May 2008 Issue
Make Way for McCloskey
The beloved children’s author Robert McCloskey is remembered in his Ohio hometown with a new museum.
Sure you do. “Mr. and Mrs. Mallard were looking for a place to live. But every time Mr. Mallard saw what looked like a nice place, Mrs. Mallard said it was no good. There were sure to be foxes in the woods or turtles in the water, and she was not going to raise a family where there might be foxes or turtles. So they flew on and on.”
Most parents in America know what happens next, how the Mallards arrive at the Boston Public Garden and decide it would be a nice place to live. And nearly every child who was ever read to by those parents should recall how Mrs. Mallard enlists the assistance of friendly Michael the Policeman and his fellow officers to help her fuzzy babies, Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack and Quack, waddle safely to the park.
The book and its author, Robert McCloskey, won the Caldecott Medal for excellence in children’s literature in 1941, the year it came out. Make Way For Ducklings probably won as much for his marvelously detailed, elegant drawings as for his simple story. Just the way Mrs. Mallard shows human-like parental concern and real, maternal pride — while still looking very much like a duck — makes the book worthwhile, and a joy to young and old alike.
“He really loved animals,” says Brandon Soale of McCloskey. “Anything having to do with the outdoors.”
Soale should know. He’s the curator of the Robert McCloskey Museum in downtown Hamilton, which opened last summer to celebrate one of the city’s favorite sons. Certainly, one of its most artistically accomplished.
Before he went on to win not just one but two Caldecott Medals, as well as a
Library of Congress “Living Legend” award, McCloskey was born in the Butler County seat on Sept. 15, 1914. He grew up in a small home at 120 South G St., across the Great Miami River and a short distance from the former Hamilton City Hall building —now called Heritage Hall — that houses his museum.
Brandon Soale spends a lot of hours minding the front desk, greeting people as they come in the door, happy to tell visitors all of the ways in which McCloskey’s spirit, and talent, inhabit the building.
“He did the lions out front,” he says — by which Soale means the imposing bas-relief sculptures that adorn the Hall’s front steps. McCloskey came up with them, and more than two dozen other sculptures — pioneers, buffalo, lions, Native Americans — when he was chosen in a local competition to design the interior and exterior of the new City Hall. It was 1935, and he was all of 19.
Folks who knew him, however, weren’t surprised. Young McCloskey had already shown a knack for art, whether in the Hamilton schools or at the YMCA camp where he spent his summers —Camp Campbell Gard, near New Miami not far from Hamilton. There, he spent two teenage years carving a totem pole that was a camp landmark for decades — its grinning, brightly colored faces hewn from a 500-pound cedar log.
The camp recently gave the totem pole to the museum, where Soale hopes to preserve it and display it in the entryway of Heritage Hall. He and museum trustees are trying to raise $18,000 for the work. “It had some dry rot on the top and the bottom, but we have pretty much the whole thing. It’s gorgeous.” It will serve as a dramatic introduction to McCloskey’s work — which the museum shows in the form of pencil sketches for his books and fine watercolors he did later in life.
He spent most of that life on the East Coast, after he left Hamilton in the way that young men move from their boyhood homes to find the fortune that awaits them in the great, big world. An art-school scholarship took him to Boston, work took him to New York City, a new wife (fellow children’s author Ruth Sawyer) kept him there, and summer vacations to Maine took his heart to its craggy shorelines. It was there that he, Ruth and their two daughters, Jane and Sally, finally settled.
His children’s books mixed together all the places he lived. And till the day he died in Maine in 2003 at age 88, he never forgot Hamilton. If his most famous book, Make Way For Ducklings, was inspired by a family of ducks that he saw in Boston one day, then the Maine of his summers was the source for Blueberries for Sal, featuring his wife and young daughter, and A Time of Wonder, a marvelous picture book for which he won his second Caldecott Medal in 1958.
His first book, 1940’s Lentil, came after he was having a hard time as a commercial artist, and got good advice to look to his past for inspiration. McCloskey once told an interviewer, “I never sold an oil painting, only a few watercolors at the most modest prices, and financially my art career was a bust. I went to call on an editor of children’s books in New York. I came into her office with my folio under my arm and sat on the edge of my chair. She looked at the examples of ‘great art’ that I had brought along (they were woodcuts, fraught with black drama). I don’t remember just the words she used to tell me to get wise to myself and to shelve the dragons, Pegasus, and limpid pool business and learn how and what to ‘art’ with. I think we talked mostly of Ohio.”
Sure enough, Lentil is set in fictional Alto, Ohio, and tells the story of a boy who can’t sing but can play the harmonica, and whose talent saves the city’s parade. Alto features a Soldier’s and Sailor’s Monument that bears a smaller-scale resemblance to the very large one that sits in downtown Hamilton, a number of church steeples that one still can see on the skyline, and houses that folks in town just know are the literary inspiration. McCloskey walking tours point them all out.
Hamilton plays a part in Centerburg Tales, as well, in which McCloskey’s recurrent character Homer Price has a series of amusing misadventures. “It’s all about Hamilton,” Soale says. One of the tales involves a doughnut-making machine that goes a bit awry, and today visitors to Hamilton’s Heritage Hall can see a doughnut machine exactly like the one depicted in the book. Brandon Soale likes showing it off, surrounded as it is by pictures from the book and stills from the 1940s movie it inspired, and brags about the local history buff, Neil Sohngen, who put the machine together from more than 200 parts that were obtained by the Doughnut Corporation of America, based in New York City.
“People bring us stuff all the time,” Soale says of the way artifacts arrive at the still-young museum. “We’re finding out all kinds of stuff [McCloskey] did — that he was a soap carver, and taught classes in it at the YMCA.” Outside the Heritage Center, you can see Lentil himself — in a neat bronze sculpture created by Nancy Schon, who also created the famous sculpture of McCloskey ducklings that thousands of people each year see at the Boston Public Garden. If fewer folks see Lentil and his dog running along High Street in Hamilton, Soale hopes it’s only a matter of time before that changes.
“The older folks definitely know about him. It’s like, ‘Yeah, I saw him, he did a sketch for me,’ and then they’ll bring it in. Younger kids don’t know him so much, unless they’ve read the books in school. I think the way to bring him back is to bring him back into the schools — making kids read the books. That’s the big thing. He’s ageless, and any generation can pick them up and read them. That’s what makes them wonderful.”
Robert McCloskey Museum, Heritage Hall
20 High St., Hamilton.
For details, call 513/737-5958 or the Butler County Historical Society,
513/896-9930. Fri. 9 a.m.–4 p.m.,
Sat. 9 a.m.–2 p.m., or by appointment.