Now & Then

Doug Clark

Visiting Doug’s digs, at Digs and Doug’s, his workshop on Hwy 540 in Kagawong is a true delight. He welcomes one and all, whether they come to pick his brain about a new creation or whether they want to buy his excellent wood furniture. “I start my 12-hour ‘summer’ day at 6:30 in the morning. I have made thousands of these Adirondack chairs over the last 20 years or so, averaging about 200 a year. People seem to love them, and all are happy when they come here for a chat and a visit.”

Doug’s Muskoka chairs are solid cedar and priced well below the commercial rate at $135 each. “I get visitors from all over the province and beyond. They call and say they will arrive in a few weeks and could I have two chairs ready. They also ask for furniture that is adapted to wheelchairs or other needs. I make chests of drawers, wooden swings, tables and many other items,” he adds. “I love to meet my customers and have a little chat. It’s fun to find out where they are all from.”

The Clark ancestors resided in the Hamilton area. “Both my grandparents came from that part of Ontario. Paternal grandfather, Harris Clark, (wife Gladys) was in World War I and his son, Al Clark, my dad, was in World War II. Maternal grandparents were Carl and Maime Slipp. Carl was a war veteran also.”

Doug’s parents Al and Eileen (Slipp) Clark met at a dance in Hamilton during the war while Al was on leave from his job as an airplane mechanic. Both had been regular visitors to Manitoulin prior to meeting each other and also after their marriage. They loved their visits here, often staying at Norm’s Park until Al retired. They rented a cottage initially and did some tenting later.”

Doug poses with a beautiful dresser hand-crafted from solid wood.

Doug first opened his eyes on January 24, 1948 and remained their only child. He remembers getting a special Christmas ornament at age two. “Somewhere, there sits a photo of me hanging this ornament on the tree in 1950. Each year it would come out and I would hang it up for all to see. I still have it.”

“Another cherished memory is going out to the shop and watching my dad working on vehicles, at age three or four. He loved to fix up old cars. Neighbourhood kids would come over to watch too. Our house was a gathering place for youth. When we got older we liked to help him as much as we could. It was a great hobby. I learned from him that hard work pays off.”

“My dad worked for Westinghouse for 40 years. Mum was employed at the nearby licensing bureau. She got time off every summer to come to Manitoulin and Dad would arrive on weekends.” Eileen had spent her earlier years as a dancer. Her successful troupe, ‘The Geritol Follies,’ toured the States and performed in numerous locations in Ontario, as well as hometown Hamilton. “She loved to dance, dad loved to fish.”

Candy with a ‘Geritol Follies’ sweatshirt from a photo taken in Toledo in 1989.

School started for Doug at age six in Hamilton. “I liked school; math and English were alright, but later, I loved shop the best. Whenever I mentioned Manitoulin to anybody at school, they would give me strange looks. People generally didn’t know where the Island was then and that still seems to be the case for many.” High school football was fun we are told; Doug was a lineman, but main passions were still cars and now, motorcycles. “I liked the dual-purpose dirt bikes that Yamaha made.”

After Doug got his licence at 16, he would drive to the ferry at Tobermory and head for Manitoulin. In the winter, he drove around every two weeks or so, to visit friends on the Island. “When the ferry was running, I would load my cycle on the back of my truck, drive to Tobermory, park the truck, and take the dirt bike on the ferry which would be the Norgoma or the Norisle, at the time.” Back in Hamilton, Doug had a job with Otis Elevator from 1968 to 1974. “We also helped design the scenic elevator on the outside of the CN tower while at Otis. But that was a desk job and I had to wear a suit every day. I didn’t like that.”

Candy and Doug on their wedding day at the cottage in July of 1981.

In April of 1974 Doug had a deciding moment. “It was the most compelling change in my life at the time,” he confirms. “I said: ‘if I don’t go now, I will stay here forever, so I am leaving this rat race’.” His dad guessed his destination. Both parents knew that Manitoulin was where his heart was. On April 30 of that year, he said good bye to his parents and headed for the Island.

“I met my future wife-to-be, Candy Tracy, daughter of Harry and Helen Tracy, in 1974 in Kagawong, the year the Chi-Cheemaun started making the island trips. Candy was from Manitoulin and worked as a teacher at a place called Shining Tree, near Sudbury.” She left that job and moved back to the Island where she wanted to stay. Doug lived in a trailer while he built their own home on a back street in Kagawong. “My skills were automotive, not woodworking, so I sought help from others for carpentry skills.”

