Historic Boat Birthday Party

Celebrating Centuries of Our Chesapeake Work Boats

On July 2, 2011, Echo Hill Outdoor School celebrated a milestone in the Maritime History of our Chesapeake Bay work boats: 370 years of working history.

The work boat Twilight turned 100 years old and the skipjack Elsworth turned 110 this year! The presence of two centurions in the same fleet—and still working—is an unprecedented feat.

And so the Echo Hill Outdoor School Boat Birthday Party was held to acknowledge the history and importance of each working boat, and to thank all of those who have helped along the way: shipwrights, welders, marina owners, merchants, USCG Captains, first mates, and volunteers.

It was a grand event with boat tours, children’s activities, locally made food, music performed by the Clipper City Brass Quintet, and plenty of “Made in America” fanfare. The party culminated with a Special Birthday Surprise -- a new air whistle for the buy boat Annie D, fashioned from boat props and shafts from old work boats by local metal artist Jonathan King of Chesapeake Bronze Works. (Be sure to check back as we'll have photos posted once it's installed.)

Thank you to all who joined in our celebration. We look forward to seeing you again - stay tuned for information about Echo Hill Outdoor School's upcoming 40th anniversary in 2012!

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On the Waterfront: A Birthday Party for Workboats
Kathy Bergren Smith
Click here to read article.

Chesapeake Craftsmen
by Mark Bourne for Echo Hill Outdoor School

Keeping old wooden boats in working condition requires careful attention. Once a year they must be hauled out of the water, scraped, painted, polished, greased, and fully inspected. And this is just routine maintenance. Eventually old boats may require engine and transmission work, new sails and lines, a new mast or boom, or even a complete structural overhaul. With the great amount of labor and expense required in keeping old boats afloat, some might wonder if maintaining such crafts is really worthwhile. For Echo Hill Outdoor School and its fleet of historic Chesapeake Bay workboats, the answer is yes, and it couldn’t be done without the knowledge and skill of dedicated local craftsmen.

John Swain, a wooden boat builder with a shop near the headwaters of the Chester, has been “messing around on boats” since he was a boy. His family moved from Delaware to Western New York when he was young and perhaps the undeniable draw of the Delmarva (or memories of a particular derelict bugeye in Still Pond Creek) brought him back for his first professional ship work as an apprentice with Applegarth Boatyard in Oxford, Maryland. After working at Dickerson’s Yachts near Cambridge he started his own business, Swain Boatbuilders. Over the years Swain has worked on projects large and small, building new boats, repairing old boats, and building new boats that look like old boats. The most well known of the later being the Schooner Sultana, a replica of an 18th century English Schooner used to collect taxes in the colonial era.

The Sultana was an idea floating around in Swain’s head as he worked on what turned out to be a very large project for Echo Hill Outdoor School. In 1995 the Skipjack Elsworth, Echo Hill’s historic oystering boat that turns 110 this year, needed major repair. Time and Maryland’s heat and humidity had taken her toll on the Skipjack and investigation revealed that her keel, chines, bottom and side planking, deck beams, deck, deck house and center board trunk required replacement. With such extensive repair one is left to wonder if the Elsworth is the same boat today that she was in 1901. “It might be like grandfather’s axe,” says Swain. “It might have a new head and a new handle, but it’s grandfather’s axe all the same.” Swain continues, “If it comes up from the same spot that you set it down on it still would be considered [the same] boat.”

Nick Biles’ love of boats began as a kid at Echo Hill Camp. He enjoyed sailing and waterskiing and, when he was older, he began working for the Outdoor School. He obtained his Coast Guard license and worked for many years as one of Echo Hill’s captains leading bay studies classes and sailing the Chester River on summer Explore trips. It is the enjoyable obligation of most EHOS staff to maintain the fleet in some way, scraping barnacles, sanding and painting and completing more complex tasks. The captains take on a greater share of this duty and Biles, in the words of John Swain, “has a natural aptitude for it.” Biles has been working for Swain Boatbuilders since he left Echo Hill seven and a half years ago.

Through his work with Swain, Biles has been able to continue working on the Echo Hill boats that he loves. “When I’m working on the Elsworth…I’m thinking, ‘man, this is a hundred and ten year old boat and it’s still doing it, and that’s a different feeling than working on a new boat.” Biles adds, “When you’re taking apart something that is 75-80 years old …the feeling of touching that work that someone else did. It’s a neat connection.”

Steve Cullis, a boat mechanic whose father was a boat mechanic, has been working on Echo Hill’s fleet since the eighties when seasonal maintenance on the school’s fleet was done at the Tolchester Marina. Even after Cullis left Tolchester the quality of his work led EHOS associate director Andrew McCown to seek him out for all of the fleet’s mechanical needs. While McCown was still dredging commercially on the Elsworth Cullis would sometimes perform small maintenance tasks in exchange for fresh dredged oysters. “He knows each one of our boats like the back of his hand.” Says McCown, “Occasionally, he discovers something new about one of our engines that he didn't already know, but it is not too often, because he pretty much knows it all.”

