A Life: Charles E. Neily; Canaan native felt the pull of work

  • From left, Elwin Neily, Roger Remacle, Charlie Neily and Richard Buckwold with a load harvested for Charlie Neily's logging business in the 1960s. Remacle trucked the logs and the other men worked in the woods. (Courtesy Holly Conkey) Courtesy Holly Conkey

  • Charlie Neily and his team Jenny, left, and Dan in a pulling contest at the Canaan Fairgrounds in the late 1970s. Assisting is Ed Abare, in the red hat. (Courtesy Holly Conkey) Photographs Courtesy Holly Conkey

  • Charlie Neily during his first stint in the military in 1959. He was stationed in Germany as part of a tank battalion. (Courtesy Holly Conkey)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/31/2021 9:40:50 PM
Modified: 11/1/2021 11:24:18 AM

CANAAN CENTER — Not many people, in the Upper Valley of today at least, start their working lives like Charlie Neily did.

Born in the middle of the Great Depression, the fourth of five children, Neily knew what privation was. His father died young, of cancer, at age 44, when Charlie was 11.

“He said he could remember looking for spare change so they could buy a bag of flour to mix with water and bacon grease to fry up,” his niece Jessica Neily said in a phone interview.

Even before then, when his father was ill, Charlie begged a Canaan farmer to get work in his egg operation, tending to 1,500 layers, his daughter, Holly Conkey, said. Charlie was 10.

The appeal of that job was that it paid by the day, an immediate return that could be converted into food.

Charles E. Neily died June 18, 2021 at the Jack Byrne Center for Palliative and Hospice Care in Lebanon after treatment for cancer. He was 86.

Neily was a worker, still the highest praise a person can receive in New England.

“He worked on farms and picked up odd jobs, of course. Any jobs you can get,” Charlie’s younger brother, Elwin, said in a phone interview.

He left school after eighth grade to drive a team of horses, hauling logs out of the woods. He went out of necessity. At the time, there were no welfare programs, his family said, and the boys needed to earn money to keep the children from being sent to another family.

“He said because, basically because he was hungry,” Conkey said. “He went to work so they would have more money to buy some groceries,” and “to help his mother and his family.”

At 14, he had to hustle to keep up with the rough and tumble Canadian loggers who felled and limbed trees with crosscut saws and axes.

“Oh, yeah,” Elwin Neily said, “you had to hold your end up lifting logs up on the scoot and stuff.” A scoot is a rough sled used to transport logs out of the woods. A teamster pulled the logs to a skidway where they could be rolled onto a truck for transport to a mill.

The only thing that broke up his work in the woods was getting drafted into the Army in the late 1950s and again in the early 1960s. He served in a tank battalion, first in Germany and then in Beirut, Lebanon.

In between those stints, he married Nancy Skinner, herself from a poor family. She’d moved into the home of Ed and Jackie Lary at the age of 15 to help care for their children. She was the youngest of four siblings and her mother had died when she was young, Conkey said. She was 18 when she and Charlie were married in 1961.

He came out of the service with a lasting knee injury, one that would eventually require a brace and corrective shoes. He never complained, and he never let it keep him from working, Conkey said.

On a typical day, he was out the door before his kids were up, feeding his horses. Even after his logging operation mechanized, Charlie kept draft horses, at one point owning as many as 15. He took them to pulling contests and drove wagons in Canaan’s Old Home Day and July 4th parades. And once in a while, when a customer wanted a logging job to have a smaller footprint, he took a team into the woods. It wasn’t until he was in his 80s that he decided that caring for the horses in the winter was too much for him, Conkey said.

His workday would take him either into the woods, where he continued to work into his 70s, or to one of his other enterprises. He started in logging working for Asa Lary and then partnered with Asa’s son Ed. Neily also operated a sawmill.

Logging got him interested in real estate, and he developed a model where he’d buy a wooded parcel, log it and resell it, Elwin said. His family isn’t sure how much land he owned, but many parcels passed through his hands.

“He was an excellent salesman,” Doreen Merrill Wyman, owner of Granite Northland, a real estate agency in Canaan and Enfield, said in a phone interview. “He had very slow speech and a good sense of humor. ... People really trusted him.”

Wyman recalled Neily buying a big parcel of land in Grafton, logging and subdividing it and selling the parcels at auction. He’d also build camps on parcels he then resold.

He did well for himself, but he also did well by people he dealt with. He was fond of saying ” ‘a fast nickel’s better than a slow dime, or no dime at all,’ ” Wyman said. “He wasn’t greedy. He was after a fair deal.”

At one point, he owned the fairgrounds in town and land surrounding it, including where Canaan’s transfer station and sewage treatment plant are now.

Neily also turned the logging and milling business into a company that built log cabins. As the Upper Valley’s population grew, so did the need for housing, and the log cabins sold well. Sometimes a real estate ad for one of the log cabins his company built will include his name.

At the end of his workday, he’d come home and head out to the barn.

“In the summer, when we had horses, we’d exercise horses in the evening,” Conkey said.

Neily was well liked. The Lions Club named him Canaan’s citizen of the year in 1980, she said. He often quietly helped people out.

He was not without struggles of his own. Nancy was in a bad car accident in 2010, and Charlie took care of her himself as long as he could.

And his son, Charles “Asa” Neily, struggled with drug addiction and was arrested in 2014 and 2017 for drug trafficking.

“They tried to help him any way that they could,” Conkey said.

Asa Neily died in early July, just weeks after his father. He was 39.

“I think the passing of my father had quite an effect on him,” Conkey said. She’s still doesn’t know what the cause of death was. Nancy died not long after.

Even amid his struggles, Charlie presented as he always had. He still dropped in to visit with Wyman at the Granite Northland office to talk real estate and catch up. Yes, he was a worker, but he also knew how to be social, Wyman said.

Through her childhood, Conkey said, her family would take day trips to the White Mountains once in a while. One winter they spent a week in Florida, at Disney.

“That was probably the longest vacation I could remember,” she said.

“He was never interested in not working,” she added.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.

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