Marl Brown’s Spring Pelt
Marl Brown’s Spring Pelt
By Gerrie Young
Marl Brown’s beard is a community monument. Marl had always hated shaving. He figured if God gave man whiskers, it was for a purpose. On April 17, 1982 it was fourteen inches long, and accompanied by long hair, rather like Santa Claus, or the town patriarch, because Marl had not shaved for twelve years. And a man and his beard are not to be parted lightly, which is why the beard auction was alive with fear and excitement.
The beard auction idea originated from Cliff Prouse, or Ron Reid, or maybe Wayne Fell at the Fort Nelson Historical Society Old Timer’s Dance on April 17, 1982. At that year’s popular dance, Kay Dolan had come up with an idea to raise additional money for the museum fund. She suggested that tickets for the dance cost $100.00 and with that amount the purchaser would be buying a log to help build the museum and have their name enshrined on an honour role at the museum. An ambitious scheme for a small town, but after some reluctance the idea caught on and many logs were “bought”.
The dance was packed that night. The museum had been talked about, and worked towards, for years by Marl, and everyone knew he was determined to get what he wanted. Because of the respect in which he was held, people believed it would happen and were excited to participate, and were in a happy mood at the Old Timer’s Dance.
Sometime later in the evening a yell was heard, was it Cliff, or Ron, or Wayne, “Hey Brown, how about auctioning off your beard?” Marl was startled, but only momentarily. “Sure, why not,” he said with hardly a quiver. “If you can get enough money!”
Galvanized by the prospect of seeing that famous beard removed, the crowd took off and bids came tumbling in. $50.00! $100.00! People hollered across the room. Kay Dolan had been worried that asking $100.00 for a log was expecting too much and here people were spending even more money to see Marl without a beard.
Mavis Brown, Marl’s wife, started worrying as the bidding got louder and louder. Marl had always had a beard and she wondered about the trauma he’d feel seeing himself without one. She got so upset she couldn’t watch and went to the other end of the room, turned her back and busied herself with some chores to shut out the noise.
The crowd’s momentum began to concern Marl. All that boisterous on-upmanship might begin to go astray. So at $3800 he told them it was enough. In the dying clamor Wayne Fell shouted out something about Brown not having to shave. “That’s asking too much!” and he started bidding to keep Marl’s beard intact.
The energy level flared back up, and spurred by philanthropic good will and a lot of wild jesting, the bids flew in, for and against, until some people didn’t know what they were bidding for. The bidding fever went on, neighbour against neighbour, until Marl again sensed a hint of frenzy, and wanting no disaster, he called a definite halt. “Stop!”
Marl Brown offered himself to the crowd ready to be shaved. No one had a razor! Or a pair of scissors! Marl, the sacrifice, sat there, a bemused smile in his soon to disappear gray whiskers, and waited until the search turned up a pair of nail scissors from someone’s purse. The chipping and snipping away of Marl’s massive beard began with the tiny scissors until he looked like a cartoon character. His smile broadened as they cut and soon turned into a laugh of triumph when it was announced that he’d help raise the whopping sum of $10,143.00.
Over ten thousand dollars was astounding and unmatched. And it was worth it. All involved were pleased that their money was going to a good local cause, and the Historical Society knew that the museum was ten thousand dollars closer to being real.
In 1987 the Fort Nelson Museum became a reality when the 2700 square foot log building was officially opened. It was the culmination of a habit of Marl Brown’s to collect every thing, despite Mavis’s complaints that their yard looked like a junk heap.
Marl’s artistic vision and persistence have filled the museum with artifacts and displays that transport the visitor to the early times of the Fort Nelson area. The emphasis is on trapping and the building of the Alaska Highway which are the two original forces behind the community’s presence in the wilderness of northern British Columbia.
Marl has always been a collector. His specialty is old vehicles. Before the museum provided the space the Brown’s front yard was occupied by a 1938 GMC fire truck, a 1954 ¾ ton Dodge truck, a 1937 Caterpillar tractor and a 1957 crankshaft from a B.C. Hydro engine.
