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How We Created the Isles of Shoals Exhibit

John Paul Jones as fishermanHISTORY MATTERS

John Paul Jones has gone fishing for the summer. The life-sized mannequin of the naval hero, the one with the foam body and the molded plastic face, has moved from his ancient bedroom in the John Paul Jones House museum to the Discover Portsmouth Center across the street. His Revolutionary War uniform has been temporarily replaced by the canvas smock and apron of an English fisherman from the 1600s. He now stands behind a crude wooden rack covered with dried codfish. On August 21, when the new exhibit ends, Jones will quit fishing and go back to fighting the Revolution. (Continued below)


The exhibit is called “Under the Isles of Shoals” and it is my debut as a volunteer museum curator. Trust me, I won’t be doing it again soon. The idea hit like a lightning bolt last June. My wife Maryellen and I were sitting at the rickety wooden picnic table in front of the Haley Cottage on Smuttynose Island (the house depicted on the label of Shoals Pale Ale) where we are long-time summer stewards.

We watched as a team of young archaeologists pulled one treasure after another from the matted soil. They had been digging on the two-acre lawn for the last four years under the direction of Prof. Nathan Hamilton from the University of Southern Maine. Nate was sitting at the picnic table too when the lightning hit. I’m a history writer, you see. Maryellen had just been hired as director of Discover Portsmouth. Nate had 250,000 cool artifacts that no one had seen and lots of stories to tell.

“We should do an exhibit!” we said. And we did. It opened last week in the old library building downtown. It’s free to the public and runs daily through August 31.

Shoals exhibit natural history display /

The master plan

Archaeology intrigues me, and the stuff Nate has discovered will forever change the history of the Shoals. But most artifacts are trash – shards of pottery, broken glass, lead bullets, and fragments of clay pipes, bits of animal, fish, and bird bone. How could we make that material exciting to locals and tourists in a large display hall?

In addition to artifacts, Nate has an incredible private collection of intact ceramics, so we added that to the show. He also has stuffed birds – gull, tern, duck, loon – the same birds people were eating at the Shoals hundreds of years ago. We added them to the show too, plus a couple of life-sized codfish. But I wanted more stuff, bigger stuff.

SEE UPDATE: What the dig is teaching us

I sketched a crude diagram of the exhibit right there at the picnic table. We divided the first floor of the exhibit room into five display stations, each representing a different era of time. Then I asked artist Bill Paarlberg, another Smuttynose steward, if he could create an illustration for each time period represented in the show. He agreed. His original drawings are a highlight of the exhibit.

Now we were getting somewhere. I put together a slide show from the photographs Nate and I took on Smuttynose. But I am a kid at heart, and I wanted something extra cool and extra big for each of the five parts of the exhibit.  Here’s what happened.

John Paul Jones plays fisherman at Discover Portsmouth / J D Robinson




Under the Isles of Shoals opening at Discover Portsmouth /

They came by canoe

Nate’s students discovered for the first time that prehistoric Native Americans hunted at the Isles of Shoals as early as 6,000 years ago. The diggers found the arrowheads to prove it. The Indians had to come by canoe, either made of birch bark or hollowed out logs.

“I know a guy named Rob Sanford who has an old birch bark canoe,” Nate said a few months later.

“Can you get it?” I asked.

“I think so,” Nate said. “And we have half of a dugout canoe at the University of Southern Maine.”

“How big are they?” I asked.
“About 12 feet each, “he said.

“Awesome,” I said. It was that simple.

These canoes were not made by prehistoric Indians. One was built around 1900 and the dugout may be 250 years old. But they are big and they make the point that Indians frequented the Shoals even though the history books say they didn’t.

Making flakes and rolling barrels

Under_the_Isles_of_Shoals_CoverHistorian Ray Brighton was right. The first settlers to this region came to fish, not to pray. We have clay pipe fragments dating to the 1620s that prove it. So far 9,500 pipe fragments have been unearthed in just 42 cubic meters of soil. We have fish hooks, fish bones, musket balls and gun flints. The diggers have proven that Smuttynose was a very important fish factory in colonial times. As many as 600 fishermen worked on the Shoals in season. They dried cod on wooden racks and sailed back to get top dollar in an insatiable European market.

I asked Karen Carpenter, a volunteer, if she could build a replica of the “flakes” used to dry cod at the Isles of Shoals.

“I can try,” she said. Karen studied early drawings of colonial fishing factories. She cut fresh saplings and then, with her husband and son, Karen assembled an authentic replica of the drying rack. It made the whole story come alive, but something was missing. So I asked Greg Gathers, the talented actor and costume designer of Pontine, if he could sew a 17th century fisherman’s smock.

“It was probably made of canvas-like material,” I told Greg in an email, ‘and it had a hoodie and a leather apron.”

A week later Greg delivered the outfit, and it was Maryellen who had the idea to draft John Paul Jones into service as a seasonal Shoals fisherman. He stands beside a display of old wooden barrels – the third portion of the exhibit. Historians Peter Lamb and Thom Hindle loaned me a few barrels, but I’m still looking for more. They represent, for me, the first hundred years that European settlers and their families actually lived on the Shoals. The first record of a woman living there is 1642.

Everything used to come in barrels in this age before refrigeration. Liquids were measured in hogsheads (85 gallons), pipes (two hogsheads), and tuns (two pipes.) Shoalers paid their debts in quintals of fish (about 100 pounds).  The Piscataqua was an important exporting site for “staves” used by coopers to make the countless barrels needed for world trade.

