Honoring the Past at MYSTIC SEAPORT

photos and feature by: Caryn B. Davis

Helloystic, Connecticut has had a long and enduring relationship with the sea since its establishment as ship building community on the banks of the Mystic River over four hundred years ago. In its heyday, more than 100 vessels (from sloops to clippers) were constructed at the George, Clark and Thomas Greenman Shipyard which is now the site of Mystic Seaport, a museum dedicated to preserving America’s maritime past.

Founded in 1929, the Seaport has grown tremendously and houses the world’s largest collection of nautical photography with over 1 million images; 1.5 million feet of historic and contemporary maritime footage; more than 2 million examples of maritime art, artifacts, tools, instruments, books and documents; and more than 500 vessels. But the best asset this living museum has is its staff. Through scholarly research and practical application, they keep traditional maritime arts and crafts alive.

The Buckingham-Hall House is just one of the 30 antique buildings that have been brought to the Seaport to recreate an authentic 19th century coastal village. Shipped by barge from Old Saybrook, this house has been restored to the 1840’s when Samuel and Lydia Buckingham lived there with their five children. In its kitchen, Rebecca Donohue, a role player and interpreter, demonstrates the art of open hearth cooking using recipes from an 1829 cookbook called the American Frugal Housewife.

Dressed in period clothing, Donahue prepares everything from scratch and only uses utensils and cooking methods appropriate to this era. She picks fresh vegetables from the garden, but unlike the Buckingham’s, Donohue does not have to slaughter or pluck the chicken for her chicken fricassee, or collect eggs for her Washington cake. As she prepares the meal, Donohue answers visitor’s questions offering insight into what life was like for this particular family and the importance of understanding where your food comes from. “People have become disconnected from their food sources, so to see a working kitchen or garden, or see salt cod hanging on the wall is important. Some children have never seen a piecrust being made. They think it comes from the grocery store. If you lose that connection to food, you lose your connection to the earth. The challenge for me is how to translate this history to the public, accurately and faithfully,” says Donohue.

Joanna Cadorette designs, researches and constructs all the costumes role players like Donohue wear, in addition to outfitting the casts for the museum’s theatrical programs like Lantern Light Tours ( a Christmas tale) and Nautical Nightmares (a Halloween play). She also works with documentary and movie crews that require historically accurate clothing. “We do our best to find primary sources that tell us how people dressed. I look in museums, diaries, probate records, fashion magazines, paintings, and photographs. I don’t use original garments or material because they are so aged and fragile and I want to make sure they are available for future study. But we are also pretending its 1876 and everything was new then. You would not go out in an antique dress,” says Cadorette.

The costume department has been able to make their own fabric using a state-of-the-art digital printer at Kent State University that prints directly onto cloth. This new technology enables them to scan a section of an original dress, like a polka dot border, and then create a repeat pattern in the computer, which is printed onto fabric similar to the original. This process ensures period representation.

“I think it’s important for people to interact with history in a personal way. I am driven by education and how we can use clothing as a vehicle to help teach the public about the past. This is why the role-players are important. When you are interacting with someone talking about back then, there is a distance between you and the past, but when someone is role-playing you begin to see the differences and similarities in our daily lives then and now: What makes it foreign but also what makes it universal,” says Cadorette.

Chris Taylor left his high paying job as lab manager for a biotech company to become a shipwright. After completing a two-year program at the International Yacht Restoration School in Newport, he was hired by the Seaport to work on the restoration of Roann, a 1947 eastern rig dragger. “It is intended to reproduce the work in the same way they did in 1947. We try to use hand tools. Normally in any production boat yard today they would take a router and just buzz the deck beams and it would be done. But we use a hand plane because that is how it was done and the end product is more important than it being done hastily,” comments Taylor.

At the Henry duPont Preservation Shipyard where most restorations are performed, the shipwrights still use 19th century tools and techniques when restoring authentic vessels and building replicas like Amistad. “If there weren’t places like Mystic, these skills would be lost. It’s not like in the 1800’s when there were lots of places building wooden boats. It’s now molded fiberglass and more production line. The evolution on how it got there is important. It’s part of our maritime heritage; the history of building boats in this country,” says Taylor.

The blacksmith was integral to building and maintaining ships, and at the Seaport, everything is still done by hand, Bill Scheer, stays very busy.

“We run this shop the same as it was run in 1888. We make whatever we need whether it is hanks, whale tools for demonstrations, traveling exhibits, movies or documentaries, or hinges for barns, carriages and ships,” says Scheer who has been the Seaport’s blacksmith for over 17 years.

Housed in a shop built by James D. Driggs that was brought to the Seaport from New Bedford, MA in 1944, the building “is the only manufactory of ironwork for the whaling industry known to have survived from the nineteenth century”. From this 1885 shop, Scheer has taught hundreds of visitors, students from the Mystic-Williams Maritime Studies Programs, Coast Guard cadets, and adults, the fine art of forging molten metal. “Its important we maintain this trade here. We have old buildings and old ships and we are not going to West Marine or Home Depot to buy what we need, so it’s a matter of making it. We need to preserve the craft so we can maintain our vessels to the same high standards they have been maintained to,” says Scheer.

Don Treworgy has been teaching celestial navigation at the Seaport’s planetarium for the past 46 years. They offer daily programs to acquaint visitors with the current evening sky, and help them learn how mariners used the stars for navigation. They also take students to the park to view the planets through telescopes, and offer classes in celestial navigation, which is still important today even with the advent of GPS. While many maritime skills have changed over the years, celestial has changed very little. “I have talked to people off 22 different yachts who were going to Bermuda or Europe and were hit by lightning. They lost every single piece of electronic equipment. To make it worse, lightning induces a magnetic field that affects the compass, but you still use the sun and stars to figure out the compass error,” says Treworgy.

With over 2 million people passing through the planetarium’s doors, many of Treworgy’s students have gone on to circumnavigate the globe. “I had a student who was in the Gulf of Mexico and he came up on deck and saw the Southern Cross over the stern. Five minutes later it was over the side of the ship. That meant only one thing. That in 5 minutes the boat turned 90 degrees. He knew they were heading right for the beach because he had looked at the chart before coming on deck. He ran up to the wheel and found the student steering had fallen asleep and inadvertently pulled the wheel down. That causal knowledge of the sky adverted disaster. The wise navigator never puts complete trust in any one thing be it celestial, GPS, Loran. He compares them all,” says Treworgy.

The strength of Mystic Seaport is its staff, and the dedication and passion these people have for the craft they are working on and the mission of the museum. Everyone here has incredible knowledge of this period and knows how to tell stories that relate to American and the sea, which is what we are all about. The best thing to do when visiting is to find the person in the blue shirt and just ask questions because the experience becomes so much richer,” says Michael O’Farrell, Publicist.

For information on visiting Mystic Seaport, or classes in celestial navigation, boat building, open hearth cooking, blacksmithing and others, or to attend a Lantern Light Tour, log onto www.mysticseaport.org.