That same year Doug conveniently found work with Noble Lumber, during hunting season, the third week of November. He was filling in for missing hunters that week. “I wound up staying and learned a lot over the next seven years. Many employees had woodworking skills and they shared them with me. One such person was Tom Christiansen of Gore Bay. He was in his ‘70s but he worked with me for seven years. I learned the finer details about cabinet making.” At Noble’s, Doug also made deliveries and he met a lot of good people. “It took six months to build our bungalow. Some of it was trial and error but I succeeded in the end.”

At camp, Digger’s love of machines started at two years of age.

“In 1979 we bought a cottage in Kagawong and the shop was moved there.” Doug spent much of his time there between May and October. In 1980, Doug’s dad, Al, retired from Westinghouse. He and Eileen spent their summers on Manitoulin so they could spend more time with their son in their favourite summer location, returning to Hamilton each October.

Doug and Candy were married on July 27, 1981. Candy knew that it was two days before Princess Di married Prince Charles and she may have wanted to add an element of surprise to her own nuptials. Apparently the wedding party on Manitoulin was to be ‘kidnapped’ in order to surprise the family. “We didn’t want a big wedding so we didn’t tell our families that we were marrying that day but we had to make up a reason to get them to the cottage.” The Best Man was told he had to apprehend the Maid of Honour who was babysitting at the time. He had to find a substitute sitter and then convince her to come because ‘Candy was in trouble and needed her help.’ Candy’s mum and Doug’s parents had to be tricked in similar fashion. They all wound up on the front lawn of the cottage where the surprise wedding took place at 10 am on that Monday. 

Digger, age five, getting ready for Halloween.

“I bought Candy a yellow jeep in Toronto and she loved cruising around on Manitoulin in it.” Candy got work supply teaching at Cambrian College; she helped to do adult upgrading at several sites on the Island, including Little Current, West Bay and Wiikwemkoong. For the last 20 years, she has worked for the township here in Kagawong. In their free time, Candy and Doug enjoy boating in the summer and snowmobiling in the winter.

The couple has one son, born in Mindemoya. He was named Digger by his dad. “I liked that name and put it on his birth certificate along with the names of both grandfathers. By that time, Doug was employed with Community Living (CL) and all his students wanted to come to the hospital to see the baby. “I brought them over, one at a time.” The name Digger would stick.

Digger went to high school here, then to Cambrian where he trained in mechanics. He has been working for Addison’s Tire for 15 years and he helps his dad out when it gets busy, often when Doug’s days are 12 hours long. Digger has a house nearby, in town. “Our shop is called, ‘Dig and Doug Furniture.’

Dad and Digger on a motorcyle at three in 1987.

While Doug began working at Community Living, ‘The Hope Farm’ in Mindemoya, he ran the sheltered workshop there and had 17 enthusiastic students. They created a business that built and sold beautiful chairs. Each finished chair was placed at the roadside. “We delivered furniture as well. The participants learned to do meaningful work, met lots of people, and were praised for their work. “One time we went to Sudbury to advertise for the Hope Farm, to sell the furniture we had made. They put us in the honeymoon suite and we pre-sold a lot of chairs,” he recalls. “They seemed to like their workshop until 1998 when the government shut the program down.” After that, Doug helped with job placements until 2013 when he retired to do his own woodworking full-time.

“Candy has always supported me in this initiative. She encouraged me to add more space for my hobby and in 2000 we built this big 24’ x 40’ building on Highway 540 in Kagawong, across the road from Bridal Veil Esso. It houses the equipment and a small office. An oil furnace heats the place in winter. My wife helps deliver the finished products for me as well. We have made arrangements for pick-ups in Espanola, Birch Island and McGregor Bay. One day this shop will belong to my son.”

The warehouse is full of new chairs and other items.

“In order to put up the building, I had to go to council to get the zoning change for this site. When I arrived at that meeting, I saw lots of cars and I was worried that there might be opposition. To my delight, the opposite was true. They were all there to support me and the zoning change was easy, with additional help from the township. The location adjacent to Bridal Veil Falls is ideal for me too. Lots of people see the shop and stop in or call.”

“We have hosted Hot Wheels races for many years. I built a race track and the kids have come to compete with their cars. Doug made elaborate trophies to give out to the winning participants. Ruth Farquhar, in her Sudbury Star column of June 11, 2007 states: “Everything gets underway on the morning of June 16 when classic cars, motorcycles and vintage sleds will set up…an original Hot Wheels race track will be set up and run all day.” Doug adds that he has a few Hot Wheels cars that he has collected, and he lets the kids play with them too.” This was a big event for Kagawong. The Island classic car club also borrows the track each year for their event.”

