Boothbay’s shipbuilding history may sail into present day

Jon Dunsford sparks community effort to build 20 miniature schooners from region’s past
Fri, 12/28/2018 - 8:45am

From 1860 to 1930, schooners ruled the seas. Schooners were the fastest and most reliable means of transporting cargo whether it was sailing in the Pacific Ocean or along the Great Lakes.  And some of the best were built right here in Lincoln County. Jon Dunsford began loving and studying these historic vessels as a young boy growing up in Connecticut.

His passion for these great vessels grew during summers, when he would spend two weeks in the Boothbay region. Dunsford, 71, is retired and lives permanently in Boothbay Harbor. He now spends endless hours building and racing models of boats like the ones he admired as a youth.  He researches these historic vessels’ histories for his hobby. Besides modeling, Dunsford enthusiastically blogs and  lectures about modeling and historic shipbuilding practices. 

In 2014, Dunsford had an epiphany. He wanted to celebrate the legacy of Boothbay’s boatbuilding by creating model boats of 20 renowned schooners built in Lincoln County. But four years ago, it remained a thought. He realized the project’s major hurdle was space.

“When you drive down Route 27 to Boothbay and think about the area’s history, you should know boatbuilding is a major part of that. I think this will celebrate that legacy, but also keep it alive through learning about the methods used to build these great ships,” he said. “But where do you store models with a 4- to 5-foot diorama? There wasn’t any place to store a project of this size.”

In 2018, he found a solution. Mark and Dianne Gimbel announced plans to convert their Mountain Tops T-shirts business in Boothbay Harbor into Windjammer Museum and Gifts. The Gimbels envisioned turning their 38-year-old T-shirt shop into a place which celebrated the region’s maritime heritage.

Dunsford discussed his plans for celebrating the Boothbay region’s historic schooners at the Gimbel’s Windjammer Emporium and using the space for lectures about boatbuilding and other maritime topics. At the time, Dunsford had already begun work on one of the region’s most famous schooners, the Bowdoin, built in East Boothbay in 1921 by the Hodgdon Brothers. The schooner was specially designed for Arctic travel and made 29 North Pole trips.

“I talked to (Mark) and showed him a model of the Bowdoin and plans for a 4- to 5-foot diorama of four-masted schooners. I also explained my plans for celebrating the history of the great schooners, like the Bowdoin and others built here,” he said.

But creating 20 model schooners is a lot of work. Dunsford plans to enlist community members and seek help from the region’s other model boat builders, Boothbay Region Historical Society and local high school students.  “This is a big project and needs lots of participation. So there are many ways community members can contribute,” he said.

In creating his model boats, Dunsford uses extensive research to make them as authentic as possible. For him, it’s a lot more than just assembling the parts provided in a kit. In his blog, he receives feedback from other maritime enthusiasts sharing their knowledge about these historic ships.

In building his Bowdoin model, he is using more than photographs and books in his research. He is also using his eyes. Dunsford visited the schooner last month in Boothbay Harbor as it was undergoing repairs at Bristol Marine.

“I just love researching and finding things about the ships. I can look at photographs of the rigging and see the rigging lines are galvanized or the kit has three rings when pictures actually show four.  I want it as accurate as possible.”

Dunsford’s goal is more than celebrating the past schooners’ heritage. He wants to preserve the knowledge of past boatbuilders as an education tool on how these great boats harnessed the wind to sail the world’s great oceans.