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For a quarter century, the people of Shelburne, Nova Scotia and visitors to the town walked by an odd-looking building on the waterfront. Tourists took its picture. Slowly, many residents forgot its history and purpose. It’s a three-storey wooden structure built into a hill on one side and precariously balanced on posts and stacks of stone on the other. Wide doors and hatches in odd places remained shut. Its cedar shake roof wore away until patches of roofing boards lay exposed.

Then, a few years back, residents with a keen interest in history and memories from the days when the building was still buzzing decided to do something before it was lost. They knew the building as the Muir-Cox Shipyard Saw and Planing Mill. It all started when retired commercial millwright Mike Hartigan realized that if the roof wasn’t replaced immediately, the building would soon collapse on its historic contents. He convinced the town of Shelburne, the current owner, to replace the roof.

That work caught the eye and imagination of resident Bob Sinden, who pulled together a loose group of eight friends, each with unique talents to offer. They call themselves Friends of the Mill. From the beginning, Sinden believed that saving the building was too low a bar. He wanted the community, the town and the Friends to set a goal of bringing it back to life.

“This is an innovative group,” says Hartigan, who serves as the liaison between the Friends and the town. “Everybody cooperates and we find low tech ways to make things happen.” Friends of the Mill took two months to clean out two truckloads of junk. Occasionally they open the mill’s doors and windows so visitors can peer inside. Hartigan and historian Lewis Jackson created interpretive signs. In exchange, the town offers a small budget to address immediate needs and is going after larger grants to fund the necessary work. It thrills these guys to see the mill open again after so long, even if in a limited way. Hartigan says that when the system of shafts, wheels and belts are rumbling beneath the building, “It’s like she’s alive.”

The Mill

As Hartigan shows me around, he says much of the mill looks like it did when it closed. “As far as we know,” he says, “this is the last fully intact traditional shipyard mill left in Nova Scotia.”

Hartigan is dressed in overalls, a white shirt and an engineer’s hat because that was the uniform of the day. “They were proud to work here.” We start our tour on the middle of the three floors where logs began their journey through the mill from rough lumber to finished shipbuilding parts, the process that categorizes this as a “through mill.” Hartigan pulls up a big door like a drawbridge and points out a long platform with wooden rollers.

“This log carriage shoots back and forth on the rail,” he says, pointing to iron tracks on the ground, nearly buried now with years of growth. “They were capable of carrying up to 44-foot logs to rip into boat planks.” Logs were fed into a 48-inch saw blade, one of which is still in place. Two more lean against the wall, untouched in the wooden packing crates used to ship them by train for sharpening. 

From the sawing shed, we enter the larger planing floor to find heavy duty original machinery like planers, a jointer, saw table and lathe. “It all works,” he says. The building and machinery have quirks like jury-rigged switches that Hartigan says are signs of “the hand of Cox,” referring to Bill Cox, Shelburne’s last master shipbuilder, who recently turned 100; a man Hartigan, the Friends and apparently the entire town hold in high regard.   

Up a set of steep stairs, we come to the moulding loft, a long, low room beneath the peaked roof with windows flush to the floor to provide natural light for the work done here. Long sheets of paper are still tacked to the floor. When I sweep away the dust, I find undecipherable lines and numbers, possibly made by Bill Cox himself. Hartigan says we’re looking at “the lofts” or boatbuilding plans. From these, a half model and wooden templates called moulds would be constructed to guide the construction of the ship.

We descend to the cellar. When we peer into the gloom, I see a set of line shafts linked to a main drive shaft, all of them fitted with wooden cogs of different sizes and linked by canvas belts of various widths. Hartigan explains that the workers could hook and unhook belts as they needed to run one machine or another.

“A 40-horsepower General Electric motor has been here since 1916, when power came to Shelburne,” says Hartigan, pointing into a dark corner where the motor stands against the hand-cut granite foundation. “Before that, a 10-horsepower steam engine was running the mill.” The foundation looks as straight and plumb as the day it was built.

The Friends

The Friends of the Mill are hanging out one day when I drop by. Some are helping prepare a long plank for the J.C. Williams Dory Shop, now the Dory Shop Museum, up the street. When I ask each why they joined Bob Sinden’s group, retired teacher Wayne Blinkhorn pipes up. “If we don’t restore this lovely building, we could lose a gem.”

Pat Delaney, retired NSLC manager, agrees. “It’s going to deteriorate. It’s part of our history. There’s no reason to leave it closed up.”

“When we came down and opened the doors, I was just fascinated,” adds town councillor Harold Locke. “It was just like the day they locked the doors and closed it down.”

At first glance, it’s true that the mill hasn’t changed since it closed, but the volunteer electrician in the group, Phil Seaboyer, says when Hollywood came to town to film The Scarlet Letter in 1994, the mill’s electrical supply was changed, leaving it short for the running of the machinery. One of his roles with the Friends is to solve this problem. “Some people have mechanical abilities, some marketing abilities, some can clean machinery,” says Seaboyer. “There’s a lot of talent in the group, but there was no electrician. I haven’t been fired yet.”

