Step back in time at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum (CBMM) this summer, where history is coming to life through the construction of Mr. Dickie a remake of a traditional Chesapeake Bay “buyboat.” In the early 20th century, buyboats like Mr. Dickie, were a common sight in the waters of the Chesapeake as they transported oysters, crabs, and fish from local independent watermen to market. During the offseason, these versatile boats could be found hauling freight, lumber, livestock, etc. Today, fewer than 40 original buyboats remain.
The project, started in October last year, draws considerable interest from visitors who have watched CBMM shipwrights employ traditional techniques to construct the 36-foot wooden boat. Reclaimed timbers repurposed from commercial buildings and powerline poles provide the boat’s bottom and side planking. Leftover white oak from previous museum projects adds a touch of Chesapeake shipyard tradition.
Honoring the bay’s maritime past is a huge part of why Mr. Dickie is being built, and it’s all thanks to the vision of Grigg Mullen, a retired engineering professor currently living in Lexington, VA. The inspiration for the boat goes back to time spent on the Chesapeake’s Eastern Shore in the late 1950s and fond memories that include neighbors Sue and Dickie Whaley and their two children. Mullen recalls Mr. Dickie taking him crabbing and fishing during what he describes as “the best two years of my childhood.”
Within a few short years, the Mullen family moved from the area. Grigg became interested in woodworking, raised his own children, and pursued a career as a college professor. Yet nostalgia for the Chesapeake stayed with him. “Eventually,” he said, “I reached the point where I thought I had the time, skills, and resources to build a boat.” In 2012, he successfully completed his first vessel, a 25-foot Draketail—Miss Sue—named after former neighbor Sue Whaley.
Having caught the boat-building bug, Mullen considered building a large enough boat to sleep on. After research Mullen acquired plans for a 60-foot buyboat. He scaled it down to a more manageable 36 feet, sought advice from experts, and began the process of building the boat named Mr. Dickie at his home in Lexington, VA.
It was around that time that Mullen was teaching a workshop on timber framing at CBMM, something he had done over the years. CBMM happened to be promoting the opportunity for individuals to have their boats built by the museum. Recognizing the educational value of the project, Mullen knew what to do. He explains, “I taught engineering for 20 years. I’m a retired educator, and the idea that we could make the project educational for apprentices, shipwrights, and the public was perfect.”
Christian Cabral, VP of Shipyard Operations, couldn’t agree more. CBMM offers a range of programs that focus on education and skill development, including formal apprenticeships, apprentice-for-a-day experiences, skill demonstrations, and project participation. “If it’s built here, it serves a greater purpose. The vessels we work on might be historical artifacts, but the shipwrights themselves are not, and building a new vessel with traditional means is contributing to something that is not dead nor declining.”
By bringing this project to CBMM, Cabral believes Mullen provides invaluable experience to the shipwrights involved, shaping their careers and ensuring the continuation of the time-honored craft. “We’ve been given the opportunity to produce something that is the continuation of a very long lineage,” he says, “and that is quite meaningful both for an operation like ours and for the industry as a whole.”
It helps that Mullen is entirely on board with perspective. For example, he intervened when a launch date was set for the end of June. “The conversation was either we divert all the experienced boatwrights to the boat and finish at some scheduled time,” said Mullen, “or we keep going like we were and use that time to educate. There was no question to me which way we should go.” He takes great satisfaction in witnessing the apprentices learn—as he has—from the experience, knowing that the educational goals he set out to accomplish are being achieved.
Now that the construction is being handled at CBMM, the day-to-day operations are in the hands of Jeff Reid, shipyard foreman. “We’re building it like they would have in the 1940s,” says Reid. For him, the most intriguing aspect of the project lies in the engineering and custom-building process. “Each piece,” he says, “must be meticulously shaped and crafted, including the custom-built engine.” But the best thing, he says, is that “this whole thing is a story about Grigg, and we get to be part of the story.”
As the production of Mr. Dickie progresses, Mullen frequently visits the Eastern Shore, sourcing material, taking part in the building process, and ensuring not to miss any milestones. So far, they have completed the bottom planking, flipped the boat right side up (a nod to traditional boat-building), and built the hull and deck. The installation of the engine and the addition of the full-length plank are the eagerly anticipated upcoming milestones. Reid explains that boatbuilders often have a tradition called the “whiskey plank,” which refers to the last plank installed on the boat. Reid adds, “So we might have a round of whiskey to celebrate.”
Included in that celebration, most probably, will be the Whaley family. Although both boat namesakes, Miss Sue and Mr. Dickie, have passed away, their daughters, Susan and Anne, continue to visit the museum, observe the progress, and join the 5-6 people involved in the construction. There is agreement that things are coming together. “In the last month of work, Mullen said, “it’s been kind of like magic happened. The boat’s starting to take shape, it looks like a boat, and it’s going to be a very pretty boat.”
By the end of October, plans are to have Mr. Dickie gliding on the water, heading to the Sultana Downrigging Festival in Chestertown. After that, Mr. Dickie will probably return to CBMM, and Mullen imagines he’ll come back to ‘play occasionally.’
But everyone associated with this project knows that the purpose of Mr. Dickie will extend beyond recreational use. It will also be significant to CBMM’s goals for the community. Cabral believes that offering historically contextualized tools, such as Mr. Dickie, not only allows for pleasure and recreation but also opens up avenues for education and various other experiences. He describes it as a “home run.”
In the meantime, don’t miss the opportunity to visit CBMM, explore the construction site, witness the boat’s transformation, and speak to Mullen, Reid, and all involved in the craftsmanship of Mr. Dickie. You may even want to pick up a hammer, some nails, or a drill and lend a hand. Whatever the reason for being there, take a moment to appreciate that you are stepping back in time and experiencing the legacy of a bygone era while engaging with a living testament to Chesapeake Bay’s rich maritime heritage.
For more information about CBMM, visit: https://cbmm.org