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Ships, Symbolism, and Stetsons

The idea of sailing the vast ocean scares the wind out of me. My early maternal ancestors were sea captains from Nantucket, but my paternal ancestors happily farmed on dry land. This genetic pool left me on dry land as a landlubber wannabe-sea-captain. So, I collect whaling books, a sea captain’s desk, and nautical instruments to surround myself in dry lofted quarters. I occasionally listen to a soundtrack of creaking wood ships and storm waves while I toil away by candlelight reading books about sea voyages and shipwrecks. In this strange pursuit, I’ve long wanted some antique model ships to display in the room. None had passed my way.

In spring of 2022, while browsing for a bookcase on Fb Marketplace, I stumbled upon a listing for two wooden model ships: one of the Mayflower and one of the USS Constitution. They were reportedly handmade by a gentleman from Boston in 1935. The scale and quality were exactly what I wanted. I sent a message to the Seller and an invitation was given in reply. I set out immediately.

These two ships appeal to me more than any other possible set. As a Mayflower descendant, I’ve read several books about the hardship of the long journey and the eventual landing at Plymouth.

For many people, the Mayflower represents the power of human endurance, the quest for religious freedom, free speech, self-destiny, divine faith, passion, and the promise of America. This makes the Mayflower my favorite ship in history.

My second favorite ship is among the original six frigates made for the new US Navy: the USS Constitution, also known as Old Ironsides. The USS Constitution represents the need for governmental structure, politics, military power, law, order, reason, and self-restraint.

The great hope of self-government is to balance these seemingly diametric principles; the quest for freedom (The Mayflower) and necessity of restraint (The Constitution) that are, in fact, inherently interdependent in a free society. I believe America’s foundation, her long struggle, her ascent to greatness, and our current polarized affairs, are symbolized by these two ships.

Naturally, I purchased both ships. I also bought a few ship miniatures that were offered. All were made by the grandfather of the late family patriarch; the surname was Stetson. I knew nothing of the name, and they knew nothing of their connection to

ship making history. The family gave me a package of the blueprints, handmade templates, related news articles, and a postal cover with the ancestor’s name and address. I had something to work with – both physically and mentally.

The ships were made by Lawrence R. Stetson, an engineer by trade, in Boston around 1934. It wasn’t difficult to find the name lined up with the famed Stetson Ship Builders of Massachusetts Bay Colony.

This was a ship making legacy that began in 1714 and ended in 1906.

The Stetson Kindred of America, Inc. was established in 1905 to keep the Stetson legacy alive and active. This goes far beyond documenting their ship making history. The group serves as caretakers of the Stetson Kindred Homestead and manages a very robust website dedicated to the descendants of Cornet Robert & Honour Tucker Stetson. I contacted them via email. They were extremely helpful and excited to hear about the model ships. They confirmed that Lawrence Raymond Stetson is a descendant of Samuel, son of Cornet Robert and Honour Tucker Stetson.. I'm sure Lawrence Stetson was thinking about his ancestors when he made the model ships in 1934. With the provenance of the model ships documented for future generations, I put my focus on preservation.

The ships were in very good shape, but with more than 80 years of dust (even if in the glass case all that time), they needed a good and careful cleaning. Also, some of the rigging had broken or sagged. To me, what makes a ship model exceptionally beautiful is tight rigging, clean decks, and aged surface patina.

I researched model boat cleaning and restoration techniques. I bought the necessary materials and got ready to swab the decks. I played some sea shanty music and began the slow work. The music lasted about an hour. The job took another ten hours. The Stetson model ships are now clean and restored.

The ships have center shelf in my study. The Stetson Kindred can be sure the ancestral and symbolic ships will be under careful stewardship until the next happy curator becomes “captain” of the Stetson ship models.

shane-newell © 2022

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