A MAGIC ROAD:

GEORGE FREDERICK CLARKE AND HIS WORLD


by Mary Bernard


1: UP BY THE BOOTSTRAPS

George Frederick Clarke was born in Woodstock, New Brunswick, in 1883. Though his family had little education, he decided to become a writer when he was only eight. By the age of twelve he was writing cliffhangers for a boys' story club.

GFC's childhood home, built by his father, photo c. 1894
GFC's childhood home, built by his father. Photo circa 1894

Fred wanted to go to college, but his father's store failed, and he had to leave school and help support the family, first as a grocery clerk, then as a dental assistant to Dr Kirkpatrick, who, finding that Fred had a talent for dentistry, started letting him make false teeth and fill patients' cavities. Fred soon found himself in sole charge of the practice when Dr. Kirkpatrick was ill or on holiday.

Fred's character was already set. He was ardent, passionate, impatient, proud, idealistic, neurotic, romantic, generous, endlessly curious, stubborn — and a born storyteller. Some of the funniest were about his stint as a stage hypnotist when he was 21, touring the Maritimes as Professor Claremont, Boy Wonder, trying to earn money for dental college.

GFC young, c. 1905-08
Young GFC, c. 1905-08

Most of his interests were also in place: history; prehistoric Maliseet artefacts; the customs and rights of modern Maliseets. He loved nature and books; but he was neither solitary nor bookish. He helped found a club for the young men of Woodstock; he skated, skied and canoed he boxed bantamweight, and usually won: because his boyish appearance misled his opponents into thinking they could lick him easily. On his long tramps in the woods he stayed in lumber camps and listened to the lumbermen's stories in the long evenings. In the spring he visited the river drivers in their tents and heard their stories. On fishing trips he listened to the tall stories of guides and wardens. Fishing was a lifelong passion; he started fishing even before he started writing: trout for a few years, then salmon.

GFC (on right), friends, trout, 1904
GFC (on right), with friends and trout, 1904.

He had a gift for friendship. Among the remarkable friends of his youth were Thane Jones, a young lawyer and writer; and three older men. One was Colonel Sunder, a cultivated ex-Indian-army doctor, who could tell him about worlds beyond the Maritimes. The second was Tappan Adney, a New York journalist who settled in Woodstock and became the world's greatest authority on birchbark canoes. The third was Noel Polchies, a Woodstock Maliseet, whom Fred loved and revered. Polchies gave him a lifelong standard of goodness and nobility, and was to become a major character in several of his books. (Noel Polchies' grandson, Dr. Peter Paul, was one of Fred's best friends in middle and old age.)

GFC & fiancee Mary Schubert, 1912
Most importantly, Fred wrote. He never stopped writing, even when he was a grocery clerk working from eight in the morning till ten at night. His first published story appeared in ‘Canada Monthly' when he was 21.

          [Left, GFC & fiancee Mary Schubert, 1912.]

In 1909 Dr. Kirkpatrick sold Fred his dental practice and left town. Fred still had no formal qualifications, but he was so good at the work that patients flocked to him. By the fall of 1910 he had enough money to go to dental college in the States. There he met and married Mary Schubert , ‘the most beautiful girl in Philadelphia'. He was earning enough to take her to Bermuda on honeymoon.

Mary Clarke, wedding photo 1912
Mary Clarke, wedding photo, 1912
 
GFC, wedding photo 1912
GFC, wedding photo, 1912.

2: SUCCESS AT LAST

The House, 1972, GFC on verandah, by Ian Fleming
The House, 1972, GFC on verandah, photo by Ian Fleming

Fred graduated in May, 1913, returned to Woodstock with Mary, bought a white-pillared brick house on Upper Main Street—where he lived for the rest of his life—and settled down to family life and his dental practice.

Mary Clarke and baby Jane, 1916
Mary Clarke and baby Jane, 1916.

He was good at dentistry, but didn't much enjoy it. His real life took place after hours: fishing, year in, year out; learning Indian skills from his Maliseet friends; digging for artefacts; exploring the woods; gleaning stories from lumbermen, guides and river drivers; enjoying his children; restoring antique furniture. He bought a camp at Taffa Lake, near Milllville; and he and two friends leased a fishing camp at the Forks of the southwest Miramichi, near Juniper. (Both properties now belong to his grandchildren.)

GFC, guide, salmon, 1920s-30s
GFC, guide and salmon, 1920s-30s.

