Life on West River traced from dugouts to yachts Exhibit depicts 400 years of boat building


For 400 years, skilled craftsmen have made boats to travel the West River in southern Anne Arundel County -- from Native Americans who carved canoes out of massive tree trunks using stone tools and fire to boatbuilders using power tools to make fiberglass yachts.

Now, an exhibit at the Captain Salem Avery House in Shady Side celebrates the heritage of boat building along the West River.

The small exhibit, drawn from a variety of sources, includes a hand-carved wooden canoe; artifacts from the 18th-century Steward's Shipyard; a model used by Maryland boatbuilder Charles Edward Leatherbury, who designed working and pleasure boats at the turn of the century; and an oyster boat from the 1930s.

"Boat building is an important part of our river history," said Mavis Daly, co-president of the Shady Side Rural Heritage Society, which operates the Captain Salem Avery House. The museum opened last year and features rotating exhibits on local maritime history.

The boat building exhibit was researched and designed by Therese "T. C." Magnotti and Barbara Owings, both of Shady Side.

Mrs. Magnotti said her husband thought of the idea a year ago, and she and Ms. Owings began collecting artifacts in February.

They looked for items to illustrate boat building in different periods. The canoe, which represents the earliest type of boat, was carved by hand from a single tulip poplar by a local craftsmen. The exhibit also includes arrowheads and stone axes carved thousands of years ago.

The next period represented is boat building in the 18th century at Steward's Shipyard, the site of the only Revolutionary War battle in Anne Arundel. The remains of that shipyard, which was destroyed by the British, were rediscovered two years ago in a place now called Norman's Retreat.

Artifacts from the site on display include iron scraps from ships, nails, a button and pieces of a clay pipe. They are a remnant of what was once a thriving boatyard that contained homes, a blacksmith's shop, a carpentry shop and other buildings.

The Edna Florence, an oyster boat from the 1930s, lies under an unfinished storage shed outside the museum. The classic wooden boat is a registered historic landmark.

Modern boat building is represented in sketches of Chesapeake 20s, sailboats still built on the West River.

Mrs. Magnotti admits that she is not an expert on boat building, but said she has learned as they assembled the collection.

Like many members of the society, Mrs. Magnotti is not a Maryland native, but moved to the area after retirement and became immersed in Shady Side's history.

"Here you are at the end of the road in a tiny place, but it has a history that is quite substantial," she said. "Annapolis may have large, grand homes, but we feel that this is where the real people lived."

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