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The Wolfman Cometh

In the wilds of new hampshire, there lives a man. He doesn't much like city folk. Or trains. But people come from far and wide to see him, to quake with fear at his crazed utterances. He's the wolfman of clark's trading post, and this is his story.

Author Matt Thompson Photography David Cicconi

DAVE CLARK IS CONCERNED FOR MY WELL-BEING. “REMEMBER THAT THE BRAKES ARE KIND OF SQUISHY,” the granite-faced mechanic tells me, standing beside the ancient roadster in which I’m seated. “So don’t go too fast; it’s not a race. The important thing is to stay back from the train. God forbid you get hit, and besides, people can see you better when you’re a bit further away. Also, the kids will try to spit on you.”

Clark runs the engine shop at Clark’s Trading Post in Lincoln, New Hampshire, a family-owned and -operated roadside attraction nestled in the crook of the White Mountains. “You sure you’re up for this?” he asks.

I’m sure. It’s a unique opportunity. For some 30 years, the Wolfman act, a sort of improv sketch viewed from a moving vehicle, has been a mainstay at Clark’s. Altogether, this grizzled prospector, charged with terrifying and amusing passengers on Clark’s steam train—has been played by 32 people, most recently Bill Farrand, who howled at trains for 15 years until lung disease forced his retirement. I want to be No. 33.

It won’t be easy. Among the qualifications listed on the want ad, I lack the following: a beard, knowledge of firearms, knowledge of vehicle maintenance, good physical condition and a willingness to “remain somewhat ‘unkempt’ for the season.”

On the other hand, I have a high tolerance for humiliation and an eagerness to participate in what is surely one of the last remaining un-focus-grouped, not-entirely-PC summer entertainments in the United States.

I turn the car on. Its engine clatters to life like Satan’s own lawn mower, and I zoom off across the parking lot, the wind in my hair and a smattering of bugs in my face. After five minutes I return. “Let’s do this,” I tell him.

In operation since 1928, Clark’s Trading Post is one of the oldest and last remaining tourist attractions of its kind in America. A sort of ad hoc amusement park, it boasts train rides, antique cars, a two-headed calf, an ice cream parlor, Segway tours and a troupe of Chinese acrobats, in addition to the main draw, a family of trained bears. Since its inception, the business has been run by the same clan, with the fourth generation of Clarks now manning the snack bar counter and sweeping the brick pathways. Like South Dakota’s Wall Drug, California’s Trees of Mystery, Florida’s Monkey Jungle and Arizona’s Meteor Crater, Clark’s demented charm and sepia-toned oddity hearken back to a bygone era of car trips. If you don’t remember it, your parents probably do.

The Trading Post’s patriarch is 82-year-old W. Murray Clark. One of two sons of the original owners (Edward and Florence), he has lived across the street from the business just about all his life. Sitting on a green bench under a pair of gnarled trees, he tells me the Clarks’ story. Murray was a newborn when his parents rented a fallow field in Lincoln, New Hampshire. Though the family reputation was originally built on dog sledding—Florence became the first woman to climb Mount Washington with a team of huskies—they soon hit upon the idea of turning the kennel itself into a tourist attraction, Ed Clark’s Eskimo Sled Dog Ranch. Edward hired four sisters to guide tours through the dog cages and work concessions, and he acquired a pair of black bears from a trainer in Indianhead as a bonus.

Edward’s sons, Murray and Ed, wound up marrying two of the sisters, and both couples moved into the family house across the street, which is where all nine of the third generation spent their childhoods. “We were playing with bear cubs from, like, age eight on,” Murray’s daughter Maureen—who currently runs the bear show with her brother Murray—tells me. “Sometimes we’d even sleep beside them.”

“In the early days, we’d just take the bears out of their cages, gather people around and perform right at your feet,” Murray adds. “Sometimes they’d go running through the crowd into our gift shop, just tearing down everything they could from the counters.” Needless to say, the act was a huge success.

From there, Clark’s Trading Post expanded according to the obsessions of various family members. When Murray and Ed became interested in steam trains during the 1950s, they bought one and laid tracks out into the woods along the Pemigewasset River. When Maureen went to photography school, they added an old-timey photo parlor. In time, bumper boats, an optical illusion house, and collections of antique cars, tools, and toys were added to the mix.

The Wolfman was the invention of Leon Noel, a maintenance worker and engineer hired fresh out of high school, who created the character in 1973. “The train was so boring for kids,” he tells me. “One day I borrowed one of the Clarks’ old Model T Snow Machines, filled a Jim Beam bottle up with water, and came flying down toward the train screaming at the top of my lungs. The kids just stared, shocked. As I passed the engineer, I caught his eye, and instantly I could tell I’d overdone it.” Later, Leon tried again, sans whiskey bottle. “This time,” he tells me, “I held back a little. The engineer gave me a thumbs-up.”

IT’S A CRISP, CLEAR MORNING IN early May when Bill Farrand, the newly retired Wolfman, joins me and Dave’s sister Anne for a preseason ride on the steam train. Decked out in a Survivor T-shirt, a fishing vest and a ratty orange fox-fur hat, he watches as a pair of woodsy types decked out in animal pelts come zooming down to meet the train, screaming bloody murder and setting off flares. He shakes his head. “Tell them to fire the shotgun earlier,” he says.

Anne nods solemnly. She’s training two new wolfmen, and so far it isn’t going well. After a spate of microphone issues, she’s had to deal with a roadster breakdown and a pair of mountain men who can’t seem to stop shouting over each other.

Earlier today, Bill made one last run as the Wolfman to inspire the new recruits. It’s clear that Anne is hoping that his gravel-voiced fury will rub off on them. “What’s that thing you used to say?” she asks him. Bill clears his throat. “Pigeon lickin’, city slickin’ hodags,” he replies.

