ED COLEMAN: Rare books - Clarkes, Milners history

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By Ed Coleman

Clarke’s history of the railway, written by Kentville train conductor William W. Clarke and published circa 1920, is difficult to find today. The Dominion Atlantic Railway’s website notes that the book was printed in a limited run “on inexpensive acidic paper,” meaning, I suppose, that time eroded and destroyed most of the copies.

I’ve only seen one copy of Clarke’s work and it occupies a special place in my bookshelf. I was told by a long-time railroader, whose father worked with Clarke, that 200 to 300 copies were printed, some of which were given to friends and fellow employees. While produced inexpensively and not made to last, surely more than a few of those books still remain, most likely in stored away belongings of old railroad families.

Besides my copy, another can be found in the book collection at the Kings County Museum. Don Foster, a railway collector in Grafton, has two copies, one autographed by Clarke. This makes the book rare indeed. As for the dollar value of the book, it would depend on what a railroad buff/collector would be willing to pay for it. 

The late Leon Barron, an avid collector or railway artifacts in his day, told me the book may have been printed in Windsor in 1925, by the printing company that published the Hants Journal. Based on employee lists published in the book, Don Foster believes that 1925 was the year of publication.

Clarke was an employee of the Dominion Atlantic Railway and the Windsor & Annapolis Railway, where he started as a water boy. On his demise in Kentville at age 64, he had been a railway employee for about 50 years. He was hailed as an “outstanding figure in railway history” by The Advertiser when his death notice was published in 1929.

While I have many details on Clarke’s life, thanks to the scrapbook collection at the Kings County Museum, I can’t say the same about the author of another rare historical book.

Sometime in the 1930s, W. C. Milner published a collection of historical sketches in Wolfville, titled, The Basin of Minas and its Early Settlers. Like Clarke’s book, I’ve quoted from Milner’s work many times in this column.  Also like Clarke’s work, Milner’s book is difficult to find. I’m aware of only four copies: one is in the rare book collection at Acadia University; another copy is in the collection of Wolfville historian Ivan Smith, the creator and caretaker of the Nova Scotia History Index; a third copy is in my bookcase and the forth in the hands of a book collector in Truro.

Milner was the head archivist for Nova Scotia, having at his fingertips sources some historians would kill to access. In his book are some 70 short historical essays in 132 pages, many of them about towns, villages and historical events in the Annapolis Valley. The essays apparently were first published as a series in Wolfville’s weekly newspaper, the Acadian, and then put together and published as a book.

What’s the Wolfville connection with Milner? Apparently Dr. Milner retired to this town, possibly in the 1920s. John Whidden, who recently published a book on the older homes of Wolfville, tells me he found a reference to Milner in his research. Whidden say that in 1926, L. Fairn designed and E. S. Langille built a house for Dr. Milner at 147 Main Street in Wolfville.

We can speculate that after retiring to Wolfville, Milner wrote his series of historical essays in his new home. Exactly when the book was published is anyone’s guess, but I believe it was in the early 1930s. As I said, the book is rare, extremely rare, and costly as well, compared to Clarke’s book. One of those four copies I mentioned sold for $125 over a decade ago when it was offered for sale by an Ottawa bookdealer.

Organizations: Dominion Atlantic Railway, Kings County Museum, Hants Journal Acadia University

Geographic location: Wolfville, Kentville, Grafton Nova Scotia Truro Annapolis Valley 1926, L. Fairn 147 Main Street Ottawa

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