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“Oh, Dear Lord, Please, Please Let It be So”

These are the words of Stephen Hill, Curator of the Haliburton Highlands Museum

Steve is no stranger to the work of Clara Harris. Through meticulous research and a long association with Haliburton he’s provided valuable information to the site:

Here’s his latest story:

I was looking for something in the storeroom recently and spotted the box of framed graphics. My memory was jogged, the name “Clara Harris” came to me, and I said to myself, “Oh, Dear Lord, please, please let it be so. I pulled out the box, reached in, and pulled out the painting which was signed “Clara Harris”.

I do not know if the painting was produced by the same Clara Harris who you are researching. However, it was produced from the same intersection as her sleigh ride picture and the view of town. She did seem to like that vantage point. The picture we have is painted on a 5/32” thick wooden panel (cherry???) approximately

10 ½” X 13 ¾”. It is a snow-covered winter scene showing Mountain Street, with the Haliburton Town Hall at the left and a fire beside it. We are positive that the artist was painting the fire which destroyed the Mrs. W.R. Hutchings house in January 1939. No casualties, thank God. There is no burning house shown, just a sky-high column of flame where the house sat; the glow is also visible through the Town Hall windows. At the right of the painting are two darkened buildings, viz., the John A. Lucas home and its drive shed. Below the drive shed is faintly printed in capital letters “Clara Harris” albeit, I stress, faintly.

Fire in Haliburton, oil on board, 10 ½ x 13 ¾”

We have no history of this painting. I began working here in November of 1984, so I was fairly new when, in February 1985, an unknown man came in to the Museum with the painting. He said he was a friend of an elderly couple from Bobcaygeon, a Mr. and Mrs. Clayton Woollings; they had asked him to give the painting to “the Museum in Haliburton” the next time he was in town here. No details, no history, he drove away, end of story. It was my boss, Mr. (Ross) Carver, who took the particulars so we could send a thank you letter, but that was all. We have no idea who the Woollings were, or how they acquired the painting, or if they even knew Clara Harris. The general thought at the time we received the painting was that it was a fire at the Town Hall; because of the building’s architecture, some people even commented that it was the burning of the Haliburton schoolhouse. I thought differently – I felt that it was a fire on the lot beside the Town Hall; the orange in the windows was merely a glow from the fire, as seen through the Town Hall, prior to the renovations that partitioned off the interior so that, now, you cannot see through it. Also, the Town Hall, built in 1897, had never had a fire within. A few years later I learned that the vacant lot beside the Town Hall had once contained a boarding house owned by a family named Hutchings, but that it had burned down some time shortly before World War II. That, I figured, must be the subject matter of the painting.

The subject matter for the painting was strange; Clara must have wanted to capture some sort of effect. It has always puzzled me that there are no crowds in the painting. While we did not have a proper fire department until after the war, there should be crowds of well-meaning people in the painting scurrying about trying to help. Where are they??? By the time the fire had advanced to the stage shown in the painting, half the town should be in the picture! Dorelle Baker (nee Austin) grew up in the Lucas house at the right of the painting; her mother was a Lucas. Dorelle was born in 1929; she was 9 ½ years old at the time of that January 1939 fire. She told me that her only recollection of the fire was that people were carrying furniture out of the house and placing it on the front lawn. It was icy that night & the furniture slid down the slight gradient of the lawn onto the street, safe from the fire, but no doubt slightly damaged from tipping and toppling. Mrs. Hutchings who ran a boarding house within would have catered mainly to the sawmill staff in town, I believe. Unfortunately, I do not know much about the family.

All of Steve’s information fits perfectly with what we do know about Clara.

The date of the painting coincides with Clara's husband's diary entries:

Jan. 11, 1939 - Clara off for Halliburton 8 a.m.

Feb. 5, 1939 - Clara home about 3:30

Feb. 6, 1939 - Very tired - Clara showed her work

And the Woollings? They were relatives of Clara’s who she visited in Bobcaygeon.’s-Family

Clara’s Bobcaygeon scenes substantiate the story too.

Thanks Steve for sharing this information. Oh, and one other thing. Steve took the time to have a photo of the painting printed on beautiful paper and sent to me. All packaged up very carefully. I intend to frame and display the print so that I can enjoy the scene everyday.

A print within in a tube, within a box.


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