And of course he went on writing. By 1914 he had published over 20 stories and written a novel, which he rewrote seven times in the next seven years. An American agent offered to place it if he would set it in the States instead of New Brunswick, but Fred refused. He put it aside and wrote another: The Magic Road. At long last that was accepted; it came out in 1925. Another publisher asked for a boys' book. Fred wrote Chris in Canada; it came out the same year. In the next two years two more novels appeared: The Best One Thing and Thetis Saxon.

3: THE BARREN YEARS

In 1933 a selection of Fred's poetry was published in a Ryerson Chap-Book, The St John and Other Poems. But the market for book-length fiction shrank with the depression. He couldn't place the two novels he wrote in the early thirties. He wrote an historical adventure for boys, but didn't even bother to have it typed. The market for magazine fiction was still buoyant, however, and Fred went on writing and publishing stories until 1938.

Then he dried up. In the next ten years all he wrote was a monograph on his archaeological finds. It was not published. The New Brunswick Museum was interested, but in the end turned it down. He was middle-aged, and it looked as if his writing career were over.

4: NEW FLOWERING

But in 1948, stuck in bed with pneumonia, Fred rewrote the boys' book he had put aside in 1936. His dry season was over. At an age when most men think of retiring, he was entering his most productive years. David Cameron's Adventures came out in 1950, and a sequel, Return to Acadia, in 1952. The next year he retired from dentistry and wrote a children's book, The Adventures of Jimmy-Why. It appeared in 1954. Next came a history of Acadia, Too Small a World; then a Jimmy-Why sequel called Noël and Jimmy-Why, as well as pamphlets and numerous articles, mostly for the Atlantic Advocate.

He also went on restoring antique furniture, digging for artefacts, campaigning for Indian rights, and fishing. He was in his seventies, but acted like a man in his forties or fifties. He wrote his best-known books between the ages of 76 and 84. All three are memoirs: Six Salmon Rivers and The Song of the Reel are about salmon fishing, Someone Before Us, about his adventures in archaeology. They contain much of his best writing—salty, colloquial tales of guides and lumbermen, and vivid evocations of life in old-time New Brunswick.

He would probably have written more books in the 1960s, but instead he threw himself into the fight against the provincial government's proposal to dam the St John river at Mactaquac, destroying 60 miles of beautiful river and flooding rich farmland, pioneer farms and villages, and many of the Indian sites where Fred had dug. He wrote newspaper and magazine articles, he wrote satirical poems and broadsheets, he wrote letters to newspapers and to prominent New Brunswickers, he spoke at public meetings. Unfortunately, the campaign did not succeed.

GFC striding across a field, 1964, by Mary Bernard
GFC striding across a field, 1964.
Mary Bernard photo.

5: THE GRAND OLD MAN

Fred went digging for the last time in 1964; after that a bad knee prevented him. But in his late 80s he still had the vigour of a much younger man. He and Mary went to England in 1966, and visited places their ancestors had come from. Fred prepared a second edition of Six Salmon Rivers; planned another fishing book; and campaigned successfully against a proposal to fluoridate Woodstock's water.

Honours started coming, most conspicuously an honorary degree from the University of New Brunswick in 1969, and a whole slew of accolades in the months following his 90th birthday, in December 1973. The one that pleased him most came in July 1974, when the government named a mountain near his fishing camp at Juniper ‘Mount Frederick Clarke'.

GFC's grandchildren, Mount Frederick Clarke 1974
GFC's grandchildren at Mount Frederick Clarke 1974

GFC and Mary Clarke c. 1972, by Jane Bernard
GFC and Mary Clarke c. 1972.
Photograph by Jane Bernard.
By then he had only months to live. He had started having small strokes in 1972. His mind was unimpaired, but he was tired; everything was an effort. He struggled to prepare a revised edition of Song of the Reel, but had to put it aside. In October 1974 he died of a massive stroke.

He was survived by his wife Mary (1889-1995); his three children: Jane (1915-2004), Dees (1919-2008), and Frederick (1927-2008); his grandchildren: Mary, Ian, Stephen, Frederick and Robin; and his great-grandchild: Thetis. (More great-grandchildren were born after his death.)

Like my grandfather, I am a writer, and I am writing his biography. I am eager to hear from anyone who has reminiscences of GFC or stories about him. You can email me at: mary.bernard@taffa.eu

GFC & granddaughter Mary Bernard, 1944
GFC & granddaughter Mary Bernard, 1944

Text and images © Mary Bernard 2008

The old photographs on this page were professionally restored by Mary Bernard.