He came by his mania naturally. His father, Donald Brown, could never resist buying old vehicles either, and from and early age Marl went hunting with his father around their home in Delburne, Alberta. During the Depression Marl’s dad bought a Mercer for $15.00 and in 1948 became one of the highest priced antique cars because it turned out to be Barney Oldfield’s dirt track racer. But Donald Brown was always buying cars, engines, trucks and not bringing them home. He always meant to, but never got around to it. He was too busy with the first truck he bought, for $1.00, with which he hauled freight between Delburne and Calgary.
One of Marl’s proudest possessions is a tiny 1908 Brush. His father bought it 50 years ago, and Marl brought it to Fort Nelson in 1988. He refurbished and rebuilt it and now it runs so well he wants to drive to Inuvik in it.
Marl noticed that everyone who left Fort Nelson in the early days had a souvenir and he felt something had to be done about the drain of valuable artifacts from the area, so he began collecting everything he could get his hands on. This ran from ashtrays from early businesses to Alaska Highway signs, to World War II Quonset huts and the old Hudson’s Bay factor’s house. Over the years the idea of a museum began to grow in Marl’s mind. A museum that would preserve the history of the place and of the people who had once lived here.
In 1977 the Fort Nelson Historical Society was formed with a bank balance of $1100. This money came from the sale of some light fixtures the schools were getting rid of and which Marl bought and resold.
Now Marl was unstoppable. He was insistent that the museum be built from locally earned money, and not with any government grants. So with the dedicated help of his family and others including Kay Dolan, Jack Sime, Betty Gustafson, Wayne and Connie Fell, Donna and Bill Gault, Ken Jenkins, Jim Khober, Bill hardy and many Katimavik groups, he began holing huge and profitable garage sales. They were held in the local Arena at first, and then they moved to the wartime Quonset hut the Historical Society had purchase. Then Marl built a little, mobile fast food ‘wagon’ and began selling hamburgers, hot dogs, pop and coffee at every dog sled race, rodeo, July 1st parade, and tournament that was hosted in Fort Nelson. Whether it was freezing cold, and the workers wore parkas or sweltering hot, and the workers gusted sweat, the ‘Hamburger Wagon’ was in business.
To show townspeople what they were working towards, he constructed a model of the log museum to help encourage the locals to believe in it. They did believe it because they could see that Marl’s whole life was dedicated to it. He even dedicated his beard to the cause. A contribution he questioned the morning after being shorn. He went out the next day, going in and out of stores on errands for his job as Water & Sewer Treatment Plant Operator for the town and going for coffee, and no one talked to him.
They did not know who he was. Marl said, “you may as well have sent me to Siberia”. He felt very strange in a town where no one knew him. He knew he didn’t look the way people always expected him look, and he kept hoping someone would recognize him and ease his loneliness. Mavis was right: it was a shock. However, Marl was game, and by the end of the week people were greeting him, and teasing him, again. He stayed shaved until after the first snowfall in October.
The next week the local paper, The Fort Nelson News, didn’t write up the event, but somehow Don Hunter of the Vancouver Province got hold of the story and wrote about “200 happy drunks: putting up the money. This annoyed a number of people in Fort Nelson, like Shannon Soucie who wrote to the local paper saying the event “came out sounding like a thoughtless act by a bunch of drunks”. And Trudy Bennett who wrote that “Fort Nelson’s history is worth preserving, and that the large amount of money raised from the beard sale could happen only to Marl.”
Marl wrote to the local paper thanking people for supporting the dance and funding the museum so generously. He wrote, “The money collected for the beard – a cool $10,000 – is probably a record price for a spring pelt.”
The author and her husband moved to Fort Nelson in1953. She published the 200 page Fort Nelson Story in 1980, then earned her B.A. from U.B.C. in 1986. (Mainly by correspondence courses).