In late May Cricket and I will join Graham McKay, Executive Director of Lowell’s Boat Shop, and Douglas Brooks, renown documenter and builder of traditional Japanese boats, in Shelburne Nova Scotia. We will spend the next two weeks working with Milford Buchanan, the last builder of the iconic Shelburne Dory. We will be documenting every step and nuance as Milford passes on the traditions of building this boat–none of which are currently recorded.
The Banks Dory tradition formalized at Lowell’s Boat Shop in the early 1800s for use on the Grand Banks. From there the design spread north to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, with each boatbuilding community adapting slowly to their particular desires and needs. Like Darwin’s finches, many different variations evolved. The Shelburne Dory was known as one of the best, and survives today soley in the mind and hands of Milford Buchanan, who still builds them in the old J.C. Williams Dory Shop, now operating as the Dory Shop Museum on the waterfront. As of now Milford has no apprentice, so the tradition hangs in the balance. Contemplating the next move:
Here is the shop around the turn of the last century.
The shop as it appears today. I helped build the dory in this image in 2019 when I was working on a story about Milford for WoodenBoat Magazine (click here to read the story)
The Shelburne tradition began in the mid-1800s when Isaac Crowell made the pilgrimage to Lowell’s Boat Shop to learn the design and methods. The number of folks the traditions were passed down through to Milford Buchanan can be counted on one hand. Here’s Milford fairing the floor to the frames, using the same ancient fairing stick he was taught with.
This is the cradle, or “horse” that Milford still compresses the dory floors into when building, to get the proper curve. He estimates some 20,000 dories have been birthed in this very horse.
And here we are birthing one more.
When I asked Milford where the plans and techniques were recorded he pointed to his noggin and said, “It’s all right here, in Milford’s head.”
When I told Graham and Douglas this story they both registered urgency and we began to plan this spring’s mission. The end result , we hope, will be published in book form. We began fundraising last fall, but still don’t have enough to cover the travel and lodging expenses. So we are reaching our to fellow boat enthusiasts to pitch a bit in and help us do this important work. If you are an Instagram user you can go to Dory Heritage Project and give us a hand. If not, here is a LINK to Lowell’s Boat Shop, where you can donate directly to the Dory Heritage Project. Or if you are old school, you can send a check, cash, or bullion to
Dory Heritage Project
c/o Lowell’s Boat Shop
459 Main Street
Amesbury, Massachusetts 01913
Graham McKay, Executive Director of Lowell’s Boat Shop, birthplace of the Banks Dory tradition. A Story about Graham HERE
Douglas Brooks, Boatbuilder, documenter, and expert on traditional Japanese wooden boats. HERE is his website. His book is to die for. Get it.
Cricket Rust, my amazing apprentice and shop boss at Fretwater Boatworks. Here she is documenting our shop madness. She is currently working on a book detailing our methods of building western River Dories.
And me, in Shelburne last summer with the local brew.
A couple links of Cricket and me at work and play:
Teaching at Lowell’s Boat Shop
Also–if you need a dory, let us know and we’ll work it out with Milford.
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