It is a real pleasure to lead a behind-the-scenes tour amongst our impressive collection of canoes, kayaks and other bits and pieces. Sometimes, as we are wrapping things up and turn to look back across a warehouse of over 500 boats from around the world, I’ve been asked the unexpected question, “how long will it take to restore them all?”
Now I’m not intending to know how often this question might be put to other museums at a similar moment but I suspect it is rather less common. The inference here might that many of our old boats look a little rough. Indeed, most do lack the shiny, over-glossed appeal of a restored classic boat and perhaps there is something about an old wooden canoe with alligatored varnish, missing some of its paint, canvas or planking that screams for our attention. Maybe it just looks like another chore needed doing at the cottage, but ramped up several hundred times.
Like most museums, our goal is largely to protect, stabilize and conserve our artifacts. Evidence of age, wear and tear or modifications to any artifact can be precious: they often carry important meaning for our understanding and interpretation of these objects. However, while most of our collection will always be kept in “as is” condition, protected and stabilized for posterity, we do undertake a significant restoration from time to time.
A little while ago, we were donated a lovely old canvas-covered canoe, an 18-foot “H.W.” model by the Old Town Canoe Company, furnished also with a basic factory sailing rig. The donors, Gord and Joan Miller, knew enough of the history of the 90 year-old canoe to share that it had likely been paddled in the saltwater of Sheepshead Bay, NY in the 20s and 30s before it was acquired and brought north to Canada by his late neighbours, a teaching couple from Ithaca who tented and later cottaged on Sharbot Lake, ON. Gord had been given the canoe in the ‘70s, gave it a sympathetic fix-up and continued to paddle and sail it on the lake.
From the outset, it was our intention to provide the canoe with a complete overhaul and add her to our growing fleet of watercraft designated appropriate for use on water but the canoe has sat, awaiting a champion, for three years.
This spring I received a most unusual call from an acquaintance, canoe builder Ed Campbell of Campbell Canoes and Boats (Salmon Arm, BC), saying that he would be coming east for several months and wondered if I could work him into any projects while here. For 30 years, Ed had owned a successful log home construction business before turning to boats. He is a versatile woodworker, sympathetic to the integrity and engineering of these artifacts and also great with people. What a gift!
After a few weeks with us, working in the Living Traditions Workshop from Wednesday to Friday, the canoe is well underway. Under Ed’s capable hands, the canoe is now receiving a run of new ribs in one end, steamed and formed to fit carefully underneath the forward stempiece, as well as some new planking, mahogany decks, and repairs to the stems and gunwales to name a few of the stages. The fact that the canoe spent much of its youth in saltwater off Brooklyn, NY is also betrayed by the corrosion and decay of the copper canoe tacks clinched into the framing so we’ll likely add refastening to the list.
A canoe undone for a restoration is also an inspiring sight that holds promise. Come down to the Museum this fall, meet the friendly new face in our shop and see this American girl be brought back to glory.