Small Town Hero: Simpler times and the ‘Mayor of Little Places’

By Barry Penhale

My parents, though city dwellers, had an affinity for the rural way of life. During wartime they discovered the existence of a weekend CBC radio show dubbed “Neighbourly News,” which did much to ease the tensions of a nation at war. Host Andy Clarke was a veteran newspaperman whose forte was ferreting out those little everyday stories that seemingly never changed, come hell or high water. Listeners quickly discovered that Andy was more a journalist than a broadcaster but immediately took to his folksy style when the program debuted in January, 1940.

Host of a weekend CBC Radio program for eight years, Andy Clarke was reputed to be more popular throughout Ontario than anyone of his generation.  Photo courtesy McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited

Host of a weekend CBC Radio program for eight years, Andy Clarke was reputed to be more popular throughout Ontario than anyone of his generation. Photo courtesy McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited

His weekly broadcasts became such a hit with listeners it was said he was more popular throughout Ontario and possibly all of eastern Canada than anyone of his generation. A story that made its way into a memorial book, Andy Clarke and his Neighbourly News, speaks of a brief but revealing conversation between Clarke and his postman. The mailman remarked to Clarke, “I used to like you until you moved up here.” It seems that by this time Clarke’s weekly mail consisted of 260 community newspapers, parcels, letters, and what the mail carrier referred to as “those funny things you get!” Apparently Andy had the largest size mailbox available, but it never was quite big enough!

Clarke’s love of rural and small-town Ontario was truly his major interest. He admired those newspaper publishers who reported weekly on the existence of twin colts, two-headed calves, barrel-bellied pumpkins, barnyard trout, and, yes, a cat that played the piano! This human-interest form of news dealing with down-to-earth life in Ontario became the backbone of his programs.

Andy’s source of material was gleaned by skillfully combing through the many Ontario newspapers put out by members of the Canadian Weekly Newspapers Association. This was the heyday of small independent newspaper publishers when one could enter an office on the day of publication, plunk down the cost of that day’s paper, and experience the thrill of leaving with a paper printed that very morning. The practice has disappeared in many communities but fortunately not all — we still have the Tweed News and the Bancroft Times. I still treasure a period when I frequently encountered a publisher behind the counter on publication day — folks like Sam Curry in Tweed, Ed Loucks in Frankford, “Happy” Tompkins in Stirling, or the Kingston brothers, Wib and Ken, longtime proprietors of the Campbellford Herald.

Such was Clarke’s popularity that a number of his tales made it into a memorial book.  Photo courtesy McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited

Such was Clarke’s popularity that a number of his tales made it into a memorial book. Photo courtesy McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited

It is doubtful if anyone has enjoyed anything close to the standing Clarke had with the press in small-town Ontario. He paid visits to almost every locale possessing a newspaper. The citizenry turned out in droves when the “Mayor of Little Places” (the title was given to Clarke by Enid Donahue of Kahshe Lake, Muskoka and first appeared in the Gravenhurst Banner) came to visit and it was standing room only in town halls whenever he gave one of his talks. All knew he was the real McCoy — an old friend who could be trusted. Whenever Andy aired an excerpt from one’s hometown paper, it was seen as a badge of honour.

Hastings County and area received their share of his amusing extracts, such as the following from The Tweed News:

“Although legend maintains that a groundhog’s judgment on the 2nd of February has considerable to do with the shortening or the extension of winter, Miss Goldie Godfrey’s pet chuck simply refused to move outside the home on that day, preferring the kitchen stove to the snowbank. Miss Goldie captured Chuck in a place called Hungerford two years ago, and after being nursed to complete recovery he showed no inclination to leave. Waddling about the house, he got into the usual mischief of all pets but can assume a sanctimonious air, trying to lay the blame on the cat or the dog. He has discovered, much to his owner’s dismay, the hiding place of the sugar bowl, and she is now attempting to convince the ration board that she needs additional coupons.”

Sugar, then a scarce commodity, was rationed during the Second World War.

The Stirling News Argus often published items that delighted Clarke. One involved a personality he referred to as his rhyming friend Uncle Hy: “February, month of lesser days, we’re glad you’re here. Our fuel is low, our back is bent, our lungs are full of dust content. Yes, Feb, we’re glad you’re here at last, and that the winter’s going fast. February, month of lesser days, if you’re a pal we’d have you know that there are much more pleasant things than going out to shovel snow. So, please be kind; don’t get too rough. We’ve surely had it hard enough.”

According to the Napanee Beaver, “Frank Janowski, a Polish war veteran employed as a farm worker by Mark Dowling, has trained one of the farm horses to use a crosscut saw to help cut heavy logs. The horse grips one handle of the saw in its teeth, and the workman drags the other end. A snapshot of the operation has convinced the editor that anything can happen.”

Clarke gathered his radio show material by scouring the pages of over 200 community newspapers that were mailed to him on a weekly basis.  Photos courtesy The Tweed News

Clarke gathered his radio show material by scouring the pages of over 200 community newspapers that were mailed to him on a weekly basis. Photos courtesy The Tweed News

Under the heading “Peace Offering,” Clarke reported on the receipt of a delightful memento from Hastings County: “three hepatica plants, roots and bloom. They came from a newly graduated nurse, Alison Vanderwater, probably as a peace offering for the part she played in despoiling me of my tonsils. Thanks, lady, for the peace offering. All hard feelings are dismissed, and I find I can get along without the tonsils, anyway.”

As reported in the Trenton Courier-Advocate, “at the express office a rabbit had to be held overnight for shipment. Next morning, when the feed man arrived there were no less than eighteen bunnies in place of the one that he had fed and bedded down so attentively the night before.”

The Picton Gazette, “is regarded as reliable…, so when it says a motorist driving from the north side of Big Island to the mainland was run into by a carp, it can be taken as gospel. It seems that there was a stretch of roadway covered by water. As the driver was gingerly negotiating this pass, a big carp dived between the spokes of the front wheel, causing him to detour into a fence. He had to go wading to get his vehicle righted. The carp, too, was apparently damaged, for it was seen to go floating away.”

From the Colborne Enterprise: “Charles Jarvis of Wooler had an unexpected adventure on Weslemkoon Lake when treed by bears. The number was not determined but they kept a determined vigil and Jarvis only managed to disperse the lot by setting fire to dry leaves in his handkerchief and dropping the blazing bomb in the midst of the convention.”

Weekly for eight entertaining years, Andy’s listeners made a point of gathering around their radios each Sunday morning, if not in the kitchen then likely in the barn, as the genial host took to the airwaves with accounts of record-size puffballs, dancing jackrabbits, a parsnip that looked like a parson, and a pike that had swallowed an alarm clock. His immensely large and dedicated following must have felt they lost a close family member when Clarke passed on.

A telling story related by two of Canada’s giants of journalism, Greg Clark and Gillis Purcell, speaks volumes and serves as a reminder of just how beloved a personality Clarke had become. When in Quebec on a trout fishing trip, their guide surprised them by saying, “I heard you speak of Andy Clarke. I came home one day and my wife met me at the door. ‘There is no more Andy!’ she told me.”

Extracted stories shown here are from Andy Clarke and his Neighbourly News (Ryerson Press, 1949), with acknowledgements to Bernard Semelhago of McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited.