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How We Created the Isles of Shoals Exhibit
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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