Golden age of sail recalled in book written by Great Village sea captain

Staff ~ The Truro Daily News
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Murders, shipwrecks, wicked winds and tropical islands

Like many of the voyages Captain James Wilbur Johnston sailed on more than a century ago, publishing his unpublished manuscript turned out to be "quite a journey," said Truro resident and Colchester Historical Museum volunteer Dick Akerman.

Johnston was a sea captain from Great Village who was born in 1854 and died in 1945. ‘High Spots,' which will be launched at the museum in Truro on Saturday (2 p.m.), is his first-hand account of childhood memories followed by his adventurous life at sea on sailing ships, which had been his father's experience before him.

Tracking down Johnston's previously unpublished manuscript, however, wasn't easy.

The search originated a few years ago when Akerman read a book called ‘Peter Pioneer.' It had been written in the 1970s by Truro judge Robert McLellan, who had discovered Johnston's "almost priceless" first-person narrative of "sailing the high seas to the four corners of the globe."

McLellan used some of Johnston's material in his book. He also indicated that one copy of the manuscript was in the Nova Scotia Public Archives and that a second was in the possession of Johnston's niece in Antigonish.

"I went to the archives in Halifax and read the manuscript on microfilm," recalled Akerman. "It took me all day. What I read in Judge McLellan's book and what I read in the archives, I figured, should be in the Colchester Historical Society archives."

By 2006, Akerman, with the help of many friends and volunteers, was determined to reconstruct Johnston's life but the project was nearly sunk by a serious setback.

"I returned to the archives in Halifax," explained Akerman. "They could no longer find (Johnston's manuscript) on microfilm."

Undaunted, Akerman and his associates continued their search through letters and calls to people from as far away as Sacramento, Calif. Eventually, they caught a break when Vince Baird, McLellan's son-in-law, offered them some old books from the judge's library.

"Believe it or not ‘High Spots' was among them," said Akerman.

A copy of the manuscript was then sent to Dan Conlin, curator of marine history at the Museum of The Atlantic in Halifax. After receiving some positive feedback, they contacted Bruce Graham, the former television anchorman, playwright and author, and eventually sent a copy to Lesley Choyce, a publisher based in Lawrencetown.

Choyce wanted to publish the manuscript and permission was obtained from Johnson's relatives to have it published under the authority of the Colchester Historical Society.

Graham wrote the introduction to ‘High Spots.'

"What a book it is," he penned. "The captain tells of spellbinding voyages and dangerous adventure. He reveals experiences which included witnessing murders, experiencing shipwrecks, surviving wicked winds and exploring tropical islands and far-off islands.

"The captain had shipmates but no friends at sea."

As for Akerman, who wrote the afterward, ‘High Spots' offers a unique glimpse at local history.

"For anyone interested in life in a small village such as Great Village back in the 1800s and the fascinating life of a master mariner, this book is something they should have," he said.

‘High Spots' is available for $20. As part of the occasion, an exhibit billed a ‘Camera on the Banks' will display wonderful images of men at sea during the 1920s.

TAGLINE: Lyle Carter's column appears every Tuesday in the Truro Daily News. If you have a column idea, contact him at 673-2857.

Organizations: Colchester Historical Museum, Colchester Historical Society, Museum of The Atlantic Johnson's Truro Daily News

Geographic location: Great Village, Truro, Halifax Antigonish Sacramento, Calif. Lawrencetown

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