Magazine | December 31, 2015, Issue

An American Original

Clive A. Babkirk in his shop. He is standing next to the final piece of furniture he made. In his left hand is his ‘briefcase’ — a piece of wood with a natural handle in it. (Jay Nordlinger)

New Market, Va. — Clive A. Babkirk is a Yankee in the South. He and his wife, Lois, are Mainers who live in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Each has a marvelous Down East accent — the kind you hardly hear anymore in New England, to say nothing of Virginia.

It so happens, Clive is one of the most eloquent people I know. Also one of the most likeable. I tell him I want to come down and see him. He says, “When are you coming? As they say down here, I’ll get a hold of a woodchuck, and we’ll have woodchuck stew.”

Clive is a designer and maker of furniture. He also designs and makes smaller things. He can create virtually anything out of wood, and has. His business card says, “50 years of creating happiness.” I’ll tell you a little of his story.

He was born in Berlin, N.H., in 1928. His father was from Maine, but was working in that town at a paper mill. The baby’s mother had a couple of reasons to call her newborn “Clive.” First, there was a movie star, Clive Brook. Second, there was “Clive of India,” the British general and statesman in the 18th century.

Clive goes by both Clive and “Kirk,” his nickname. As the “Kirk” part tells you, he’s Scottish. He’s also Swedish, French, and Irish. Whenever he talks about saving money, he says it’s the Scotch coming out.

In the teeth of the Depression, the mill in New Hampshire went bust. Clive was three at the time. His father took the family back up to Maine — to the very top, Stockholm, Maine, in Aroostook County. This was potato-growing country. In all, the family had four children. At least they wouldn’t starve to death.

Times were lean, though. “We had rolled oats for breakfast,” says Clive, “and then Mum would fry ’em in a little bacon fat for lunch.”

An uncle had a shortwave radio. It got Germany. Clive heard someone yelling on it — Hitler. Whenever there was a pause, Clive asked, “What’s he doing?” The uncle would answer, “He’s getting a mouthful of sauerkraut.”

Several years before he learned to drive a car, Clive learned to fly a plane. He was taught by a trapper — Freddie Anderson, the Flying Trapper.

Clive’s mother was born Ellen Nordica Norton. That peculiar middle name came from her great-aunt, Madame Lillian Nordica. Madame Nordica was born Lillian Allen Norton in Farmington, Maine. A soprano, she became the first American opera singer to achieve world renown. She was known as “the Yankee Diva” (as Joyce DiDonato, a mezzo-soprano from Kansas, is today).

According to Clive, his mother could sing, too. She would sing when she was down on her hands and knees, scrubbing the floor. When he was a boy, Clive heard this every day.

Madame Nordica was one of the first celebrity endorsers of Coca-Cola. In fact, she was featured in the first national magazine ad that Coke ever ran — the year was 1905. Today, Clive and Lois have a commemorative item on their wall: Aunt Lillian, advertising Coke.

A clever boy, Clive graduated from high school when he was 15. He had one teacher he thought was nothing but “a lousy old maid.” Her name was Vera Peterson, and when Clive got older, he realized that she had taught him a great deal. She was the best teacher he ever had. Clive never went to college, but he went far.

When he was about 17, he was working down in the lower part of the state. A friend was dating a girl named Ruth. One night, they were going to the movies. Would Clive like to go along, with Ruth’s younger sister, Lois? Sure, said Clive. And they have been together ever since.

Unfortunately, neither Clive nor Lois can remember what the movie was. That datum has been lost to history. Lois does remember, however, that they had brownies and strawberry ice cream afterward.

They were married in 1947, when Clive was 19 and Lois was 21. Clive likes to remind his wife that she’s older than he. But he does this with great affection. “I’ve always liked older women,” he says.

Lois is not related to an opera star, but she is related to a literary star: Ralph Waldo Emerson. Also the Winchesters, of rifle fame. She wonders, humorously, why no money made it down to her.

With work unavailable in Maine, Clive and Lois moved down to New Hartford, Conn. Clive had job after job, as a tool-and-die maker. But he really liked to fiddle with wood. I ask him whether his father had this talent. “No,” says Clive, “he couldn’t saw a straight line on a board.” But Clive had the talent, and so do his children.

