When you were 8 years old did you love to jump into big piles of sawdust? Did you and your dad scavenge old wooden fruit boxes for white pine that could be carved into World War 1 Spads and German fighter bombers? Carved from scrap wood into treasures of the heart and spirit the youngster learned to work with wood. He credits his dad, now 90, with instilling in him the love of wood and what one can do with it.
Amid more than twenty men and women members of Chesapeake Wooden Boat Builders tonight are clusters of folk intent on projects as varied as canoe restoration, model building, caning and lots of hand sanding. Never have I ever been with so many individuals engaged in helping each other….teaching and learning…with the harmonious hum of chit chat and comment….broken only every now and then by a hammer tacking or gentle laughter …usually at one’s self for some fluff that amuses, and does not anger.
Don Boehl recalls the thrill of getting out of school in the afternoon and racing to a neighbor who owned a 20-inch radial saw where a love of wood began. His mentor, Tom Sanders, allowed the 8 year old chap to experience the woodshop…the sounds, smells and feel of wood, even a jump into the sawdust pile every now and then.
When he was sixteen he was carpentering for Sanders and crafting magnificent Tiffany glass doors and windows in a mansion along Long Green Pike, near Jacksonville.
“There were cases of Tiffany glass that were purchased from his studio in New York, after he died. I was just a hired hand, but was given the chance to create patterns and frames for the most opalescent, iridescent , spectacular glass I’d ever seen.”
This night Don is standing inside his Hershoff Haven 12 ½ Class boat. Factory cost…$19,500 for this wooden boat that almost looked biblical in design. A ‘labor intensive’ project, Don had worked on it for over 9 years. Of course Don squeezes time on his boat after hours of his ‘daytime’ job…selling printing equipment for G.E. Edwards. In the woodshop located in the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum tonight he is assisted by Ken Price. It’s really tough to tell the instructors from the students, because they reverse roles so much.
Likely half of those here tonight at the foot of Lafayette Street are enrolled in one of several classes offered by Harford Community College on wooden boat building.
Taking in the spacious workshop’s ‘lost art’ brings to mind….the ways of nurturing elderly wooden canoes, once left as derelicts, and now rescued to be massaged on carpet-covered cradles…then stripped, scrubbed and oiled back to their once pristine state…or maybe better.
Without doubt the centerpiece of this large woodworking shop is a fully restored Old Town canoe by the name of Indian Princess. Bought by a Mountain Man named Beaver for $25 in 1956 this wooden canoe is a work of art. Taking his color combination from the scheme of a 1957 Chevrolet convertible, the two tone dark green and lime green closely resembles colors of the originals. Every piece of the canoe is restored to exact specifications.
“I’ve been restoring her for over 50 years…after we christened her, we thought it would be nice to just hang her up here in the museum and be in a place of honor. I did all the woodwork and then came to the canvas application, and I was stumped, so I came to the college class and they said they’d do it….now I know how to canvas. It’s passing information back and forth. Yep, that’s what it’s all about, Beaver notes.
Mac McCurley, now deceased had helped cane a seat for one of the wooden canoes Gordon Smith and Bud Gillis are stripping down. Each of them goes quietly about their task tonight.
To make some of the larger projects come to life Jack Bosen. who recently moved to Florida, masters the ‘lofting board’ a plain white wall where small, detailed boat plans can be enlarged to actual size. Jack is a senior instructor, and one of the first members of the club, which started in 1989. Today, Don Kerr, of Fallston, handles Jack’s duties of ‘lofting and general woodworking.
Mac used to drive 155 miles round trip during the winter months to the class, a few years ago he bought a place within three blocks of the museum and spent summers there with his wife, Eleanor, who soon will move now that Mac has passed on.
A glance out the east window of the shop allows a framed view of the Havre de Grace lighthouse and moonlight on the famed ‘Susquehanna Flats’…where hunters of waterfowl have pilgrimaged for centuries.
As I leave, Beaver says…”Once you’ve experienced a wooden canoe you’ll never go back to aluminum or fiberglass….there’s no comparison, but you never know unless you’ve tried it. The bottom actually flexes and gently moves as you clear rough water.”
Canoes made in the early 1900’s, twelve to eighteen feet in length are being restored to original beauty and function. A visitor asks if someone can ‘restore’ his wooden canoe and is surprised to find acceptance in a difficult task…then the task is reversed into an enthusiastic project for the club. It seems there is plenty to do and only pride and craftsmanship matter, time is not of the essence.
In the entry way to the workshop hangs a birch-bark canoe made by a Native American in 1935. Restored and serving as a touchstone with the past of wood and boats. I recalled the portrait of a Kutenai duck hunter by Edward S. Curtis from his book, Portraits From North American Indian Life, a landmark tome of photographs published in 1907.
William Putland used to head up the Chesapeake Wooden Boat Builders, ably assisted by instructors Don Boehl, Alan “Bud’ Gillis, Jack Bosen, Harry Glover, Chuck Foley and Albert Ault. Guys like Gordon Smith, Bob Silcox and Beaver (who never tells anyone his real name, which is reported to be Filo) mingle with others in reverence for wood that belies the years of experience mastering a craft of lost art.
Here artisans of wood are nurturing and mending extraordinary artwork that floats….down the river or across a pond…rather than being passed over, and left for junk…these treasures are rescued, carefully brought to the workshop, stripped, sanded, oiled, while resting on carpet-covered cradles creating a space of focus and inspiration that ‘something can be done to restore a piece of maritime’s colorful past.
“The camaraderie of guys fixing up wooden boats and talking, laughing and helping each other is what it’s all about,” notes Gordon Smith, of Bel Air.
Todd Holden writes from his home, near Forest Hill, where his Border collie Frisco and Jack Russell, L’il Dude, keep him company. He owns an aluminum canoe.