NORTH KINGSTON, N.S. - Everywhere Claude Berry went the oxen were sure to go.
“On a nice evening he’d take them for a walk like people take their dogs for a walk. He’d go up Stronach Mountain Road and away they would go, and they would follow him everywhere,” recalls Kathy Connell, reflecting on her father’s lifelong passion for all things oxen.
“Any time you went in our parents’ driveway you would hear the bells, whether it would be in the wintertime when the oxen were in the barn, or him out in the vegetable garden tilling the garden. He never did have a proper tiller. He used the oxen.”
Berry, who lived in Wilmot, passed away Jan. 2 at the age of 93. On the day of his graveside service, the well-known teamster widely respected by fellow “ox men” for his special way with oxen was led to his gravesite by the animals he held an unwavering affection for until the day he died.
“We have all had an extreme amount of pride in our dad and his accomplishments. This man worked hard all of his life, but his approach with the animals was rare, unique and absolutely wonderful to watch,” said Connell.
“He had that gentle hand and those oxen would follow him everywhere.”
Arthritic knees eventually forced Berry to make the tough decision to stop having oxen at home in recent years when he was no longer able to walk with them as often as he felt he should, but that didn’t prevent the seasoned showman from supporting the tight-knit community he became deeply embedded in over the decades.
“He went to every ox pull for miles,” said Connell, noting that her brother, Andy, saw to it that their father didn’t miss out this summer.
“Anywhere there was an ox pull or oxen to be shown, he was there… he could sit there for hours.”
A touching tribute
Mike Cole knew Berry for 40-some years and was honoured to have his son, Collin Cole, lead his team of oxen in the special tribute arranged for Berry’s funeral.
“Claude being a long-time friend of mine, it meant a lot to me and my boys because he always thought the world of us. He was up here every other week to watch us play with oxen, or watch the cows,” said Cole, who can recall countless Annapolis Valley Exhibition excursions with Berry.
“That was his passion, so it was a privilege for us to take him to the graveside via oxen.”
It was a bittersweet moment for Connell as the oxen-powered wagon carrying her father’s coffin made its way through the North Kingston Cemetery. She knew her father would be overjoyed to have Collin Cole, a young teamster he was thoroughly impressed with, guiding the oxen.
“I knew when I heard the ox bells coming into the graveyard it was going to be emotional - and it was for a lot of people because of the sound and then the quiet grave - but how appropriate for him. It was the best of the best, that’s the only way I could describe it.”
A gentle way
Oxen, she added, were constant companions and loyal friends to a good man who lived life on his own terms.
“He saw a beauty in them maybe some people didn’t see. I mean, let’s face it - they’re a slow animal. When they’re full grown they can be a very, very large animal,” said Connell.
“But there’s something about the oxen, a gentle way they have.”
Melissa Bailey O’Hara knew Berry for seven or eight years and received a number of pointers from him in that time.
“He would stop by every couple weeks to see how I was making out with whatever pair of oxen or steers I had at the time. He made it around to all the ox pulls to watch the past years,” she said.
She was moved to see a fellow teamster mentored by Berry ensure the accomplished showman had a proper send-off at his graveside service.
“It was phenomenal to see in person. Claude… had oxen most of his life, so for him to have the oxen taking him to his final resting place was definitely fitting.”
Speaking on behalf of her siblings (Andy, Steve and Kim Berry), Connell says the outpouring of kind words about her father has warmed their hearts. She takes comfort in knowing her dad got to enjoy the Christmas dinner with family that he looked forward to for weeks.
“At 93 years of age he was fiercely independent and determined, still living on his own. Dad enjoyed driving his black Ford (half) ton, watching his baseball and hockey games - (and) Judge Judy,” Berry’s obituary reads.
Berry, a long-time Lawrencetown exhibition showman and supporter, picked apples for the nearby Spurr Brothers farm, drove trucks and worked as a warehouse supervisor for TRA in Middleton prior to his retirement.
He was laid to rest with a couple of his grand champion ribbons and the training wand he used with oxen. Thanks to the Cole’s special send-off, Connell likes to believe her father had good reason to be buried with a smile, too.
“It was a real fitting tribute. I’m sure anyone that drove down the North Kingston road on Jan. 6 at 1 p.m. couldn’t quite figure out why these two great, big animals and a wagon had a coffin on the back,” she said.
“That was the last ride and there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that our dad was smiling.”