HOPKINTON – Root beer has been beloved for centuries. First made by indigenous peoples for its medicinal qualities, generations of Americans have since happily quenched their thirst with ice-cold mugs of the frothy, fermented brew.
Made of molasses, yeast and the bark and root of the sassafras plant, root beer was sold in bottles and as an extract all over the country by the turn of the 20th century. Then the food and drug administration discovered that the sassafras plant was carcinogenic and banned any further use of it in products.
Americans had to have their root beer, so other ingredients were incorporated into it, to make up for what had been left out. The beverage offered a great fizzling enjoyment, but it certainly wasn’t worth dying for. Sarah Kenyon probably didn’t feel it would be worth dying for either, but she almost did.
Sarah had spent many years working as a housekeeper for the unmarried George Henry Ennis, a farmer who resided on the road leading from Ashaway to Bradford.
In the spring of 1915, a traveling salesman was making his way through town when 73-year-old Sarah was interested enough to look at his wares. She finally decided to buy several bottles of root beer and she took them down into Ennis’s dark, cool cellar to store them up on a shelf for the time-being. She through about how, when the hot summer days set in, the root beer would provide a cold, tasteful relief.
Later that August one such balmy afternoon arrived on a Sunday. Sarah was down in the cellar tending to some job when she suddenly remembered the glass bottles of that delectable brown liquid she had bought from the traveling salesman several months earlier.
She walked through the dark cavern toward where the shelves hung and reached up to retrieve a bottle. Pulling out the cork, she lifted the bottle to her lips and took several good swallows. The taste in her mouth was strange. Something was wrong with the root beer. Looking up toward the shelf, she finally realized that what she had just gulped was horse liniment, which had been placed on the same shelf.
Used for rubbing on horses in order to cool their bodies after exercise, the medicated preparations often contained such ingredients as turpentine, iodine and alcohol. The liniment cooled the body by dilating the capillaries of the skin and was meant to be used externally only.
When the others in the house learned of Sarah’s error, they were afraid she had unintentionally poisoned herself and would die as a result. Dr. Briggs was quickly summoned, and he rushed to the farm with a stomach pump. The thin, flexible rubber tube was inserted down Sarah’s throat and the doctor manually pumped the cylinder connected to it. The contraption proved successful and Sarah survived her dangerous mistake. Whether or not she lost her taste for root beer that hot, summer day isn’t known.