In addition to his mechanical expertise Cullis has keen eye for the natural environment of the Eastern Shore and admits that what keeps him going year after year is “the water’s edge.” “When I get a chance to go to somebody new to me…, a new pier…you go down and you check out the water’s edge…That’s the attraction… you go [work] on the boat and suffer through that“ Cullis grins, “…then on your way back to your van you get to look around again and see a blue heron trying to choke down a bluegill or whatever’s happening…It’s always about the water’s edge.”

Anyone who has experienced the Chesapeake aboard Echo Hill’s boats can appreciate the draw of the water’s edge. The fleet is uniquely equipped to explore the Bay’s intricate interplay of land, water and history. The skilled work of mechanics like Cullis and shipwrights like Swain and Biles continues to make this experience possible.

This year Echo Hill Outdoor School celebrates significant milestones in the age of its fleet: the Elsworth turns 110 and the Twilight 100. The remainder of the school’s fleet reach less ceremonious but no less significant birthdays: the Spirit is 67, the recently rehabbed buy boat Annie D is 54 years old and the humble but sturdy Chester River bateau Ric turns 39.

As the boats continue to provide a living connection to the history and culture of the Chesapeake Bay join Echo Hill Outdoor School in celebrating all the craftsmen and workers who have helped keep the fleet in top condition all these years. The Historic Boat Birthday Party will be held Saturday July 2nd at the foot of High Street in Chestertown, Md., from 4:30 to 6:30 pm. Tour the historic fleet and enjoy food and live music. The event is free and open to the public.

Memories of Echo Hill’s Historic Boats
by Kate Matthews, Echo Hill Outdoor School

Chesapeake work boats of yesteryear ruled the bay harvesting fish, crabs and oysters. Today a wooden work boat is a rarity, a relic from the past.

To Heidi Usilton Anthony, mother of two and teacher at Radcliffe Creek School, the skipjack Elsworth of Echo Hill Outdoor School’s historic fleet is a place alive with memories. When she steps on to the Chestertown wharf, dock lines creaking, muddy river flowing underfoot, she gets “that feeling of home, of something really familiar,” she said.

Heidi recalls the winter season she labored on the Elsworth dredging for oysters with Captain Andrew (Andy) McCown, an Associate Director at Echo Hill Outdoor School. Each morning she awoke at 4 a.m., the sky pitch dark, grabbed a banana and hopped in Captain Andy’s truck. The two of them plus three other crew headed out with the rising sun and worked all day. Mondays and Tuesdays, when they could use the push boat, were “big money days but also ... brutally exhausting,” said Captain Andy.

Oysters spilled on to the deck with little time in between hauls, and the cullers worked feverishly picking out the keepers. Heidi remembers thinking that back in the Chesapeake’s heyday cullers like herself would pick through the catch to throw back the occasional bad oysters, instead of the other way around.
“Everybody was working hard all the time,” said Captain Andy, “because everybody worked for shares of the day’s catch.” Nevertheless, dredging is tough work, and Captain Andy did what he could to keep spirits up and hands dry. He supplied the work gloves and took them home each night to wash and dry. Throughout the day he threw candy bars and Captain’s Wafers cookies at the crew from his spot at the helm. The crew sang a song - lamentable, to be sure - describing their days culling for oysters. “Back breaking, grueling work against a cold grey sky,” was their cry.

The Elsworth, who turns 110 this summer, returned to her original task for eight winter seasons under Captain Andy and his crew. They were some of the last watermen on the bay to dredge under sail power. In the early 1900s thousands of skipjacks worked the bay, and today a mere handful remain.
Heidi, a native of Chestertown, first boarded an Echo Hill work boat on a class trip 30 years ago. She returned to the boats every summer to go crabbing, fishing and sailing as a student until she was old enough to be the Intern.

“I don’t remember the year. I just remember the feeling of being the Intern,” Heidi said, her tanned face and wide eyes smiling broadly. She was later employed as a teacher/naturalist at the outdoor school; it was there she figured out she wanted to be a career Science and Social Studies teacher - an award-winning teacher, at that. “Mrs. Anthony,” to her 7th and 8th grade students, won the Bay Trust Teacher of the Year award in 2009.

“Everything I learned about being a teacher I learned from Andrew [Captain Andy],” she said. Heidi’s students learn by experience and doing hands-on projects. When Heidi teaches about the Industrial Revolution her students build and make things to recreate that time in history.
She tries to bring the concepts and styles of teaching she learned at Echo Hill to her classroom. She speaks of the “sense of community and being aware of the world as a whole” that Echo Hill offers its students and teachers.

For Heidi, Echo Hill also means recalling youthful adventures. She remembers driving in to New York City with Captain Andy to retrieve an order of old elevator cables for the Elsworth. Oystermen reused the cables taken from crumbling buildings for their dredging machines.

