I was fortunate when I was a kid, because occasionally I would travel around New England for days at a time with my late father, who represented the six New England states as a sales representative for his European giftware import/export business. Aside from the scenery and some sporty driving, the best part was the characters we met along the way, and the lifelong friendships he developed with his customers.
One of those customers was the Clark family in Lincoln, New Hampshire. He sold to the gift shop there and I remember well the attached little room at the end where the toy cars were. Baskets full of them, and they are still there today. It wasn’t the gift shop, though, that made this stop special, it was the Clarks themselves. An eclectic bunch, I knew even at a young age, with a genuine “Wolman” on the payroll who was part of the entertainment, along with a trained bear show, at their wonderful roadside attraction.
My father had a penchant for genuine New Englanders, especially the New Hampshire kind, and I suppose he had a soft spot for the Clark family as they had started as Clark’s Eskimo Dog Ranch in the late 1920′s. My father kept Siberian Huskies and we did a little “mushing” in our family as well. In addition, my father had apparently fallen for the lure of the North Country, as I spent much of my childhood hiking the White Mountains and skiing there as well, including Tuckerman’s Ravine.
So, it was with a heavy heart that I read of the death of Edward M. Clark on September 24th, at age 85. I had never met him, but I knew his brother Murray, the veritable P.T. Barnum of the “bear show” side of the family, and I suspect they were of similar fabric. Murray, who turned over the bear shows to the next generation of Clark’s, was all Yankee-dry-wit, but with a sharp intellect underneath it. It was their father who had begun the sled dog ranch as a tourist attraction which later became the Trading Post with bear shows and an adorable “Old Main Street USA” that is a must-see.
I didn’t know much about Ed Clark but what I read about him doesn’t surprise me. He embodied everything that us New Hampshire natives love about our state. A dedication to his hometown and culture, and of course his family. A supreme intellect hidden behind humble attire and a wild flock of hair. A wisdom in his eyes that I know all too well, from my own father and from so many of that generation who had seen things our generation will never see, and who had lived a life full.
According to his daughter, he never said “goodbye” when leaving a conversation or meeting, but instead would say “think big…be great”, or, “square your shoulders”, another one of his favorites, apparently. Good advice, especially poignant from a man who walked the walk. He lived an outstanding life. At age 18 he was dispatched to Iceland to train British Troops in sled-dog use and maintenance, part of a military effort preparing to take out a “heavy-water” plant in Norway. Older brother Murray was on similar duty in Scotland.
After this he returned to Boston and joined the Merchant Marines. He was on a transport ship at Normandy, and during this time, having requested the “engine room” as his area of responsibility, he developed a deep fascination with all things mechanical, which endured his entire life. This fascination is evident in the astounding display of antique machines and contraptions of every kind which are on display at various stores and garages which line the “Main Street” at Clark’s.
His fascination turned to trains and steam engines and he built the White Mountain Central Railroad, also an attraction at Clark’s, as well as working on other railroads throughout the North Country, including on the Cog Railway on Mt. Washington for a few years, where he invented a device for transporting crews up and down the tracks at high speeds. He also worked on the famous Kancamagus Highway during it’s construction, an historical deed in itself.
Later he ran the North Stratford Railroad which ran to the Ethan Allen factory in Beecher Falls, Vermont. Later, he bought three hydro-electric dams, the Goodrich Falls hydro in Bartlett, New Hampshire, followed by the Apthorp station in Littleton and the Lisbon station. He renovated them to better-than-new condition and operated them until his death, selling electricity to Public Service Co. of New Hampshire, Littleton Water & Light and also the New Hampshire Electric Coop.
Ed Clark epitomized Yankee-ingenuity. He personified that kind of larger-than-life persona that made not just New Hampshire, but America, a great place. While others would demand parades and fanfare, speeches and studies, committees and panels, the Edward Clarks of the world just go out and do it. He understood the importance of, and was fascinated by, the prospect of clean, renewable energy. Before it was in vogue, and long before it was a political issue, it was a matter of pragmatism for Ed Clark.
He was one of the original promoters of the White Mountains and North Country as a tourist attraction, beginning as an organized effort in 1958. He was, and is, truly one of a handful of iconic figures who brought this stunningly beautiful part of the country to the attention of the travelling public. “My Dad travelled all over the world”, said daughter Carol, “but all roads led back to Lincoln.” And the rest of us should be thankful they did. On my next trip North, I’ll set aside a quiet moment for Ed Clark. As with my late father, I’ll sense his presence in the wind as it rushes up, over and through the rugged terrain, and will mourn the passing of yet another truly special man. They don’t build ‘em like that anymore. “Think big. Be great.”