February 28, 2013

Wooden canoe saga continues

BY GILLIAN GRAHAM

BIDDEFORD -- For McArthur Library Director Jeff Cabral, the saga of a centuries-old wooden canoe unearthed from the sands of Biddeford Pool is far from over.

The 21-foot dugout canoe was carved out of a single tree and is believed to be from the 18th century. It was discovered and excavated from the beach at Biddeford Pool in 1986, hoisted onto a tractor-trailer and hauled to Massachusetts for a conservation process that was never completed.

Since then, it has sat in a crate in a storage room at Plimoth Plantation, a living-history museum in Plymouth, Mass., nearly forgotten even by the volunteers and archeologists who scrambled to uncover it between high tides 27 years ago.

Now Cabral is leading an effort to bring the canoe back to Maine so it can be conserved, studied and, he hopes, displayed in a museum. His campaign is spurred not only by his desire to share a piece of Biddeford's history, but also by the fact that Plimoth Plantation is unable to store the canoe indefinitely.

Cabral is applying for grants and collecting donations to cover the estimated $4,500 in fees to move the canoe back to Biddeford.

What happens with it after that remains to be seen.

The Saco Museum, the Maine Maritime Museum and the Maine State Museum have turned down offers to take the canoe, which belongs to the city because it was found in the intertidal zone. Cabral is still looking for a permanent home to display it.

"It's a really unique piece of Biddeford history and Maine history. It's one of the oldest dugout canoes of its kind to be located in Maine," Cabral said. "This is an artifact we want to remain in Maine."

The canoe was noticed first by Aldo Pulito, who lived in Biddeford Pool, after a strong storm washed sand away from the beach. Steve Podgajny, then the director of the York Institute (now the Saco Museum), was notified of the find and scrambled to assemble a team of volunteers and archeologists to dig out the canoe.

"There was a high degree of excitement, but we were completely exhausted by the end of it, recalled Podgajny, now director of the Portland Public Library.

Twenty-seven years later, Podgajny still remembers how he felt as he, residents and news crews watched the canoe being lifted from the sand.

"You have a sense of wonder, looking at something that's been hidden and has mystery around it," he said.

Emerson Baker, a historical archeologist who was heavily involved with the excavation, said the 21-foot-long, 3-foot-wide canoe was carved from a single pine or cedar tree. More testing is needed to determine the type of wood and accurately date the vessel, but Baker believes it dates to the 1700s.

Baker said the fact the canoe survived makes it rare, but its significance is greater than that: It is symbolic of the relationship between early settlers in the region and American Indians.

The canoe is similar to the ones made by Indians, but the wood shows tool marks and indications the boat had a rudder, bridging the gap between the styles of the natives and the newer arrivals, he said. The canoe probably was abandoned in an area that, at the time, was a saltwater marsh.

"These were kind of the colonial equivalent of the pickup truck. Everyone had one," Baker said. "It would be like finding a 1970s station wagon 400 years from now in reasonably good shape."

After the canoe was unearthed, it was taken immediately to an archaeological conservation laboratory, where the process to conserve the waterlogged vessel was started but never finished. Sometime relatively soon after the excavation, the canoe was moved into storage at Plimoth Plantation, but details of how and when that arrangement came to be remain scarce.

"It's kind of a sad story," Baker said. "It really has been neglected for a long time."

Last year, Cabral arranged for Jon Brandon, a conservator at East Point Conservation Studio in Brunswick, to examine the canoe. About 60 percent of the canoe remains intact and could be moved to Biddeford with minimal damage, Brandon said in a report prepared for Cabral.

Despite a failed fundraising campaign last year, Cabral remains hopeful people will support his effort to bring a piece of history home to Biddeford. If money cannot be raised, he is resigned to the possibility that he may have to bring only a piece of the canoe back to Maine.

After seeing the canoe in person, Cabral said he wants others to have the same opportunity.

"To see it in person was a real treat, but at the same time sad because it's in this enormous crate in a storage room," he said. "Time has forgotten it."

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