by Scott Wheeler
Climbing into his Chevy pick-up truck, Richard Nelson of Derby shoves a wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth and snaps open a can of Diet Pepsi – two staples in his life that he is never without. Stepping on the escalator, Nelson, a burley 40-something year old farmer with a passion for telling stories and hunting, is off on the hunt of a lifetime – not to bag himself a big buck, but to bring home a polar bear – a polar bear in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Nelson’s isn’t going to shoot the bear, a species that is native to the artic region, not the Northeast Kingdom, but he wants to save the mounted creature from being exiled from its home in the Kingdom.
For years, the bear guarded over the Main Street of Newport from the window of Frank’s Steakhouse, attracting the attention of people driving or walking the main street of this once thriving railroad community.
Put into retirement several years ago when the business was sold, the old polar bear with its menacing snarl is an iconic image for locals who grew up in the border community during the 1970s.The ferocious looking Alaskan went on the auction block at Wright’s Enterprises in Derby on Saturday April 9. While the bear is the best known of the Frank Lachance collection, it’s only one of many mounted animals once owned by the late Newport restaurateur that was auctioned. The auction included a host of other exotic, and not so exotic, mounted animals, many of them from Lachance’s personal collection.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be the only one bidding on the bear,” Nelson said, readily admitting that it was a bit easier bidding on the bear knowing that the money he was actually putting on the auction block belonged to his father, homegrown Vermont success story, Doug Nelson of Derby, one of the most successfully farmers in the Northeastern United States.
According to Richard, his father had his eye on the bear ever since he learned it was going up for auction. He envisioned it at his own restaurant in Derby – the Cow Palace. The fact that the Cow Palace overlooks the senior Nelson’s field of grazing elk is only one thing that makes the restaurant probably one of the most unique restaurants in the state of Vermont. The old polar bear joins a vast array of other mounted animals, many of them magnificent trophies that line the walls.
“We thought we might want to save the bear for another generation of children,” Richard Nelson said, as he thought back to the days when he was a child poking his nose up against the window of Frank Steakhouse to get a better view of the bear. “I thought it was a great magnificent creature – a symbol of the far north.”Lachance was a man right after Richard’s heart. A successful businessman, for decades, Frank’s Steakhouse thrived under Lachance’s leadership, even when the once bustling railroad community fell on tough times. But Lachance was not all work and no play. Like Nelson, Lachance had a passion for hunting. Unlike Nelson who keeps much of his hunting to his stomping grounds of Vermont, only occasionally venturing out of the state of his birth on hunting excisions, the world was Lachance’s hunting grounds.
Written up in a handful of publications, his hunting trips took him to such places as Alaska, Hawaii, and Iran. In addition to the polar bear, the Lachance collection included a mounted dall sheep, stone sheep, an American Mountain Goat, in addition to a Bezoar Ibex, and a Urial Sheep, both shot in Iran in 1974. There was also a fully mounted Alaskan Brown Bear that he shot in 1972. Then there were the feral sheep and a feral goat that Lachance shot on a hunting trip in Hawaii in 1967, in addition to a head mount of a stately looking Barren
Ground Caribou that he shot in Alaska in the 1970s. There was even a fully mounted Pacific sailfish that he caught in the 1970s. The collection wasn’t only made up of exotic animals. It included among many other species, mounted ruffed grouse, a bobcat, a coyote, and a fisher.”In the days leading up to the auction a lot of people in the area were wondering what would happen to the polar bear,” Cecile Colombe said, noting that many people wanted to see the bear stay in the region. However, she also knew there were several financially endowed folks from outside the region eyeing the bear that Lachance shot in Kotzebue, Alaska in 1969. Coulombe works for Wright’s Enterprises.
There was probably no better man to auction of the mounts than Ron Wright, the owner of the auction house. Besides being an accomplished auctioneer, like Lachance and Nelson, Wright is no stranger to the world of big game and the thrill of the hunt.
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