I ask him what a hodag is. “It’s a monster from Wisconsin,” he replies.

Meanwhile, Anne has summoned new hires Tim Ryan and Jon Smith over for a powwow. “I’d really like it if you could tell the engineer to turn the train around when you first see him,” she says. “And don’t forget to fire that shotgun.” Tim and Jon nod seriously, their foreheads streaked with dirt.

Anne, a hearty blond-haired woman in her late 40s, handles her two filthy protégés with the same no-nonsense aplomb she uses with the small army of teenage female employees she oversees.

“I guess I’m kind of the mother hen,” she tells me. “The kids love working here. We’ll throw safe parties for them, and my sons have people over all the time. Sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night to find someone sleeping on the couch and think, ‘I wonder who that is. They’d better be on time tomorrow.’”

Indeed, there is a sort of summer-camp feel to employment at Clark’s. By the end of my first day there, many staff members know me by name. One of them, a red-haired college girl named Rachel, has worked at the business for five years running. “Clark’s basically is what there is to do in Lincoln,” she tells me. “There’s this annual softball game against Storyland, and that’s a big deal. Their staff is a lot of Europeans who don’t know the first thing about the sport, so we always destroy them.”

Still, running an 81-year-old roadside attraction isn’t all fun and games. As Dave, Anne and I chat in the machine shop—an industrially cluttered room accented with massive wrenches and antique train parts—conversation turns toward the ailing economy. “The last five years our profits have been…” Dave begins, making a downward sloping line with his hand. “People keep saying that the economic downturn will make more people turn to local places like us for their vacations. We’re really hoping that happens this year.” When I look over at Anne, there are tears in her eyes.

OVER BY THE LOCKERS, I GET into costume with rookie Wolfman Tim Ryan, who has a missing front tooth, piercing blue eyes and a beard down to his stomach. Ryan has brought some innovations to the job. “I’ve been singing songs with the lyrics changed around to be about the Wolfman,” he tells me. “I do a version of Johnny Cash’s ‘I Walk the Line’ and ‘Javert’s Suicide’ from Les Miserables.”

A fiftysomething carpenter from Pittsfield, he decided to apply for the gig when construction work dried up. “It’s great to be outside all day, interacting with kids,” he tells me. Ryan got the position through an open casting at Lincoln’s high school gymnasium, where he showed up with a homemade ax and a chewed-up child’s shoe on a string around his neck. “I worked on the costume off and on for a week,” he tells me. “I really needed a job.”

Ryan picks out an off -the-shoulder fake fur pelt for me, along with an eye patch and a curly gray beard. I pick up a raccoon cap from the gift shop. The effect is hyperbolic and absurd—more Yosemite Sam than Deliverance.

In the woods, Ryan parks the car beside an old shack marked “Danger High Voltage!” and lights a cigar. He points at a bucket of charcoal and tells me to grab a piece and grind it into powder. “Now,” he says, “What I do is spit in it and then smear it onto my skin.” I work up a thick, black paste and am soon covered in a grimy film of filth. He checks his watch. “We’ve got about five minutes,” he tells me. “There’ll be two quick whistle blasts and then the train is on its way.”

We get into our respective roadsters and listen to the thrum of their sputtering engines. For several minutes all is peaceful, just the wind in the trees and the itch of the fake beard against my skin.

The whistle blasts, and moments later we can see the train coming through the trees, five red and green cars packed with alternately thrilled and terrified children.

Ryan throws his car into gear and zips down the hill. I’m right behind him. Pulling up beside the train, I jump out, waving a club. “You better turn this train around!” I shout. Above me, a five-year-old passes, his hand grabbing his head in mortal terror. His father brandishes a camera, a quizzical smile on his face.

After the train passes, Ryan and I jump into our roadsters and pursue it down a dirt path through the woods. My car skids over the gravel and sand. The eye patch, though tricked out with tiny holes, instantly blinds me, and I can barely navigate the deep ruts and sharp turns of the trail.

Soon we’ve arrived at our next stop. As the train passes, Ryan fires off a shotgun. I light a flare in an old naval mine, burning my thumb, but as I join Ryan in shouting at the train, I can hardly feel it. I have no idea what I’m saying. For a second, I’ve become the Wolfman, driven wild by the faces—city slickin’ hodags—staring down at me. I hope I’m not cursing.

At our last point of ambush, as the train slips away toward the station, I jog alongside, directly in the spit zone, brandishing my club at individual faces. Their reactions are priceless: A mother smiles and roles her eyes. A young girl sticks out her tongue. Two teenagers, feigning indifference, flash me a fake gang sign. The Wolfman is something you have to respond to, I realize. He’s like a big, grimy mirror reflecting your capacity for amusement.

At the back of the last car, two children aim popguns at me and scream at the top of their lungs. They are thrilled beyond all coherence, their faces lit up in a kind of pagan rapture. Behind them, their parents point as well, more reserved but bellowing warnings just the same. As they shrink into the distance, I wonder how young they were the first time they came to Clark’s.

In the end, MATT THOMPSON didn’t get the Wolfman gig, perhaps due to a secret love of steam trains.

2 Responses to “The Wolfman Cometh”

  1. mmm65 Says:
    August 8th, 2009 at 10:26 am

    Nice article. We used to go up there long ago when the kids were small. Thompson hit the nail on the head.

  2. Llinnea Says:
    September 12th, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    This article was spot on, and so entertaining. In our family we frequently bellow “Git off my land!” in honor of our day spent at Clark's Trading Post–and for no other reason sometimes than to just sound tough.
    I think the author of this piece actually was going for too much of a pale face look.