Every town in New England used to have a storyteller. During most of the twentieth century, Ned Reynolds fit that description here in Nutfield. His family had lived in Derry since before the Revolutionary War. His ancestors had belonged to the First Parish Church for seven generations. In fact, it was his great-great-great-great-grandfather who helped build the church in 1769.
Ned was born in East Derry in 1900, the son of Ernest and Lula Reynolds, and graduated from Pinkerton in 1917. He was the manager of the Agway Store in Derry and the first chief of the East Derry Fire Department. He was also a cofounder of the Derry Driving Club, which gained national fame for racing horses on Beaver Lake. He and his wife, Helen, moved to Londonderry in 1944. In 1990, at the age of ninety, he was selected as Londonderry’s Citizen of the Year. He spent his last years raising vegetables and Christmas trees on his Litchfield Road farm as well as caring for his wife and his mother, who lived to the age of 102. I remember Ned as a large man with sparking blue eyes, red suspenders, and a shock of white hair that I have been told was once auburn.
He was a man who had seen remarkable changes in Derry and Londonderry. He entered this world in the era of horse and buggies and lived long enough to see a neighbor’s boy grow up to hit a gold ball on the moon. He saw our roads become highways and shopping malls replace orchards and pastures. An article in the Derry News noted, “Through it all he maintained his good humor and joviality.” Ned died peacefully in his favorite chair in 1993. After his passing, Madden’s Restaurant in Derry hung his photograph on the wall by his favorite booth.
Recently, I was chatting with store owner Grant Benson when Ned’s name came up. Grant asked me if I remembered the story of Ned and the Dancing Bear. This was an exercise in storytelling that was considered Ned Reynolds’s tour de force. By story’s end, all but the most flinty-hearted listener would have moist eyes. I remembered some of the story but, during the span of two decades, most the details had become vague. Grant was able to fill in pieces of the yarn I had forgotten. That sent me to the microfilm section of the Derry Public Library to find if I could flesh out the story of the bear and the boy. With that additional information, combined with the tale that Grant and I reconstructed, I can now retell the story-but nowhere near as well as did Ned Reynolds, the master storyteller.
In February 1906, James Comeau, of Derry, returned to his birthplace in Nova Scotia. He and his brother Will decided to do some hunting. Deep in the forest they killed a large black bear. Upon closer examination, they discovered that they had shot a mother bear. Close by her lifeless body they discovered two very young cubs. They brought both cubs back to their home rather than let the animals die alone in the cold Canadian forest. They tried their best to feed the twins, but one died that first day. The remaining cub seemed to enjoy all the attention being given by the Comeau family and their neighbors.
Jim Comeau decided to bring the bear back to his home in Derry. He and his sister, Augusta, were the managers of the Beaver Lake pavilion. This was Derry’s chief tourist attraction, offering a sandy beach, snack bar, canoes for hire, movies, dancing, bowling, and slot machines The twenty-eight-year-old Comeau thought a small zoo would lure in even more tourists. Derry’s bear park opened twenty-four years before the fist bear strutted his stuff at Clark’s Trading Post in the White Mountains.
By the time the pavilion opened for the season, a pair of deer along with a flock of tame ducks and turkeys had been procured from Corbin Park in Corydon, New Hampshire. A chicken-wire fence was put up to create an enclosure. The star of the menagerie was Jack-the bear cub from Nova Scotia. It was promoted by Jim Comeau as being “tame and playful and could be safely fondled and caressed by children and ladies.” The quickly growing bruin was taught tricks to amuse the spectators, such as begging for food and spinning around, which was claimed to be Jack’s version of the latest Derry dance craze.
Among Jack’s biggest fans was six-year-old Ned Reynolds. Almost every day the young boy would visit the zoo to play with is friend Jack. The animal would put his arms around the boy and they would dance together, cheek-to -cheek. In June 2007, Ned’s nephew divulged to me his uncle’s secret bear-training technique. A dab of honey, smeared behind Ned’s ear, encouraged the bear to cuddle with the boy.
Early one morning, Mrs. Lula Reynolds heard scratching at her screen door. She was startled to find a five-foot-tall black bear demanding to be let into her home. It was Jack, who had managed to escape his enclosure and was now paying a social call on Ned. The animal walked into the kitchen and sat beside the boy at the table. together they had a breakfast of porridge, with Ned feeling like he had just stepped into a nursery rhyme.