Nate Hamilton’s research hints at the possibility that “fish waste,” the byproduct of the fish drying process, may have been transferred in barrels to the West Indies, possibly to make food for enslaved populations. Chemical analysis of redware clay pipes unearthed at Smuttynose indicates that the clay came from tropical locations. Perhaps clay was packed into the same barrels and shipped to South Carolina where the smoking pipes were manufactured. Those same pipes now litter the front lawn of Smuttynose Island where an early tavern once stood.



Weathered skiff in UNder the Shoals exhibit /


The missing skiff

The fourth display in the exhibit depicts nearly a century (circa 1750 to 1839) when the Haley family lived on Smuttynose. Few people except the Haleys lived on the barren Isles during the American Revolution and the War of 1812.  Both Sam Haleys married women named Mary. They had 23 children among them and scraped a living out of the forlorn rocky island. They had a windmill for grinding grain, a bakery, a blacksmith shop, a distillery, a ropewalk, a store, a boat building shop, and a guest house. To recreate that era I borrowed an old anvil, ropes, a block and tackle, old tools, a millstone, fruit trees, and a round-top lobster trap. I also put the word out that I was looking for an wrecked boat to hold all these items in my display. One day a local fisherman pulled up with his truck.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“To pick up your old boat,” he said. “Get in.”

As the story goes, the fisherman had a friend who had loaned an old wooden skiff to a boat builder to keep in storage. The original owner reportedly told the fisherman years ago that, if he wanted the old thing, he could have it, but the boat was too far gone to repair so the boat builder left it outdoors.

It was perfect for my needs. It had just the right silvery sheen of weathered wood. It measured about 14-feet and wasn’t very heavy. It was bolted to an old heavy beam, but the head of the bolt slipped easily between the slats in the weathered frame.  The fisherman and I hauled the boat into the truck. We installed it in the museum and it looked great. The next morning my wife woke me with a shriek.

“Have you seen the morning’s paper?” she said. Being asleep, I had not seen the paper, but she pointed out the headline. Some anonymous thief, it seems, had made off with an antique boat. Phone calls were exchanged, explanations rendered, apologies tendered, and I continue to deny any part in the sordid affair.

Making the replica porch of the 1846 Smuttynose hotel /

The indoor porch

Sam Haley and his family sold Smuttynose, Appledore (formerly Hog), Cedar, and Malaga islands to Portsmouth resident Thomas Laighton in 1839. Laighton tried to make a living on the islands by fishing, raising sheep, selling booze, and growing crops. His ventures were not profitable. He had more success in 1846 when he renovated the Haley’s old hotel dubbed the Mid-Ocean House of Entertainment. Like the tourists on Ceres Street today, visitors happily paid Mr. Laighton to sit on his porch, drink his liquor, gaze out to sea, and enjoy his wife Eliza’s fish chowder. The seacoast tourism industry was born.

“I need you to build me a porch,” I told my neighbor Ed Valena. Ed wasn’t to crazy about the idea at first. Then I showed him a yellowed photo of the Mid-Ocean House that burned long ago.

“Let me get this straight. You want a fake porch built indoors at the old library building?” Ed said.

I nodded.

“I can do that,” Ed said. And he did.

Ed and Jack Farrell took a boat to Star Island and brought back old weathered wood. With the help of Al Lofgren they hammered and sawed for an entire day. Then Karen Carpenter reconstructed the original hotel sign from the photo and white-washed the old porch shingles. It has a door and a window with a flowerpot. There is a rocking chair. The porch is so authentic that one of the first visitors to stand on it actually broke through the ancient floorboards. My neighbor Bruce Teatrowe, an artist and builder, repaired the broken porch. He also built cradles for the two canoes.

Replica of Smuttynose Hotel from 1846 /

Ready for prime time

If you don’t believe all this, come take a look. Bring the kids. There are no ferries to Smuttynose. It’s a private island 10 miles out to sea from Portsmouth. But here you can sit on the porch without leaving town. Snap your photo with the old fisherman. Study the artifacts in the five glass cases. There are even some “touchable” bones and fragments.

Archaeologist Lindsey Weeks spent days artistically arranging the bones, and bullets, and prehistoric tools. It can be dangerous work. At one point while Lindsey was working, a glass shelf in a museum case shattered. A valuable 1590-era Bellarmine jug fell. No one dared breathe as it hit the floor. The ancient bottle – Nate calls them “the Coke bottle of the 17th century -- bounced a few times and lay still on the carpet. It was unharmed.

I asked David Murray to shoot the publicity photo. It shows a naked arm pulling a cluster of artifacts from the earth. My longtime friend Bill Roy from Newburyport acted as the hand model, a fact he proudly proclaims on his Facebook page. I wanted something iconic and simple to promote the show to audiences of every kind. The photo is on the cover of the book that accompanies the exhibit. There’s a giant picture of the hand outside the 1810-era brick building that houses Discover Portsmouth at the corner of Middle and Islington streets. Indoors, an even larger 10-foot hand reaches from the second floor gallery to the exhibit below.

And yes, the ax from the 1873 Smuttynose murders is on display too. But thanks to Nate Hamilton and his diggers, the Smuttynose story is so much bigger now. I hope you can feel that history all around you at this new show. And for those who want to feel the real thing – the dig continues at the Isles of Shoals in June. Student diggers can still join the adventure. Maryellen and Nate and I will be there once again at the picnic table by the Haley Cottage as the story grows and grows.


Copyright © 2012 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site His latest books are America’s Privateer and Under the Isles of Shoals.

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