Waves from the past keep museums afloat in Bath, Maine

BATH produced its first ship in 1607, 13 years before the Pilgrims had set so much as a toe on Plymouth Rock. It was no rowboat, either -- but a 30-tonner to take its builders back across the gray Atlantic to Mother England. After the American Revolution, Bath and surrounding towns started to enlarge considerably upon this promising beginning. By the 1880s, its waterfront rang with the hammering of 20 shipyards. ``It was almost like a shopping center for boats,'' a historian said.

In addition to timber and nautical know-how, Bath had an almost made-to-order shoreline for shipbuilding. Ships could be built on its gradual slope and then slid directly into the Kennebec River, here a comfortable 18 feet deep.

The shipowners and shipbuilders traded with people all over the world, making their little town quite a cosmopolitan place. The skipper's long-suffering wife might have a china tableware service and a beaded shawl from England, plus a sandalwood fan from China; her husband, when home, would have strange tales of mutinies, storms, and exotic ports.

But at the turn of the century, a decline set in. People started to send their goods by land, and to buy their ships abroad. By the 1920s, Bath Iron Works was the only shipyard left. And by the 1960s, Bath had gone through some shabby times. Some of the proud old white clapboard houses suffered asbestos siding and other indignities.

But for the town, the '60s were also a time of renewal. Bath Iron Works got a Navy contract and became a major employer. Realizing that they were losing their past, the citizens of the town started the Maine Research Society of Bath in a storefront in 1962.

The society eventually became the Maine Maritime Museum, and it has long since moved out of the storefront and into several sites around the city. Now you can visit the museum's Percy & Small shipyard, where you can watch a ship in the process of being built. You can study modern marine art in a charming old church. And you can explore Sewall House and its contents of old paintings, ships' instruments, dioramas of shipyards, ships' models, and other memorabilia.

The exhibits at Sewall House are built around three of the 10 shipbuilding families of Bath -- the Sewalls, the Houghtons, and the Skolfields. Shipbuilding here was a family affair: Of the 121 male Skolfields that spanned four generations from the 1840s through the 1920s, 40 were mariners, with no fewer than 29 captains among them.

All the ships exhibited at Sewall House have dramatic stories behind them. A handsome portrait of the William P. Frye plying the waves is accompanied by photos of its sinking by the Germans in World War I. Another ship, the Bohemia, which spent 70 years in the grain trade rounding Cape Horn from Atlantic ports to San Francisco, finished her years in the here-today, gone-tomorrow world of Hollywood. In 1927, she was in her glory in the title role of Cecil B. De Mille's ``Yankee Clipper,'' but in 1931 she

came to an ignominious end, sunk for a movie called ``Suicide Fleet.''

The Bohemia is represented here by a half hull, which is just what it sounds like -- a wooden scale model of half the hull of a ship. Half hulls are ornamental -- they seem to cry out for a fireplace beneath them -- but their use was strictly practical: to design a ship's hull. The old ships' carpenters would carve a piece of wood to the lines they wanted; then they would saw the model horizontally and trace the pieces on paper to make a blueprint.

At 70 years old, the Bohemia was a Methuselah among ships. According to museum spokesman Denis Thoet, most owners planned for a 13-year life span, although 25 years was average among ships that didn't sink. ``Ships are really consumables; they don't last that long,'' Mr. Thoet explains.

``The skippers were family people and they were seasoned. The crews were seasoned. But a number of people went off on a maiden voyage and never came back. . . . [It's] all in the files here.''

The top floor of Sewall House is dedicated to the Houghtons and the Sewalls; the Skolfields are downstairs. Feminists should appreciate the large portrait of Capt. James Skolfield and his wife, Ella. The strong-minded Mrs. Skolfield accompanied the captain on more than 20 voyages. In 1895, during a mutiny, she came on deck with a revolver and faced down the rebellious sailors herself. Here, she sits in a shiny black Victorian dress, one hand on her hip, wearing on her round face the forceful yet thought ful expression of a woman of character.

The exhibit on whaling -- an occupation long associated with New England mariners -- is very abbreviated. There were few whaling ventures out of Maine,'' Mr. Thoet explains. ``These people understood trade.

``They'd sell Kennebec River ice in the Caribbean, then trade in Europe, and just keep on going. You'd just keep trading up until you had made your fortune or your ship sank. It was gambling, with a very high degree of skill,'' he says.

The closest a visitor can get to the history of Bath is in the museum, but there are still people around here who can feel the tide in their bones and whose memories stretch far back. ``You can talk to people that go back to the '20s, and they have stories that go back to the 1890s,'' says Mr. Thoet.

Down the street from Sewall House is another museum site, the Winter Street Center, a former seamen's church, which displays modern marine paintings as well as the tourist trinkets that caught some 19th-century seafarer's fancy.

But the showplace of the Maritime Musuem is the Percy & Small shipyard, the last surviving 19th-century shipyard in the United States, and also the last one where large wooden sailing ships were once built. Now, wooden ships are being built here again as part of the museum's ``Apprenticeshop'' program, in which young boatbuilders get hands-on training while visitors watch.

Percy and Small's original buildings, now nicely weatherbeaten, are still standing. They contain a pleasant variety of shops and exhibits. In the joiner's shop, all sorts of early tools are displayed, with the instruments for different aspects of ship building -- caulking, sailmaking, rigging, and so on.

Housed in another building is the huge, pocked-brown skeleton of the Seguin, the oldest registered wooden steam tug in the US, now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Yet another contains the museum's small-craft collection. The day I visited, one of the apprentices was showing a tour group of junior high school kids a small boat he had built himself.

The Sherman Zwicker, a 142-foot Grand Banks fishing schooner which visitors can explore, wasn't available during my visit, nor was the ride on the MV Diringo, which gives you, says Mr. Thoet, a terrific view of what's doing at Bath Iron Works. (Both the Zwicker and the Diringo are now available.)

But the Apprenticeshop was going strong. Under a protective plastic cover, instructors Will Ansel and Greg Rossel and crew were hard at work fashioning a 1830s-style Pinkie cargo and fishing vessel.

The Pinkie has a chubby grace. ``She's a perky little boat,'' says Mr. Ansel. Her design is actually more typical of the 17th century -- ``full forward and fine aft,'' as the expression goes. By the 19th century, the clipper idea -- ``fine entry'' -- was more in vogue, so the Pinkie would have been an anachronism in her day.

It's obvious from the hard work going on here that the Maine Maritime Museum is not only concerned with the preservation of boats, but also with the preservation of boat-building skills.

``There is an awful tendency for the instructor to do the tougher stuff,'' says Mr. Rossel. ``Here, the kids do it. And if it's wrong they have to fix it.'' Practical information

The Maine Maritime Museum is open seven days a week year round. During the summer season, May 25 to Oct. 20, all sites are open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Winter hours: Monday through Saturday 10-3; Sunday and holidays 1-4, Sewall House only. Tickets are $4.50 for adults, $2 for children ages 6-15.

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