Young Ned was certainly the most popular kid in the area thanks to his buddy, gentle Jack. One summer’s day, Mrs. Reynolds sponsored a blueberry pie eating contest. All the neighboring children and Jack sat at a long table with a pie placed in front of each. Each participant-both human and animal-wore a bib around his neck. At a signal, each contestant began to eat his pie without the use of hands. Within seconds, the winner was declared to be Jack who had finished his pie well before his rivals had reached even the half way point in the contest. The young bruin was now perceived to be a very rare animal species-a black and blue bear.
By midsummer, Jack had begun to grow and was now larger and more powerful than the boy. Ned later recalled that it was from dancing with Jack that he learned the meaning of the term “bear hug.” Even though the bear was much stronger than the boy, the animal was careful never to use his strength to hurt his playmate.
Another time the staff of the Beaver Lake pavilion began to notice that they were missing tools. More and more hammers, drills, and saws vanished. Finally suspicion pointed to Jack as the thief. The staff carefully watched the animal and finally caught his stealing a workman’s tool. Silently they watched to see where he was taking the pilfered item. In the tiny area behind the pins in the bowling alley was a little cubbyhole. In that small little den the cub had hidden his stolen treasures.
Toward the end of August, the Hargreaves Circus came to Derry. It was a twenty-railroad-car extravaganza. It set up its massive tent near the site of today’s Parkland Hospital. Later there was a parade of spectacles down Broadway. Among its featured acts were aerialists, clowns and performing animals. There was a five-legged “sacred cow of India,” a cakewalking horse, a huge trained bear, and Fred the six-ton elephant who was billed as “Jumbo the Second.”
Jim Comeau and Ernest Reynolds decided it would be a treat for Jack to visit the animals at the circus. They put a gold collar on the bear and walked him across town to the circus grounds. The Derry bear caused considerable excitement among both circus workers and the customers as Comeau showed off his tricks. Soon even circus owner Thomas Hargreaves came out to admire our Jack.
The circus impresario asked Comeau if the animal was for sale. Despite being told it was not, Hargreaves kept on pressing the Derry man to name his price. Finally, Jim Comeau blurted out a dollar amount that he thought was ridiculously high. He thought that would certainly make the circus man shut up. As soon as the words were out of this mouth, Hargreaves said “Sold,” reached into his wallet, and paid Comeau on the spot. The circus owner explained that because Jack was less than a year old, he would learn “many tricks.” The animal was led away by his new owner and that night the circus was loaded onto the train to be hauled to performances in other towns.
Later that day, the six-year-old Ned Reynolds wandered down to the pavilion to play with his best friend. There he learned the sad truth; he would never see or dance with the bear again.
I heard Ned tell this story eighty years later. Even then he was still sad about losing his friend and angry with Jim Comeau for selling the dancing bear.
I have not been able to find out the ultimate fate of Jackie Bear. The Hargreaves Circus closed in 1907. He may have been retired to the circus’s winter park in Chester, Pennsylvania, or perhaps was sold to another circus or zoo. We will likely never know.
I’m sorry that Ned Reynolds couldn’t have written this story. He was a much better storyteller than I’ll ever be. Recently I received a letter from Ned’s son Charlie, who lives in Alaska. He sent me a shoe box filled with a dozen audiotapes of this dad’s rambling conversations. I was just too nervous to play these recordings, fearing that because of the age they would self-destruct in my cassette player. Fortunately, in response to my public moaning, Steve Heffelfinger of Derry came to the rescue. He and his son have the technical expertise to convert the recordings onto CD’s. Soon visitors to the Museum of Derry history can hear the voice and stories of Nutfield’s greatest storyteller. I’m sure my next Derry book will mine these CD’s for Ned Reynolds’s stories.
This excerpt is from “Nutfield Rambles,” Richard Holmes’ fifth published piece on local history. Richard was born, raised and attended school throughout New Hampshire. He received his Bachelor’s Degree in Education from Keene State College and his Master’s Degree in History from Rivier College. In 2003 he founded the Derry Museum of History. In 2007 Richard Holmes received an Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History. This is the most prestigious recognition one can receive for the preservation and interpretation of state and local history. Richard has also been a columnist for the Derry News, the Lawrence Eagle Tribune, Nutfield News, and the Manchester Union Leader.
Leave Richard a comment on the story. Copies of his book are still available at the Derry Public Library.