BY GARY MAY
The story of Beautiful Joe, and the park created to herald the triumph of kindness over human cruelty, could be just the ticket to springboard the Georgian Bay Town of Meaford to international fame.
That’s the hope of the town’s mayor, Francis Richardson, who looks at what Anne of Green Gables has done for Prince Edward Island. Richardson says if the story of Beautiful Joe can be told with similar vigor, it could prove to be a big economic boost to the community where the dog once lived.
The trials and tribulations of Beautiful Joe, an Airedale-mix puppy whose cruel master chopped off his ears and tail, were turned into a book published in 1894 that became the first Canadian publication to sell one million copies. In the book, the ironically named Beautiful Joe is the narrator who recounts how he was rescued from certain death by a kind-hearted man.
Author Margaret Marshall Saunders changed the location from Meaford to a town in Maine to improve her chances of winning an American humane society author’s award. Now, the Beautiful Joe Historical Society is working feverishly to tell the world about the dog’s real-life home.
Meaford already has Beautiful Joe Park, which contains the dog’s actual gravesite, a sculpture, a place where loving pet owners can purchase plaques to memorialize their own animals and several memorials to the heroic efforts of service animals, including those lost in the terror attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
'I think it's a natural for us'
The society is working on a Beautiful Joe play and a “working session” performance is planned for Meaford the weekend of Oct. 2-3. Richardson says he hopes a full-fledged production can be ready for presentation next summer at the Meaford Hall playhouse, and thinks it’s an ideal candidate to take on the road to spread the word.
The mayor’s hope is that “interest in Beautiful Joe could just explode some time in the future. If it catches on the right way, well, just look at what Anne of Green Gables has done for Prince Edward Island,” he tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “With the theme of treating animals properly and humanely so popular these days, I think it’s a natural for us.”
Michael Biggins is the founder of the Beautiful Joe Historical Society. It becomes clear within moments of meeting him that Biggins has never been one to sit back and say: “they ought to do something.” He’s usually the guy figuring out just what “they” should be doing, and making sure it gets done.
So when Biggins moved to Meaford in 1975 and learned the dog he had read about as a young boy growing up in Winnipeg had actually lived in the town, Biggins decided it was well past time to stand up and shout about it.
He went to the banks of Meaford’s Big Head River, where back in the 1950s Frank and Judy Garvey spearheaded an effort, with the local Rotarians, to create a park in the dog’s name. But when Biggins went searching for a copy of the book, he learned it was out of print and there was not one to be had anywhere in town. And it seemed few people around Meaford cared.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Biggins tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “Imagine the story of Robin Hood without Nottingham and Sherwood Forest. It didn’t make any sense.”
In the early 1990s, Meaford had been hit hard by industrial layoffs. The town needed a shot in the arm. Biggins established a task force and got town council’s support to begin promoting the true home of Beautiful Joe.
The task force group obtained permission to reprint the book and found a publisher. A new section was added to explain Meaford’s connection to Joe and the publisher says “several thousand” copies of the revised edition, which came out on the centennial of the original, have been sold.
Beautiful Joe buried in park bearing his name
Biggins says Saunders stumbled upon the story of Beautiful Joe while visiting her brother in Meaford in 1892. He was getting set to marry the daughter of the man who had saved Joe’s life. The American humane society had enjoyed tremendous success from the publication of Black Beauty
and had just announced plans for a writing contest for a sequel. Saunders quickly got to work.
But since Saunders chose an American locale for her story, which she felt would increase her chances of winning the contest and help promote reader interest in the big U.S. market, Meaford’s part in the story remained little known to anyone outside of the immediate area.
That rankled Biggins. He knew if he could use Beautiful Joe to draw people to Meaford, they would quickly discover the town’s other fine waterfront attributes such as its beautiful marina, plus its picturesque escarpment-area location and all the fine fresh food grown locally, including luscious apples.