When Mike Hartigan and I sit down later to dig further into his role, he produces a binder he handles like a rare manuscript, which, it turns out, it is. Inside are reproductions of old photos from this mill, another now long since demolished, and several of the shipyards that once lined this waterfront. Then he shows me the sketches he made on this very spot four decades earlier.

“I have an intimate relationship with the mill for two reasons,” says Hartigan. One is that for the past six years, he’s volunteered at the Dory Shop, which gets its planed planks from the mill. “The other goes back to 1979.” Hartigan was born in Halifax in 1950 and raised in Cape Breton until the age of twelve when his family moved to Calgary, where he lived until retirement. Two of his mother’s brothers ran the Swim Brothers fish plant in Lockeport, the next town east of Shelburne. “I spent until 1963 a good portion of my summers in Lockeport.” That’s how Hartigan fell in love with ships.

“I was a regular wharf rat. I loved the fishing vessels. I used to terrorize the fish plant, particularly the carpentry shop, making model boats.” In 1979, he returned to show his wife Brenda around the Shelburne area. While here, he hung out at the mill. “I’m a boat nut and I’ve always been involved with wood.” With permission from Bill Cox, Hartigan made sketches of the boatyard, the mill, ships under construction and a beautifully detailed sketch of a full dory.

As he sketched, he marveled at the skill of the workers. “There was an old gentleman in pin-striped overalls, engineer’s hat and bright white shirt, trimming a thick piece of red oak. He was shaving along with the adze and I swear if you’d taken sandpaper to it, you would have roughed it up.”

Watch a master Dory builder at his craft

The Dory Shop

These days, the mill is used mostly to supply the Dory Shop where master dory builder, Milford Buchanan, still hand-builds dories. He’s built more than 100 himself and remembers fishing with his father from a dory as a teenager. “Both my grandfathers did this for a living. My grandfather in West Green Harbour has a dory and schooner carved in his tombstone.” He also remembers helping his father gather natural “knees,” curved pieces of wood used in dory construction that are hewn from the base of a tree and part of its root. They would dig around the base of a tall tree, cutting the small roots and leaving one large one. The wind would soon knock it down. “Sometimes it took a week, but it always went.”

With the help of volunteers Mike Hartigan and Mick Fearn, Buchanan builds one, maybe two dories each summer. They take their time, spreading the work over the tourist season. “They called us the three Ms,” Hartigan tells me. “We now have Patsy Pike volunteering, so we nicknamed her Mabel so we could have the four Ms.” 

One day, I follow Buchanan around while he explains the complex dory building process to a family of four. “This is all passed down from one boat builder to another. There’s nothing written down. It’s all up here.” The family asks if he learned from Sydney Mahaney, the previous master dory builder whose full-sized cardboard cutout greets visitors at the entrance. The display claims he built 10,000 vessels over his lifetime.

Dory shops once lined this waterfront. At this one, seven men turned out one dory in the morning and one in the afternoon, six days a week. From 1880 to 1971, this shop built 50,000 dories. As Hartigan put it, “This was the Ford Motor Company of dory shops.” You could buy one for $18 then. Today, they still sell a few—at $6,600. There’s the Queen of Hearts Dory Club in nearby Barrington and a long line of champion rowers, the latest being Fenton Cunningham and Russell Nickerson of Cape Sable Island.

“They had me build them a racing dory four years ago,” Buchanan tells the visiting family. “They wanted to do the Blackburn Challenge, a 20-mile ocean-going race. These are hard-core rowers. They took their new boat down [to Gloucester, Massachusetts] and won the [Banks Dory Double] race every year for the last four years.”

The stable little flat-bottomed boat with flared sides was built by the thousands, to be stacked and lashed to schooners that fished on the Grand Banks and elsewhere on the north Atlantic. “They had two tubs of trawl a mile long with 500 hooks,” explains Buchanan. “They would wait for two or three hours to start hauling them. In the meantime, they would be hand-lining. When the dory was eight inches out of water, they knew they had 1,000 pounds of fish to take back to the mother ship.” 

A mother ship or part of one just might be the next great challenge for Shelburne, if Mike Hartigan and others at the mill and the Dory Shop have their way. Hartigan says they’ve been dreaming of another display after they achieve a fully operational historic sawmill.

“We discussed making up keel, stem and frame sections for a little schooner. We wouldn’t build it. We would just work away at it and explain it to people, then put it away for the winter.” Hartigan and Friends have just the kind of skill and heart that could fill this waterfront with all the pieces required to tell the full story of the days when Shelburne was a booming shipbuilding town. The mill is the key to unlocking that heritage.


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