“Can you imagine?” she laughs, remembering the two Kent County natives trying to find their way around the big city in a pickup truck.

Back on the Bay Heidi remembers an emergency camp out on the work boat Twilight in the middle of the channel on the Sassafras River. She and Captain Andy were towing a train of small sailboats when one of them sank. It was close to dark, and the Coast Guard said they had to stay with their botched boat until morning. The Twilight, another of the school’s historic bay work boats, turns 100 this summer.

“Those are some of my best memories of Echo Hill,” Heidi said, “those random yet very purposeful missions.” Whether it is to save a sunken boat, dredge up as many oysters as possible in a cold, grey day or teach a group of 5th graders a Bay Studies class, Echo Hill Outdoor School teachers and their fleet of historic work boats continue in their mission of helping people learn about science and ecology, history and human environment, and themselves and each other.

This year the school celebrates a milestone in the maritime history of their Chesapeake work boats: 370 years of working history. The Elsworth turns 110 and the Twilight is 100. The school’s other boats: Spirit (67 years), the buy boat Annie D. (54 years) and the Chester River bateau Ric (39 years), round out the fleet. Heidi, Captain Andy and others from Echo Hill Outdoor School are hosting a party Saturday, July 2, at the foot of High Street in Chestertown, Md., from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. The Historic Boat Birthday Party will offer boat tours, food and live music.

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Celebrating Centuries of Our Chesapeake Work Boats

This year, Echo Hill Outdoor School celebrates a milestone in the Maritime History of our Chesapeake Bay work boats: 370 years of working history. This is a particularly significant birthday for the two eldest of the fleet, the skipjack Elsworth is 110 and the work boat Twilight is 100. The presence of two centurions in the same fleet—and still working—is an unprecedented feat. The workboat Spirit (67 years), the buy boat Annie D. (54 years), and the Chester River bateau Ric (39 years) round out the fleet.

In honor of this historic event, Echo Hill Outdoor School is hosting an “Historic Boat Birthday Party.” The event, which is free and open to the public, will take place at the foot of High Street in Chestertown, MD on Saturday, July 2 from 4:30-6:30 p.m.

“It’s appropriate that this event is taking place on the Fourth of July weekend,” explains Captain Andrew McCown, who has maintained the fleet since 1979. “These boats are living American history. Each one tells a story about when and why they were built. They weren’t built like this anywhere else in the world, and even here they’re not built like this anymore. Our fleet serves as a timeline of wooden Chesapeake work boats of the 20th century. And it’s living history because each one of these boats is still a working vessel.”

It has been 34 years since the acquisition of the Spirit, and Echo Hill Outdoor School is still teaching aboard all of these same vessels. Collectively it adds up to 370 years of boats and 136 years of boat ownership—a great reason to celebrate! They are all workhorses for Echo Hill Outdoor School’s programs.

The Ric and the work boat Spirit were both built by revered Rock Hall boat builder Stanley Vansant. The work boat Twilight, which is a bit larger than the Spirit was built in 1911 on the Potomac River. The Spirit and the Twilight are the true workhorses of Echo Outdoor School’s fleet. They serve as floating laboratories, taking groups of students to explore the ecosystems of both the Chester River and the Chesapeake Bay. Aboard these vessels students catch, fish, crabs, and eels while learning about the human and ecological history of the Bay and its tributaries. Where as the Elsworth, Annie D., and Ric are primarily used in the summer, the Spirit and Twilight operate 10 months of the year, often embarking on two 3-hour trips per day.

The “Historic Boat Birthday Party” will acknowledge the history and importance of each working boat, and will thank all of those who have helped along the way. There are many to thank: shipwrights, welders, marina owners, merchants, USCG Captains, first mates, and volunteers. The Echo Hill Outdoor School Boat Birthday Party will be a grand event with boat tours, food, music performed by the Clipper City Brass Quintet, and plenty of “Made in America” fanfare.

For more information please visit Echo Hill Outdoor School’s website at www.ehos.org.

Andrew McCown
Phone: 410-348-5880
Historic Boat Party Facebook Event Page: http://www.facebook.com/#!/event.php?eid=139118236154473

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Learn more about our Historic Boats!

Event Champions & Sponsors

A heartfelt THANK YOU to the following businesses and individuals who provided monetary support for our celebration:

Against the Grain
Dover Rent-All
Eve’s Cheese
Friends of Echo Hill Outdoor School and the Board of Directors
Haven Harbour Marina
PNC Bank
Sherwin Williams

The following organizations formally acknowledge the historic importance of the Outdoor School's historic boat fleet, and have agreed to endorse and help promote our Historic Boat Birthday Party.

Center for Environment & Society
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
Chesapeake Maritime Museum
C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience
Eastern Shore Land Conservancy
Living Classrooms Foundation
Sultana Projects
The Town of Chestertown