Dad’s Old Town
The process took longer than planned, but restoring my father’s prized canoe was a final act of love.
- By: Rosemary Herbert
It took my father’s keen eye to recognize the potential in the pile of weathering wood. “You may not realize what a treasure you have there,” he told our neighbor. “That’s an original wood-and-canvas Old Town canoe.”
Seeing my father’s enthusiasm for the thing, that kind man simply gave it to Dad. He would not take a cent for it.
That was just as well, because my father, who was a telephone lineman then, did not have much money to spare. Fortunately, family members helped him restore the canoe. After my cabinet-maker grandfather fixed the woodwork, my Uncle Leo — a properties director for a New York theater producer — provided a covering worthy of the Broadway stage. Known as Celastic, the material was used by prop builders to create everything from knightly armor to craggy rock formations. On our canoe, it clung valiantly to both old wood and new. Although my camera-bug father would have loved to paint it red to show up brightly in a million Kodachrome slides, he opted for less-expensive white.
Lashed to the top of our blue Studebaker, the canoe traveled everywhere with us. We paddled it along rivers and streams. We rode it up and down in locks between lakes. Sometimes paddling the canoe went beyond recreation to become a character-building enterprise. One such moment occurred when I was just fourteen, at an age when it was anything but cool to sit in a canoe, bound up in a fat, flame-orange life jacket, rocking in the wake of motorboats powered by the hunkiest boys in town. Meanwhile, on the shore, bikini-clad teens giggled at my father who, on a dare from my younger brother, donned a feathered Indian headdress. It took true grit for me to wave bravely at the boaters and sunbathers as though I was immune to embarrassment.
Fortunately, we usually paddled in places where canoeing was expected, most memorably on Long Lake in Harrison, where one summer we camped on a tiny island. One day, to our great joy, while sitting on our island’s rocky shore, we gazed in amazement to see a total eclipse of the sun reflected in the lake water beside the gently rocking canoe.
When my father died in 1997, the canoe became mine -— leaks and all. I decided it needed to go home at last to Old Town, Maine, where it could be repaired properly. I put it into the hands of John Sibley, Sr., and Robbie Nason at the Old Town factory, and made a couple of down payments as they worked on the restoration.
And then my life turned upside down. A sudden job opportunity took me from Massachusetts to Maine where the house I purchased immediately needed repairs. At the same time, I launched one daughter into marriage down south and another into a Midwest college. With my savings gone, I had no resources to spend on the canoe.
Months went by. And soon it was years since I had first delivered the canoe to Old Town. I was so fearful that the restorers would have regarded the canoe as abandoned that I could not bring myself to inquire about it. Finally my daughter asked the question for me.
A week later, a letter arrived on creamy paper bearing the Old Town letterhead. It was the essence of understatement. “Dear, Rosemary,” it read. “I just wanted to drop you a note to let you know we have completed the repair on your canoe. . . . ” The letter also informed me that the repair had gone so smoothly that the bill was some $350 below the original estimate. “I hope this brings a smile to your face.” The letter concluded, “Thank you and happy paddling.”
“Of course we hung onto it for you,” Nason said when at last I laid eyes on the gleamingly restored red canoe. “We knew you’d come back for your treasure.”
Provided with the canoe’s original papers, I learned that it was first owned by a Mrs. M. Rockefeller of Canaan, Connecticut, who purchased it in 1927. It was leaving the factory again, in the hands of one Rosemary Herbert, a nice, round eighty years later.
I saw the canoe needed one finishing touch. As Nason carefully placed the Old Town decal on the canoe I was as ready to whoop as any Indian-head-dressed Dad with a loyal daughter. I felt as dazzled as the sun emerging from its eclipse to sparkle in a Maine lake. I felt as wealthy as a Rockefeller, and then some.
- By: Rosemary Herbert