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The naked truth about Tappan Adney

Tappan Adney was a local character in Woodstock, New Brunswick, who, upon occasion, the old-timers say, would greet visitors to his modest log home in the buff.

Tappan Adney was a local character in Woodstock, New Brunswick, who, upon occasion, the old-timers say, would greet visitors to his modest log home in the buff.

This was surprising news to me, for whom Tappan Adney is probably the greatest eye-witness chronicler of the Klondike gold rush. His Book The Klondike Stampede has stood the test of time, and is still a popular item in its reprint form today.

He is also considered a world authority for chronicling the construction of native canoes. His work in this field was so widely respected, that it was published by the Smithsonian in 1964 under the title The Bark Canoes and Skin boats of North America, and still sells well today.

Those two works alone are enough to earn him widespread recognition, but as I was to learn during my journey through New Brunswick, there is a fascinating story behind the man, and his family.

My wife Kathy and I drove up to Woodstock, New Brunswick for the purpose of gathering information about another New Brunswick native, Yukon’s political dynamo, George Black. We drove along the smooth black tarmac of the Trans Canada highway, through the tree-covered low rolling hills above the valley of the St. John River, amidst the splendour of the gold and crimson of autumn.

We then turned off onto a narrow road that wound its way through the flatlands along the edge of the St. John River. This road, I am told, has served this same purpose for at least two centuries.

The L.P. Fisher Public Library in Woodstock is a proud, historic, public building whose entrance is framed between classical columns. Greg Campbell, the archivist, has a book-lined office within. It was here that the story of Tappan Adney began to unfold.

Campbell has assembled a thick file of information on Adney and his family, and was more than happy to share the material with me.

Adney was born in Athens, Ohio, in 1868. He enrolled in the New York Art Students’ League in 1883; for the next three years, he worked in a law office by day, while attending classes at night.

To support her family, Adney’s mother ran a boarding house. One of the tenants, Minnie Bell Sharp, a talented musician and daughter of noted Canadian horticulturist Francis Peabody Sharp, eventually married Adney in 1899.

In 1887, Adney visited the Sharp family home in Woodstock and was immediately attracted to the area. He met Maliseet canoe builder Peter Jo, who introduced Adney to the art of canoe building.

He spent an extended period with Peter Jo and his family, during which he learned the Maliseet Language and began to record and sketch the construction of the birch bark canoe.

In 1897, Adney was, like thousands of others, lured to the Klondike Gold Rush as a special correspondent to Harper’s Weekly and the London Chronicle. With notebook and a 5 X 7 long-focus Premo camera, he chronicled the events of the gold rush with a remarkable eye for detail.

The tall, slim, wind-tanned outdoorsman returned to the North in 1900 to record the gold rush to Nome, Alaska, for Collier’s Weekly, after which, he was a freelance journalist and illustrator in New York, but his heart was now linked to the woods of New Brunswick.

While living in Flushing, New York, the solitary Adney had a confrontation with a peanut vendor, whose steam whistle let off a steady wail from morning to midnight. After frequently refused requests to turn off the whistle and allow silence to reign, Adney took an axe to the device, thus solving the problem. The silence was temporary, however, as the vendor responded by installing not one, but three whistles on his cart!

This episode seems to illustrate Adney’s preference for the quiet and solitude of Woodstock.

Adney served his adopted country by enlisting in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1916. He was 48 years old, and didn’t see overseas service. His talent for model making was put to use at the Royal Military College, where his genius for constructing models of trench warfare for training purposes was much appreciated.

Adney’s first loves were, probably, ethnology and linguistics. Though not formally trained in these disciplines, he was recognized by scholars of the period as an equal. Living from hand to mouth, he persisted in his study of canoes, and over the course of his career built over 150 fine models of native canoes.

Adney was also widely known across the country for his knowledge of decorative historical heraldry and had hopes that his design for a Canadian flag would be adopted. It wasn’t, but it did win first place in a competition sponsored by La Presse newspaper of Montreal, in 1926.

As he grew older, his behaviour and demeanour became more eccentric. Woodstock residents described both Adney and his wife, shambling around Woodstock in bedraggled greatcoats, like a couple of hobos.

When in his 70s, he was invited to New York, where Frederick Hill of the Maritimers’ Museum met him to take him to Virginia to work on the museum’s newly acquired collection of Adney model canoes.

Hill found, in Grand Central Station, a tall man with military posture wearing an undersized coonskin cap, a food-stained, holey overcoat, buttoned up crooked, where there were buttons at all. His overshoes slapped noisily on the station floor.

Perhaps the most important contributions he made were in the study of the Maliseet people of New Brunswick. In addition to documenting and publishing articles about various aspects of Maliseet life, he championed their cause of land claims.

The Maliseet Land, he argued in a letter to the government of Canada, which I copied at the National Archives in Ottawa, had never been surrendered to the Crown.

“Ultimately,” he wrote in 1944, “I intend to make this recognized sovereign ownership in the land ... the basis for any eventual settlement ... Instead of haphazard gratuities and charitable reliefs ... and if the Indian is entitled to anything, it is as suitable compensation ... to each of them in the form of annual allowances larger or smaller to each and every Indian of the tribe.”

Tappan Adney never saw that dream realized, but his quirky and creative life left behind a remarkable legacy of his creations.

He died in 1950 in his tiny forest bungalow at 82 years of age, surrounded by his notes, drawings and models. Author John Jennings wrote that he was “obstinate and opinionated, but never self-important ... Seemingly oblivious to his meagre surroundings, and ... rugged as a pine knot.

“Adney single-handedly assured that the great heritage of the bark canoe would not die.”

Greg (Archivist, Librarian) Campbell informs me that there are two biographies in the works that will chronicle more fully the fascinating life of Tappan Adney. I, for one, can hardly wait.

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based

in Whitehorse.