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Rokeby's tiny boat poses historic puzzle

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Posted on February 8, 2018 |
By Andy Kirkaldy



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ROKEBY MUSEUM DIRECTOR Catherine Brooks, left, furniture maker and boatbuilder Don Dewees and conservationist Rick Kerschner stand with a child’s boat that was found in a museum outbuilding and is now being conserved and readied for exhibition. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

FERRISBURGH — A couple months back volunteers at Ferrisburgh’s Rokeby Museum were going through the historic landmark’s outbuildings, evaluating them for possible conservation work or repairs, when they made a discovery — a small, painted wooden boat, just short of six feet long and in rough shape.

A more perfect match of treasure hunters and bounty would be hard to imagine.

Among the volunteers were Ferrisburgh woodworker and longtime Lake Champlain Maritime Museum employee and volunteer Don Dewees, and another Ferrisburgh resident, Rick Kerschner, a former head of conservation at the Shelburne Museum.

THE BOAT’S STERN displays the names “Lucy” and “Newport,” assumed to be its original home port in Rhode Island. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

After research they and Rokeby Executive Director Catherine Brooks believe that the 67-inch-long boat, with the name “Lucy” on its stern, is about 150 years old; was built in Newport, R.I.; and probably belonged to a relative of the Robinson family that prospered as farmers at Rokeby in the 1800s and were avid abolitionists, writers and artists.

But Brooks said all they knew when they found the boat was that it was intriguing, especially to Dewees.

“We opened a door, and here was this boat,” Brooks said. “And Don, being a boat person, we had to pull him out of the building.”

Before long Brooks heard back from Dewees and Kerschner about the boat, which in stabilized condition will be prominently displayed at Rokeby this year.

“Within a day or two both Rick and Don were back,” Brooks said. “Rick with his professional expertise in conservation and Don in boats and working with wood, they proposed they conserve the piece.” 

Dewees and Kerschner, next to the Lucy on a table in Dewees’ Stage Road workshop, explained their attraction to the tiny boat. They talked about both the quality of its workmanship and the puzzle it posed.

“I was captured really by the refinement of the design on the back and painted surfaces, which I really enjoy, and knew the colored surfaces could be saturated and look better,” Kerschner said. “It’s a sophisticated little boat, and we were curious about the story of where it might have come from.”

Dewees said during his tenure at the maritime museum his affection for wooden boats had translated to his organization of LCMM wooden boat exhibits.

“First of all I like wooden boats,” Dewees said. “So here this is, and there is an obvious mystery connected to it. What is it? It’s so small. Is it a real boat? Is it a maker’s model? Is it a gift to someone in the family? Was it actually used? I’ve gotten some insight as we’ve worked on it.”

PIECES OF THE PUZZLE

The ultimate goal of the project, Brooks said, is to display a “stabilized” boat — with removable additions built by Dewees based on his and Kerschner’s observations — either in the Rokeby’s new building or in the former Robinson home.

CONSERVATIONIST RICK KERSCHNER of Ferrisburgh applies a gloss finish to an old child’s boat that he and Don Dewees are conserving for the Rokeby Museum. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

Those additions include, surprisingly for a boat its size, a mast, rear seat, and rudder with a tiller, which is used to navigate a sailboat. They also determined it was a rowboat, with pairs of vertical “thole pins” serving as oarlocks.

When describing the detective work that went into recreating the boat as originally used, Dewees for example pointed to the boat’s gunnels, or topside rails, almost exactly in the middle, where oars might have been used. Telltale signs of wear were evident between two holes a little smaller than a half-inch wide, about three inches apart.

“The pins were missing, but they used thole pins instead of metal oarlocks, apparently. They’re gone, but the obvious wear is there,” he said. “And there were other places we started looking where there was wear. And there were changes made to the boat, so we started teasing out a little bit of the history, as far as we can tell we think we know the history. We don’t know the bigger story, but that we’re hoping we can discover something about, too.”

