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Clark's Trading Post | Bear Show in Lincoln, New Hampshire

Clark’s Trading Post | Bear Show in Lincoln, New Hampshire
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Clark's Trading Post | Bear Show in Lincoln, New Hampshire
Photo/Art by Maureen S. Clark

In the ring at Clark’s Trading Post, a six-foot seven-inch, 440-pound black bear named Pemi stands up like a man and tosses a basketball through a hoop. Pemi’s mate, Echo, a 340-pound female, has just finished her act, riding around the ring on a Segway, raising the flag, and dancing.

With them is a pixie-like blonde woman and a big, gruff, red-headed man wearing an Australian bush hat. Outside the ring, Victoria paces in her pen, rattling the gate. She can’t wait for showtime.

One of thousands of acts that have taken place over the past 60 years in this roadside ring in Lincoln, New Hampshire, is underway at Clark’s Trading Post, a place where generations of bears have worked alongside generations of Clarks. The blonde woman and the red-headed man are brother and sister, Maureen and Murray A. Clark, the third generation to raise bears here and the second to train and perform with them.

Founded in 1928, Ed Clark’s Eskimo Sled Dog Ranch gradually morphed from souvenirs and canines to bear acts. The Clarks, it could be said, are perhaps the most ingenious entrepreneurs ever to stake a claim in the White Mountains, substantially influencing the growth of the tourist industry in that region. And, further, it should be said that when you say “the Clarks,” you’re talking about not only the direct descendants of the founders, Edward P. and Florence M. Clark, and their two sons, Ed and Murray, but their offshoots as well: in all, a family the size of a small town, each of whom has shared in the growth of this family empire. But in recent years, only the elder Murray, his daughter Maureen, and his son Murray A. have performed with the bears.

One day last fall, after Clark’s Trading Post had closed for the season and the three bears were preparing for hibernation, the family stopped to tell us about their years here. Talking with these three is like talking to one person. They finish one another’s sentences, which run together as smoothly as the waters of the Pemigewasset River that tumbles behind their legendary Trading Post. Today, this roadside attraction has evolved into an entertainment resort that features not only trained-bear shows but a facsimile 19th-century village, an authentic wood-fired steam train that takes visitors chugging through the countryside, a museum of the family’s own treasures, even a Segway ride. This old-timey place has a history firmly rooted in New Hampshire’s soil.

In 1949, when Murray was 22, he and his older brother began performing with two of the family’s female bears, Ebony and Midnight. Murray stopped performing in 2003, but he has never retired. He’s 82 now–you can still see the bear man in him–and he sits beside the ring, quietly watching Maureen, 50, and Murray A., 40, do things that he taught them and some that he didn’t. He watches every show and still works around the Post, meeting the public and setting up props.

Both Maureen and Murray A. have worked with the bears in one way or another since they were children. Maureen toddled around with her baby bottle alongside the cubs as they drank from their bottles, which made for good snapshots. Since the cubs are raised in the Clarks’ homes, their family albums are full of such images. “You haven’t lived until you’ve raised bear cubs in your kitchen,” Murray the elder often says. “Down come the curtains, off comes the tablecloth, over goes the milk pitcher …”

The cubs ambled around the house and occasionally went for rides in the car. “A bear cub has little rounded ears, small dark eyes, needle-sharp teeth and claws, and the shortest temper on record,” adds Murray A.

Maureen cares for bears of all ages, and the training is nonstop. “When you work with bears, it’s every day, every day, constant, constant, constant,” she says. “People ask, ‘When is it that you’re training the bears?’ The answer is all the time. Every show is a training as well.”

“People ask, ‘How do you do that?’ adds Murray the elder. “Practice! And you take advantage of each bear’s talent. You find their inclinations and then develop those talents, reward them for everything they do. We use no clubs, leashes, whips, sticks, none of that! It’s all animal handling. I’ve been an animal handler since I was yea tall. What works with one animal won’t work with another.”

When he was 16, Murray the elder was mauled by one of his bears: “I was cleaning the pen and I went to pick up something in the gravel, put it in the pail, and I frightened the bear. He turned on me and butchered me up pretty bad … My father saw my clothes torn off, my head bleeding, my scalp all asunder, and he picked up a rifle and went down and shot the bear. That was it.” It was 1943, and at the time there seemed to be no other choice in a desperate situation. Our understanding of animal behavior has evolved since then; today we have additional options and approaches, and no doubt the outcome would be different.

“Don’t ever startle a bear,” Murray explained in a 2001 video interview. “Also, know your bear and its personality. Know where your limits or parameters are in handling them … You cannot handle bears without seeing your own blood. It’s a natural course of events … However, as you raise them, and constantly talk to them and touch and handle them, you then deserve their trust … and that’s what the whole thing is about. You must gain [the bear’s] trust.”

Bears best suited for training are bears descended from trained bears. This is the ideal but not always the case. It’s illegal to take a bear from the wild, but bears occasionally come to the Clarks through New Hampshire Fish & Game or Vermont’s Fish and Wildlife department. Both states rely on the Clarks as they would a rehabilitation center. Moxie came to them that way, a little cub who kept showing up at the home of a woman in northern Vermont. The officials called the Clarks. They rescued the cub, a little tot so sickly the vet told them she wouldn’t live long and warned them not to become attached to her, a tall order for any member of the Clark family.

“She was about the size of a housecat,” Maureen recalls. “She was very sick. We all took turns sleeping with her; even my sister’s dog was brought into it. She feels more than your average bear; if something’s wrong, she gets upset. She always sides with the underdog. We love her. She’s 25 now. But she was in the ring only three seasons.”

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Updated Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

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