It was probably a nice, sunny day when Fred Coleman sat in his canoe on Killarney Lake. A fishing pole in his hands, he must have been pretty surprised when a frog jumped up next to him. He decided to share his lunch with it – and gained a life-long friend.
Fed by its human friend with cornmeal, june bugs and even whiskey, the frog grew and became the biggest frog Fredericton has ever seen. Over the years, the 42-pound frog learned some tricks and responded when Fred Coleman called. Tourists accompanied Coleman, meeting his friend who was sometimes very shy around strangers.
When Coleman found out his amphibian pal had been killed in a dynamite incident, he was upset. Owner of the Barker’s House hotel in downtown Fredericton decided to display the frog in the hotel lobby after a taxidermist preserved its body.
Many people came to see the giant frog. And many hands touched the frog or put out cigarettes on its back after the protective case had been removed by the new hotel owners after Coleman’s death.
Frog skin isn’t thick and so the owners tried to fix the damage with papier mâché and green colour. The repair job sparked a controversy about the credibility of the whole story. Journals’ headlines read “The frog’s a fraud!”, others “The frog’s not a fraud!”
Fraud or not, in 1959, the frog found a new home at the Fredericton Region Museum.
Located downtown Fredericton, the former York Sunbury Museum is “a great display of Fredericton’s history,” said Elspeth Burris who has been employed at the museum since summer 2012.
“It’s really good for tourists, but it’s really good for locals, too, to learn about the history of the area where they live,” said Burris.
Burris just finished her Bachelor of Arts at St. Thomas University and is now working on a degree in education at the University of New Brunswick.
“People hear about the frog and come to the museum because of that sometimes. But then, they hopefully stay for the other exhibits,” she said.
Besides the Coleman frog, the museum has exhibits including the War of 1812, the 104th Regiment that walked all the way from N.B. to Ont. in the middle of winter to fight Americans, the Acadians and “Boss Gibson” who founded Marysville on the north side of Fredericton.
The giant frog remains a favourite of many visitors and children. Majestic and noble under its display case, it watches museum guests come from as far away as Paris to decide whether or not they believe it’s real or just a stuffed animal.
Back in the early 1990s, the museum had a naming contest for the frog, Burris said.
“People suggested names that they thought suited the frog. The name that won was Cornelius Webster.”
However, after giving a tour, doubts rose amongst the staff that Cornelius was really a Cornelia.
“I was doing a tour and I was referring to [the frog] as a ‘he’ and a little boy asked me ‘How do you know if it’s a boy?’ and I was like ‘Good question!’,” said Burris.
“Then we were kind of talking about it in the office. And Ruth [the executive director] was like, we should really look into that. So, Alex [a summer student] did some research on it and wrote a blog post about it.”
Searching various science websites, the staff tried to tell the gender of the Coleman frog. However, for a lot of gender indicators the frog has to be alive, which wasn’t the case of Cornelius/Cornelia Webster. Nevertheless, the staff came to a tentative conclusion.
“On male frogs, the eardrums are way, way bigger than the eyes. But on female frogs, they’re slightly bigger or around the same size. But [the Coleman frog’s] ones are only slightly bigger than the eyes,” said Burris.
“So, that’s kind of why we think that [it’s a girl], but we can’t really know for sure, because it’s dead. It’s also hard to judge with a frog that’s so big, because there’s no frog that size to compare with.”
The mystery remains – along with the controversy about its existence. Visitors Karen and Arthur Frigrult stopped in Fredericton after coming from P.E.I. Curious about the museum, they came in before going home to Boston.
“It’s wonderful,” said Karen. Her husband agreed, “It’s very interesting, being in an old building like this. You can feel how old it is. We’re in history. Sometimes in more modern museum the building has nothing to do with what you see, but here the building has everything to do.”
Karen said she joined the frog believers. The old time pictures of the frog convinced her. Arthur disagrees.
“I don’t believe it. No, it was scamming to see a frog that big,” he said and adds laughing, “but it would make good stew.”
A good stew, something Cornelia wouldn’t have minded.
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