• by Kirk Gaw

Jenny Fry Searching For The Real Huckleberry Queen

Updated: Nov 23, 2020

Mary Louisa "Mat" Helms Davis Johnson Falconbury Coffelt was married a lot. She is the inspiration for books, newspaper articles, radio programs, historic reenactments, videos, and soon a play. She is the Huckleberry Queen herself and made a reputation that the press followed from California, Montana, Kansas, Ohio, and even New York. She lived about 140 years ago and shocked the people who knew her. She began as a cross bow entertainer, and performed as a trapeze artist in the circus circuit.

Jenny Fry has been working on a special project to bring the story of Mary Louisa "Mat" Helms to life. The story of the Huckleberry Queen may be brought to the stage as a show?

The Huckleberry Queen, Mary "Mat" Helms, on far right, poses with Jake Falconbury at her left, and 3 other men, one possibly her second husband named Johnson, from Teegarden, in front of Tyner, French St. Hotel after cashing in on a successful whortleberry crop grown in Walkerton area marshes.

Her years in the Walkerton Area should be considered for her notoriety as a pioneer of the liberation of women. She could do what a man does! And she could do it just as well! If not better? She challenged to change people's perceptions in the day. It would not have been uncommon for her to join the gentlemen for a cigar and outdo them at whatever pleasures they sought? During the off-season of the traveling shows Mary Helms stayed in the Tyner area, and worked with her closest friends picking whortleberries; a popular food staple during the 19th century. She wrote in her memoirs that the mud in the Tyner marshes were so thick that she hated the job because it splashed on her favorite white dress.

Jenny Fry, second from left, posing with John Glenn High School classmates from the John Glenn Color Guard back in 1987. I went to school with all of these girls too.

Jenny Fry, a longtime Walkerton resident, and my former classmate is fascinated with the persona of the notorious circussian character. Once, described in local newspaper crime columns from the early Northern Indiana newspapers as a “lady of the night.” The more that Jenny Fry reads about The Huckleberry Queen the more embedded she is with her myth.

Mary Helms was a gambler who taught young men how to pick pockets in Walkerton Area taverns, and saloons. Recently on the internet I had the pleasure to discuss Mary Helms with Jenny who is determined to complete a play about her life. In fact, Jenny said she has become so obsessed with the stories of Mary Helms that she has forgotten to mow her lawn while researching! Jenny who attended Columbus College Of Art And Design in Columbus, Ohio is a freelance theatrical costumer / seamstress.

Currently, she is employed at “South Bend Seamstress.” Jenny says, “I have worked collaboratively on many, many, plays. But, this is the first time I have wanted to write a play! It just has to be done.” She added, “how could I have grown up here, and never known?” She did not know about Mary Helms until she read about her on The Walkerton Page.

“That is the part that has me obsessed, it is hidden in plain sight. My dad used to tell me about the marsh, and how it had blueberries, and how the folks used to pick them. But, I had no idea.”

“His parents, the Swank’s, had him sort of late in life. So, they would have been more contemporary to the berry picking in the marsh.”

Some recent examples of Jenny's designs from her life on stage and in the theater.

Jenny has been around the stage much of her adult life. She first worked in the theater in High School at John Glenn. She went on to work on costumes for companies between Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Columbus. In Cleveland she worked for Paramount Productions, King's Island, and Princess Cruise Lines. She even did costumes for the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade mascots through them. She said it was there that she found what she loved doing! Also, in Cleveland, she got hired at the Cleveland Playhouse and worked for the Great Lakes Theater Festival!

At Kent State, and Case Western Reserve, she gained more experience as a costume stitcher, cutter draper, assistant shop manager, assistant costume designer, and lead costume designer. Near Columbus, Ohio is where she met her husband, Ohio graphic designer, illustrator, guitarist, Tom Fry.

Jenny, and Tom are the proud parents of Iris, and Rex Fry. She came back to Walkerton the year 2000 to become the official Costume Shop Manager for the IUSB Theater Department until 2011. They were able to raise their kids at the Walkerton Schools to become Falcons. Iris graduated High School and is now pursuing her degree at IU in Bloomington. She is studying Folklore / Anthropology Of Food, and hopes to be a Librarian when she is finished. Rex is continuing his studies as a Senior, next term at John Glenn.

Being fascinated with the Huckleberry Queen can take many turns! Jenny only began her search for Mary Helms since February. She has linked articles from the 19th century and has followed blogs all over the internet. She has interviewed a teacher, Anna Liechty, who performs historic reenactments from Plymouth. Jenny was able to dig into the lives of Mary Helm’s closest friends, the Tracey sisters, and those who became husbands. The first husband married Mary Helms after her mother from Chicago arranged it with a man named Davis. Jenny found that he sold her off into slavery in Richmond, Indiana as a prostitute when she was 13!

She wrote in one post that he was the worst. And was mean. She kept friendship with his sisters who were named “The 3 Tracey’s. They seemed to stay with Mary through much of her youth. They stayed with Mary to offer support after she finally made it in the Circus still in her teens. Jenny Fry has plenty of drama to inspire her writings.

Iris, Rex, and Jenny spending quality time during this Summer season.

The first big stint Mary Helms had was with the Warners Circus. She was able to demonstrate skills and convinced them she could work as an acrobat. She performed a hoop routine, held a chair in the air while dangling from an iron jaw, and walked the trapeze nightly.

At one point the Warners Circus merged with the Barnum & Bailey Show while Mary was performing between Indiana, Chicago, then Colorado, and on to Kansas. Even there she made the news columns, reports of roughnecking, and drunken fights! But, Mary managed to perform her trapeze routine across the country, and made a name for herself as “the woman with the iron jaw!” She stopped on a layover in Tyner at some point. There she fell in love with a Teegarden man named Johnson.

They married and worked in the whortleberry business at Teegarden. He kept up with the railroad people along the circuits of Teegarden and Tyner. The times continued to call for drinking and card playing. Mary lived a life of scorn and ridicule since she was betrayed and forced to be a prostitute. The people in Walkerton had it in for her. She liked to work with the young men hired to pick in the marshes. She enjoyed entertaining them. Rumors spread around the area about her. It caused friction between her and Mr. Johnson. At some point she left him because of ladies who ridiculed her.

She soon met Jake Falconbury. He was a lot younger and better looking. Johnson gave her the divorce she wanted. She and Jake stayed a lot at the Tyner Hotel on French St. Reports of card playing, dancing, drinking, and vandalism were part of their nightly celebrations. The area newspapers kept accounts of fighting at night. Much of this drama is the stuff juicy plays call for. Including the music of the day! I can imagine Hoagy Carmicheal, and Cole Porter. I can see the heavy fashions ladies wore in the dirt streets and on the planks of the towns. That time was really full of a struggle for an American identity?

I am captivated by the many finds Jenny Fry posts about her discoveries concerning the Huckleberry Queen legend! I cannot wait for her to share how Mary Helms Falconbury ended up with Frank Coffelt? If she made up with or came to terms with her mother in Chicago? And, how Mary passed on in 1923? Like Jenny Fry I am upon the reign of The Huckleberry Queen who survived the incredible struggles of her time.

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