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Engineering students build replicas of historic local watercraft

MIDDLEBURY — This fall, professional boatbuilder Douglas Brooks of Vergennes helped teach students in the Engineering Design class at the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center in Middlebury learn about and build traditional Lake Champlain boats. This was the third year of the program, which was carried out in partnership with the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History.
All materials for the boat were supplied by Lathrop’s Maple Supply in Bristol, and funding for this year’s research came from the Bay & Paul Foundation and the Regatta for Lake Champlain, as well as a gift from James Bullard.
Two historic boats were brought into the school’s wood shop: a muskrat trapping boat built by the late Gerald Hatch on his Panton farm in the 1960s, and an unusual rowboat from the former Calkins Farm, now home to the non-profit Intervale in Burlington. Both boats exemplify the unique legacy of vernacular boatbuilding in the Lake Champlain Basin.
Students first measured both boats and created full-size drawings of each, a boatbuilding technique called lofting. This allowed them to recreate as closely as possible the shape of the boats, and derive the hull cross sections they used for molds to build replicas. Jake Burnham, the Engineering Design teacher, led students using these measurements and made CAD drawings of both boats in the computer lab.
Over the remainder of the fall semester students will refine and complete these drawings, providing plan-size, museum-quality documentation for the boats.
Previous Engineering Design classes in 2014 and 2015, as well as Middlebury College students who have worked with Brooks, have interviewed members of the Hatch Family as well as other area trappers and boatbuilders. Gerald Hatch, who died in the early 1970s, exemplified the dairy farmers of the Champlain Valley who depended on muskrat trapping for added income during the winter. Boats were expensive so, like many farmers, he built his own. In total he built six trapping boats, using very basic techniques but nevertheless creating craft well suited to their use.
The Calkins boat is more of a mystery. To date experts have not been able to determine a builder or use for this rowboat. The Calkins Farm is located on the Winooski River so presumably the boat, found in the farm barn, was some kind of fishing craft. It was certainly made by a non-professional builder. The sides are single pieces of 12-inch wide pine, but for its length this boat has relatively low freeboard (height). The thwarts (seats) are set nearly to the gunwale, and the oarlocks are mounted on posts. These elements are extremely unconventional but the low freeboard means this boat probably never ventured onto the broad lake.
Another fascinating detail of the Calkins boat is how the bottom planks actually overhang the side of the boat. The bottom is cross-planked, a well-known technique that allows builders to work with more easily procured material rather than relying on long lengths of wood. The fact the bottom planks extend past the sides by a half-inch is unconventional, but one possible reason is this would make the bottom planking less prone to splitting when a nail was driven in near the ends.
Both boats are available for sale with funding dedicated to the continued support of this work. For more information contact Douglas Brooks at 802-877-3289 or [email protected].
Editor’s note: This story was provided by Douglas Brooks.

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