A treasure hidden in plain sight
by Jerico Pena
When John Winthrop and his fellow Puritans set sail for America in 1630, they began their journey to create what Francis Bremer called their “godly kingdom.” Determined to succeed, they quickly found ways to take advantage of the resources at their disposal. With land unfit for agriculture, they relied on trade with Indian tribes for capital. Essential goods were then purchased from England, and so began a steady trade partnership with the mother country. For the Puritans, personal success elevated their spirituality, and thus there was a strong entrepreneurial spirit throughout the colony. With sugar a highly-prized commodity, New Englander’s made use of their most abundant natural resource, cod fish, to become an integral part of the sugar trade
Sugar plantations were run with slave labor, and plantation owners interested in profits were always looking for ways to maximize production. New England salted cod quickly became the staple food for the slaves. With salted cod now a commodity, plantation owners used the fish as the primary food staple. With slaves freed from the burden of planting and harvesting their own food supply, plantation owners began to increase production. Cod became the foundation of the sugar trade. And with demand for sugar only increasing, the cod industry had to keep pace.
With a seemingly insatiable demand for cod, the New England fishing industry opened up. Yet the cod windfall extended far beyond the wealthy merchants who controlled the trade. It prompted a steady stream of new arrivals from England and beyond, eager to find employment and establish themselves in New England. A fishing economy sprang up, with boat building as the critical link the in chain. It is with this back drop that we explore America’s oldest continuously operating boat shop, Lowell’s Boat Shop. Now a National Historic Landmark, Lowell’s Boat Shop has been there since the boom and bust of the cod trade through to today.
Established in 1793 by Simeon Lowell, the shop was located on Edumnds Lot in Amesbury, directly on the banks of the Merrimac river. With the river’s strong 3-knot current, Lowell knew that a good rowing boat was required. He designed a new “wherry,” with round sides, a flat bottom, and a high double-ended shape. It was lightweight, easy to handle, and extraordinarily good in surf. It became widely used and known for its dependability.
[PICTURE OF THE MERRIMACK RIVER TAKEN FROM THE BOAT SHOP’S DOCK FACING INLAND]
The Swampscott dory closely resembles the design of the original Surf dory.
As the shop continued through time and generations, adaptation and innovation became its hallmark. Simeon’s son Hiram Lowell came to be considered a pioneer in the production of American dories, a name that, like the boats themselves, evolved from the original “wherry.” Hiram developed a straight and high-sided dory which came to be known as the Banks Dory. The Banks Dory increased stability in rough waters, increased the amount of weight the boat could carry, and the straight sides allowed the boat to be stacked. This innovation produced bigger hauls and dramatically increased production.
Hiram’s innovation did not end with the design. As a skilled craftsman and entrepreneur, he streamlined manufacturing to dramatically increase production. He also introduced efficiency into his own production. Aware of the heavy wear and tear that fishing boats received, he designed his boats maximum dependable use, but he also had production in mind. Boats were built using only wood and nails. By not using glue, he was able to build boats faster and build more of them. Boats were lightweight, stable, reliable, and most importantly affordable. The boats were designed to last two years of use and then to be replaced. This design ensured that New England fleets had dependable dories out at sea, and that the boat shop continued to thrive and support not only the Lowell’s, but also the extended industries that supplied materials for manufacturing.
[BANKS DORRY BEING CONSTRUCTED SHOWING THE FLAT BOTTOM]
[BANKS DORY BEING CONSTRUCTED SHOWING WIDE SLOPING SIDES]
Lowell’s boats were not only built for fishing. Their stability and reliability made them ideal for other applications. The U.S. Life Saving Service, forerunner to the Coast Guard, used the straight, high-sided dories in their fleet for almost a hundred years. They also became the vessel of choice for recreational use on the water, being trusted for rowing clubs and Boys and Girl Scouts.
[NEARLY FINISHED RECREATIONAL DORY]
As advances in technology and materials became widespread, wooden boats were replaced with new materials that required less maintenance and did not need to be replaced with such frequency. But the boat shop continued building the iconic boats, even if only for a dwindling audience. When the shop was handed down to Ralph Lowell, a descendent of Simeon’s, he sold it to Malcom “Jim” Odell and his wife Marjorie. The Odell’s turn the shop into a National Historic Site and Museum in 1990.
The boat shop’s legacy extends beyond its boats. Its effects can be felt from the Caribbean, to the shores of Gloucester, and back to its own dock on the Merrimac river in Amesbury. I have passed the shop countless times since I moved to Amesbury and was amazed at what I found inside. This is but one of many examples of historical treasures that are worth visiting and often hidden in plain sight.