 in Detroit to Vernon and his first wife Birdie. In 1918, he was employed by the Detroit Twist Drill Company. He joined the army later in 1918. He married Agnes Gringle in Springfield, Ohio on Oct. 31, 1925. They had a son, Stanley, Jr., on Jan. 18, 1929. Sadly, he lived only 3 days. Agnes filed for divorce on Apr. 29, 1930. It was granted on Mar. 30, 1931. Stanley married Gladys Brazil Chambers on Nov. 9, 1950 in Ohio. He died Jan. 14, 1971.
COLBY BARKLEY FRY – born Jun. 28, 1900 in Detroit to Vernon and Birdie. In 1918-20, he farmed in Wayne and Macomb Counties. He married Beulah M. Martin on Aug. 15, 1936 in Detroit. In 1940, they lived at 19817 Roselawn. Colby was employed by an armored car company, and Beulah was a secretary. They had a daughter Madalyn in 1945. Colby died Mar. 16, 1983 in Harrison, Macomb County, Michigan.
GRACE ETHELWYN FRY – born Apr. 21, 1904 in Detroit to Vernon and his 2nd wife Helen. She married Alexander D. Dickie on Jan. 2, 1932 in Birmingham, Michigan. They lived in London, Ontario, where Alexander was a salesman at a rubber company. He died Aug. 27, 1947 of coronary thrombosis. Grace died in Florida on Dec. 3, 2001 at the age of 97.
MARGARET JEAN FRY – born Nov. 13, 1905 to Vernon and Helen. She graduated from National Park College in Washington, D.C. Margaret married Charles Momberg (1907-1991) on Feb. 8, 1930 in Lucas Co., Ohio. They had 2 sons (George Charles, born 1930, and John Vernon, 1938-2019). In 1940, they lived at 20110 Santa Rosa. After Charles’ death, she moved to Jacksonville, Florida. Margaret died Sept. 7, 2011 at the age of 105.
JOHN G. FRY – born Feb. 1, 1908 to Vernon and Helen. On Jan. 10, 1931, he died of a skull fracture and internal injuries due to a car accident. The Detroit Free Press said he “was found crushed to death beside his overturned automobile in a ditch on Northwestern highway Saturday morning… . The body was discovered at 2:30 a.m. by a passing motorist. The car…was more than 75 feet from the body. It had gone into a ditch and rolled over several times. It is believed Fry fell asleep at the wheel while returning from Detroit” to his home on W. Maple Rd. in Bloomfield Hills. He was buried in Woodmere Cemetery.

In the April 1910 U.S. census, Vernon and family lived at 94 Hazelwood Avenue (now would be 604 Hazelwood). Vernon was 44, Helen was 37, Stanley was 13, Colby was 9, Grace was 5, Margaret was 4, and John was 2. A servant named Pauline Kuhnile, aged 22, also lived there. Vernon’s occupation was listed as a manufacturer in the automobile industry. Later in 1910, Vernon, “representing a syndicate of gentlemen,” purchased the plant and materials of the Detroit Dearborn Auto Company for $14,800. The plan was to move the equipment to Detroit “and that a new car may be manufactured” (Detroit Free Press, Dec. 18, 1910).

In 1916, Vernon and his real estate partner began selling properties in the new Sherwood Forest subdivision at Woodward and the “newly paved” Seven Mile Road, which their advertisement announced was “destined to be the Grosse Pointe of the North Woodward section.” (Detroit Free Press, Dec. 9, 1916). In 1918, Fry donated the land at Hamilton and Tuxedo for a new Plum Street Church of Christ building. In 1920, he was part of “The Citizens’ Committee on Street Railway Service” – against the mayor’s proposal. In 1922, Fry supported the extension of Livernois Avenue to the site of the future zoo at Woodward Avenue and 10-mile road.

“Ferndale [Church of Christ] began around the fall of 1923. They dedicated a building on Paxton and Academy in 1925. It was a wooden building in Ferndale built by Vernon Fry of Hamilton [Church of Christ] out of reclaimed lumber. He had all this stuff torn down and had it laying around so built a church building. He was a builder and real estate man. At one time he owned practically the entire area around Livernois and Six Mile… .”

Harmon Black, interviewed by Vernon Boyd on Nov. 14, 1986 (from Rochester Univ.’s MI Churches of Christ collection –

The society pages of the Detroit Free Press were full of the travels of the upper crust, including the Fry’s – especially during the cold winter months. In April 1924, Vernon and Helen returned home after a six-week-long trip to Florida, Cuba, and Panama. In late January 1925, they and their daughter Grace left for Florida, with some time spent in Cuba and Jamaica, returning at the beginning of April. In the summer of 1925, Vernon and Helen took their daughters to Europe. In 1926, they again spent January – April in Florida. In 1927, they went to Seattle for a real estate convention, then traveled to Alaska, Banff, Lake Louise, and the Canadian Rockies. During the summers, the family spent time at their summer home called Woodcliff Lodge at Menesetung Park in Goderich, Ontario.

In 1930, Dearborn Church of Christ bought lots at the corner of Chase and Gould roads and a building paid for by Vernon Fry was put there.

Hamilton Blvd. (Plum Street) Church of Christ preachers and officers.
Photo taken October 24, 1936. Vernon Fry is circled.
(from Rochester University –

Vernon Fry died at Victoria Hospital in London, Ontario on September 6, 1948 at the age of 83 from osteogenic sarcoma which began in his right pelvis bone. Helen died December 17, 1960 in Florida where she was living with her daughter Grace.