Today, Beautiful Joe Park, built next to the home where the dog lived the happier part of his life, is a favourite spot for dog walkers. Brian Kellett took time out from exercising his dog, Riley, to talk about what the story means to him.
“I moved here five years ago from Brampton,” explains Kellett. “I only heard about Beautiful Joe when I began coming up here before my move. It’s a terrible story of abuse. It makes people think about the way animals are sometimes treated.”
The Beautiful Joe Historical Society has obtained charitable status and now raises funds that have helped to build several memorials to service animals. Biggins also came up with the plaque program for people who wish to donate through the purchase of a plaque commemorating a lost pet. After many inquiries, the practice was extended to living animals.
Pet owners from as far away as Surrey, B.C., Edmonton, Houston and Boston have purchased plaques for their animals. Among them are Mary and Steve Budrewicz of Tecumseh, Ontario.
The couple were visiting Mary’s brother and sister-in-law in Meaford a few years ago and went to visit the park. Neither had ever read Beautiful Joe
. Their beloved dog, Guthrie, had died in 1997 and “we thought it was a cool idea to remember him with a plaque at the park,” says Mary.
Mary is a veterinary technician “and I’m a real animal lover. I’m always emotional about animals.”
After her visit to Meaford, she returned home and took out a copy of Beautiful Joe from the library. “It was clearly an older style of writing,” she says, “but it was a good story.”
Would she go to see a play about Beautiful Joe? “Absolutely,” she replies.
'Look at what happened to Anne of Green Gables'
And if the play works out, who knows what the future will bring? Biggins says there were inquiries from the late film director Robert Altman’s studio a few years ago, but the idea for a movie never took off. He still believes it’s a natural topic for an inspirational film about overcoming adversity.
The story works on so many levels, he says: animal rights, civil rights, history. And it’s a good children’s story.
Richardson says many people are drawn to Meaford by the inspirational story and he believes many more would come if they only knew it was the dog’s true hometown. He says more can be done to add features to the park and other attractions for visitors, but all that costs money. He believes the play could become a major draw for the town.
“The play just could be the trigger to bigger things,” says Richardson. “Look at what happened with Anne of Green Gables. I’m sure they had no idea at the beginning just how big it would become.”
For those drawn to the town, the Meaford Museum also provides a Beautiful Joe exhibit.
But Beautiful Joe’s far more than a story of man’s cruelty to animals, Biggins believes. “As I learned more about Saunders and got into her head, I believe she had more in mind. She would know that if you engender humane treatment of animals, you engender humane treatment of humans, too. Maybe she had her agenda. As a woman, she was used to being treated in her era as a second-class citizen.”
Saunders wrote about other social issues, including child labour, slum clearance and even vegetarianism. Biggins says that in a later book titled Beautiful Joe’s Paradise, one of Saunders’ animal characters talks about animals being smarter than humans in that they produce bread from whole grain.
“She was certainly a social activist in her day,” says Biggins.
Nevertheless, the story at the heart of the book is that of Beautiful Joe himself. Saunders gives her animals human-like characteristics and endows them with the ability to think and communicate with one another.
As the book’s narrator, Joe takes the opportunity to speak out about the humane treatment of animals: “I have heard (my mistress) say that if all the boys and girls in the world were to rise up and say that there should be no more cruelty to animals, they could put a stop to it,” he says. “Perhaps it will help a little if I tell a story.”
Just as Saunders believed there was something she could do to make the world a better place, so does Biggins. “I’m a romantic idealist,” he says. “I found Saunders very inspirational. You need to tell yourself, ‘there is something you can do about it.’ There are people out there who just go and ‘do it.’”
The Beautiful Joe Autumn Adventure is held each September in Beautiful Joe Park. This year it’s set for Sept. 18 and will include a Blessing of the Animals ceremony, a talk on alternative veterinary therapy, plaque dedication ceremony and various contests.
For more information about the Beautiful Joe Society
, visit the non-profit group’s website.
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — September 2010