PAST TIMES BY JOHN ASHTON
“Gently speak, O coming future? Do not let your voice be stern, Let my soul be filled with gladness. As each new event I learn.”
This is the beginning of one of the hundreds of poems penned by Plainfield, Pictou County-born Hugh Albert McCara. His love of word, wisdom and respect would carry on through his entire life.
He was called “a homespun philosopher,” a “solid man” of “kindly disposition with many talents.” These fundamental abilities took him from humble beginnings in rural Pictou County to Western Canada, United States and back to Plainfield.
His many titles included: Harvest Excursion farm worker, athlete, manufacturing foreman, union vice-president, published poet, editorial writer, columnist, humourist, husband, father, road foreman, farmer, community champion, Justice of the Peace, Stipendiary Magistrate and friend.
McCara, the “Bard of West Pictou” was born in Plainfield on June 21, 1870, to parents John and Margaret (McDearmid) McCara. Since 1796 when Hugh’s great grandfather, James received a 900 acre land grant many successive McCara descendants have lived and still reside in and around the Plainfield community. For many decades, farming was the main source of livelihood in most rural areas of Pictou County.
The early humble beginnings on the McCara farm seemed to nurture Hugh’s sense of honesty and a hard work ethic. Tragedy would strike early in his life – at the age of nine his mother passed away.
Hugh would fondly remember her loving way “and pays tribute to her influence during his formative years in his books.” At 14 he left the Plainfield school to help his father with the farm. Learning must have been important to Hugh – at 19 years of age he enrolled at Plainfield school again, completed a year and then attended Pictou Academy for another two years.
The call of a young Maritime man’s ambitions led Hugh to leave the Plainfield farm and venture to Western Canada where he “obtained work on the booming grain farms of the Prairies.” Hugh eventually crossed the border to North Dakota where he found employment for a year. Finding the winters a “bit too cold” he drifted across United States “stopping off for short periods in larger cities and important places until he finally reached Boston.”
Hugh McCara seemed to find his niche in the Massachusetts capital. He immediately found work at the Tower Piano Factory, where he stayed for nine years and was advanced to factory foreman. Always looking and willing to improve his mind, Hugh studied at an “engineering school in Cambridge and received his engineer’s license.”
The following year he attended night school at the YMCA and later studied and trained to become a public speaker. In 1903, while in Boston the “Bard of West Pictou” published his first book of poems. Hugh McCara was making influential contacts and quite a name for himself. Two leading Boston newspapers, (The Boston Post and The Boston American) asked him to write editorials on current events. He also competed in the Boston Marathon, finishing eighth in a field of over 100 runners. Hugh even sat down with boxing legend Joe Walcott and shared the art of eating lobster and wrote about the two battling the “crustaceous critter.”
While living in the New England state, Hugh would always try to make a yearly vacation trip back home to visit his family and friends in Plainfield. In 1910, during his annual holiday break, Hugh’s father, John convinced Hugh to stay on his native soil and purchase a farm nearby his boyhood home.
At 40 years of age Hugh was farming all over again. A property was selected “about a mile through the woods” very near the original McCara homestead. Courting also began, Martha Stewart from the nearby village of Scotsburn caught Hugh’s eye. A family story has circulated about their early courtship in which Hugh used his wit to capture the heart of his future wife and the trust of her family.
“His wife-to-be came from a staunchly religious family and Hugh had by this time published poems admonishing the conduct of religious leaders and the sense of entitlement held by the well-to-do. He found it necessary to take up carrying a Bible when visiting her family in order to garner favour for his proposal.”
The tactic worked, Hugh and Martha would marry in 1911 and have three children: Myrtle, Hazel and Stella.
Hugh would settle in West Pictou community life the way he had built his career and personality with kindness, honesty and wisdom. He was well liked by all. The County of Pictou had great respect and admiration for his qualities and appointed him “Justice of the Peace and later Stipendiary Judge.” Hugh “took particular interest in the younger generation and presented the McCara Cup for Public Speaking at the Scotsburn School Fair.”
He himself was often asked and offered to speak at public engagements and wrote poetry and newspaper articles at the mere suggestion. In the year 1951, Hugh published his second book of poems. Hugh, the “Bard of West Pictou,” passed away in 1956 and a year before wrote the poem “The End of the Road” with the last stanza: “To the faithful ones, He then will say, ‘Come enter the joy of the Lord, When on earth you served Me well, You are worthy of this reward.’”
To Hugh A. McCara, thank you for your wisdom, wit and words.
John Ashton of Bridgeville is a local historian and the province’s representative to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.