Clive and Lois had five children. One of them, Dale, died at the age of 20. He was killed in a car accident. He was a very talented woodworker, as the things he made prove.

When Clive was fiddling around, he made bookends, pipe racks, cribbage boards, and other such objects. They caught the notice of a buyer for G. Fox & Co., the department store in Hartford. He took them to a trade show in Chicago. Soon after, Clive heard from the chief buyer at Neiman-Marcus, in Dallas — who wanted as much as Clive could make. This led to orders from Marshall Field’s, I. Magnin, and the rest of the big stores.

In the mid 1960s, Clive decided to leave tool-and-die–making behind and go full time into woodworking and furniture. The family decamped to New Hampshire, settling in Epsom. There, Clive presided over a village: a village of craftsmen. There were blacksmiths, potters, and more. Clive accepted a lot of hippies into his village. When they came to him, “you could hardly see ’em for hair.” He told them to clean up and fly right — which, says Clive, they did.

His operation was known as the House of Kirk. He and his crew made everything from tables to pipe organs, from beekeeper’s benches to armoires. They sold to ordinary people and to the country’s most prominent families — including the Firestones, du Ponts, and Mellons.

“Which pieces are you proudest of?” I ask Clive. He thinks of a series of rolltop desks he made.

In 1985, he and Lois moved down here to Virginia. Why? “For the wood,” says Clive — it was diverse and plentiful in this region. Also, he and Lois had gotten to love the Shenandoah Valley, on various trips.

They came to New Market and bought a building that was intended to be a warehouse. Then it was a rollerskating rink. Then it was Clive’s shop and factory. The facility sits on a Civil War battlefield. Eight Confederate soldiers were killed on the very spot, says Clive. And there are three ghosts in the place. They didn’t like the new occupants, the “damn Yankees.” But ghosts and Yankees have made their peace, says Clive. They are living harmoniously together.

The shop is loaded with furniture-making machinery, and patterns, and wood. There are also antiques — including two streetlights from Boston, complete with their stanchions. These are exceedingly rare. Virtually all the other streetlights and stanchions were melted down during World War II. Everything was needed for the war effort.

Clive figures these things are worth quite a lot. “Mother and I could live good off them.”

In addition to working with wood, he works with plants and trees, as a hobby. He has tended one ponytail palm for 50 years. (It has a name, “Palmie.”) There is also a banana tree and a night-blooming cereus.

Clive stopped making furniture about five years ago, and is now making smaller pieces — “gift items,” as he says. This is the way he started out, back in Connecticut. He has lazy Susans and flying geese and whatnot. His latest project is an ornament — not a Christmas ornament. He has done those in the past. This is a “forever ornament,” as he says, and it has the word “Hope” on it. You might give one to “someone that’s hurting,” says Clive.

He is a believer in God, and goes to Him in prayer. He is also a man of tremendous compassion toward others.

He also knows a thing or two about hard work, and business success. Back in New Hampshire, Clive knew several politicians, including Meldrim Thomson, the governor during the 1970s. Thomson was a rock-ribbed conservative. He inscribed a copy of his memoir, Live Free or Die, to Clive: “a great American who is an outstanding proponent of the free-enterprise system.”

I ask Clive whether he’s optimistic about the country. No. Among the young, there is too much “disrespect,” even “hate.” And “it’s hurting our country, terribly.” Too many young people, says Clive, “have no allegiance to what we’re all about, where we come from.”

It could be that Americans in every generation have thought this. Maybe it will be true, someday? Maybe it’s

true now?

But Clive is anything but a sourpuss. He has come through a number of hardships, and has coped with physical pain for a long time — yet he will not be talked into gloom. “I found out in life that you can smile and be cheerful or you can be down in the dumps. And when I get down in the dumps, it doesn’t take long before I say, ‘Come on, Kirk, this isn’t going to get you anywhere.’” And then he’s back to his cheerful self.

Anyone who visits him will feel a similar lift. I don’t know if they broke the mold with Clive — an exemplary American — but there probably aren’t many more of him than there are of those streetlights and stanchions.

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