The family in the workshop circa early 2000s.

“I am not a member of the local associations but have donated to them for good causes. The Lions Club may get a bird feeder for their silent auction. I don’t make windows or regular doors because other businesses make or sell those. I don’t want to compete with other Island firms. I do make wooden screen doors in different sizes. Retirement, anniversary and thank you gifts are popular such as two chairs and a table or two Adirondack chairs. The high school buys chairs for retirees. Components for trailers have been made too.”

“In addition to chairs, dressers and picnic tables, I make special sizes such as wider or higher chairs as needed. We made such chairs for a fly-in camp. The chair bottoms, sides and back had to fit into the fuselage of a plane. I have made yokes for canoes and rough-cut panels for people who like to carve. Specialty items for school are on my list too. I like to say: ‘treat people the way you want to be treated.’ That has always done well by me.” If a chair or table is damaged by a falling tree or otherwise, Doug will fix it for free. He enjoys making people happy.

His chairs make the cover!

“The wood we use is harvested from small local farmers with portable mills. The hardware comes from Williamson’s, Castle or Home Hardware. When you buy locally, business comes back to you. Even the gas station across the road knows our schedule and sends people over.”

“All the boards are cut specifically for each piece of furniture so not much of the wood is wasted. The shavings are used for chicken bedding, gardens, composting toilets and fertilizer. The sawdust blows into a trailer attached to the building and it is picked up by local farmers. Small pieces of wood are collected and used for firewood starter in local camps.”

This story is being recorded with pen and paper on the work bench with a newly finished chair elevated by ‘two by fours’ so the writer was high enough to use the bench. Several people dropped by to check on their orders. One lady requested that scallops be added to a dresser, another person ordered a rocking chair, and some stopped in or called just to touch base. Everyone was well received; business as usual. The short injections of discourse added to the ambience.

“My strengths are building creative projects that customers ask for. It’s fun to find solutions to problems and make the people smile. Many are repeat customers from all over the province and the country. They come now for the fall colours and often they stop in here. “If we go for a boat ride on the lake, we can see all the furniture and screen doors that came from our shop. It feels good to know that after I am gone, there will be a lot of our furniture around, my legacy to the future.”

Doug is proud that one of his chairs was used to hold the Stanley Cup when it came to Manitoulin on August 26, 2007. Randy Carlisle, coach, and Dave Farrish, assistant-coach of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, brought the cup that year the Ducks had won. “We took the students from the Hope Farm to the Manitowaning Airport and brought one of my chairs. The two coaches signed it and I have a photo of the cup in the chair.” The chair was later raffled off for $2,000 for the Special Olympics. A slight impression of the cup was left in the seat of the chair and that added to the appeal.

“I don’t think much about getting older. I get up in the morning and go out the door. I plan to be productive, to make, say, three chairs and meet some new people. At the end of the day, I feel good if I can say I made those three chairs and additionally, I met two new people.” Doug likes to listen to country music and ‘60s music while he works.

“We have a cat named Diesel. He is a tough cat. He chases mice and sits by the dock most of the day,” Doug muses. “There is also a neat story about a St. Bernard that showed up at a neighbour’s door one day. The family tried to find his owner over several weeks but finally gave up and kept the dog. One day the dog left, and the kids were heartbroken. He came back two days later with a kitten in his mouth. It appears that he had gone back home to find this male kitten and bring him to a safe home. Luckily, they kept them both.”

“Candy and I built our retirement home here and moved in three years ago. We are very close and do a lot together in our free time. We see our son daily. Digger is a good role model. He is the real thing as far as I am concerned. I am proud of his accomplishments. Having a career is important and he chose to stay on the island where he is well-accepted.”

“On Fridays, I visit some of my former students at Community Living and share some time with them. I visit Hamilton from time to time to see a cousin and his two children. They are all the family I have left there, and they often come here in the summer. Some of the kids from the old neighbourhood, the ones who hung out in our garage with dad, come up to Manitoulin and rent cottages too.”

“I just love the Island, always have. I love the people, the fresh air. Life goes on at a leisurely pace. If I have one regret, it’s that I could have moved here sooner. When I am accused of not being a Haweater, I respond, ‘You were born here, but I chose to live here.’ That should count too,” he confirms smiling. “I don’t like leaving. I am a homebody even though I wasn’t born here. I have so many friends and memories. Doug adds, “How would you like to live in Florida and be blown away by storms?” I left Hamilton on April 30, 1974 as a young man of 26, spent most of my adult life here and now I would never leave.”