As well as signs of wear, holes, metal rings and inconsistencies in construction gave clues that there was almost certainly a rear seat, tiller and rudder, and mast.

DON DEWEES INSTALLS a new rudder to the stern of an old child’s boat he and Rick Kerschner, right, are restoring in Dewees’ Ferrisburgh shop. The boat was found in a state of disrepair at the Rokeby Museum and will be returned there for display later this year. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

“This was where the kid in us really started coming out. What can we figure out about this?” Dewees said. “What was it like before? What’s missing here? So we started making parts and pieces.”

Dewees pointed out the impressions of seats, mast braces, and then rings almost certainly used for a rope to secure a sail and to hold the rudder in place. And one-by-one he brought out the perfectly fitted — and removable — pieces he made to complete what he and Kerschner believe was the original boat.

“So now it’s become the boat it was, I think, in that it has most of what it needs to be a sailing dinghy,” he said.

They and Brooks believe this same process would be fascinating for museum visitors.

“Wouldn’t this be a great exercise for kids coming to the museum, to take them through this exercise, this bit of detective work?” Dewees said.

Brooks called the Lucy “a great complement” to Rokeby’s written records, historic home and Underground Railroad display.

“It will be on exhibit this summer, definitely,” Brooks said. “It will be something we can use with schoolchildren, adults, all ages. People can relate to boats. There’s an emotional pull. You can imagine yourself (using it). It’s perfect as far as artifacts go.”

‘STABILIZATION’

What they aren’t doing is building a new boat, Kerschner said.

“That’s the difference between restoration and stabilization. In restoration essentially you want to make it look like new, and if you make it look like new you might as well just build a new one,” Kerschner said. “We really wanted to show the history of the piece, and even the history of the deterioration. But we wanted to make it so when people come upon it, in a gallery or wherever, the first thing that draws your attention is not the damage.”

THE LUCY WILL remain for the most part in the state it was found — a stabilization rather than restoration. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

Dewees said it’s OK if a closer look reveals some of the damage that remains under the synthetic varnish Kerschner is applying to preserve powdery paint and enhance its once-bright colors.

“We only brought it to the point where it’s in one piece and it’s holding together and you recognize it as a boat and it’s not simply a wreck,” said Dewees, who has put about 40 volunteer hours into the effort.

“This is the piece speaking for itself, which is a nice interpretation for a museum program,” Kerschner said.

They agree after inspecting the Lucy, thinking about its size, and seeing how much wear it received that it was a boat valued by a child. And all said viewers would be able to see the craftsmanship that went into building the boat sometime in the latter half of the 19th century.

“As I looked at the paint on the back I thought a lot of effort went into it. It was apparently built by a professional boat builder,” Kerschner said.

Dewees said he made his guess on its age by examining the style of the nail, and made another guess on its cargo capacity based on its size.

“I don’t think it’s any problem with a 50-pound kid,” Dewees said.

ROKEBY MUSEUM DIRECTOR Catherine Brooks, left, and Ferrisburgh conservationist Rick Kershner look over the 67-inch vintage child’s boat currently being conserved for the museum. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

The boat’s stern reads “Newport,” as well as “Lucy.” Brooks said the Robinsons moved to Vermont from Newport, R.I., and that Lucy is a family name. She has not been able to trace the boat further, however, but based on that evidence believes it was a Robinson heirloom.

“We have not found anything in the family letters that refer to it, but one of the Robinsons had a sister named Lucy,” Brooks said. “And the Robinsons kept everything, so it would not have been there if it had not had to do with them.”

She hopes for a volunteer to check out the Rhode Island end of Lucy’s history.

“Looking into boat building companies in Newport of the period, that’s going to help a lot,” Brooks said.

Regardless of the colorful boat’s exact history, Brooks, Dewees and Kerschner agree on a larger issue.

“It’s a beautiful little boat. It’s well made. And someone would have been very proud of it,” Kerschner said.

As he and Dewees puttered around the Lucy another point of agreement came up.

“We just really enjoy this,” Kerschner said.

Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]

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