The Fair-Haven Sharpie

While going through some junk I discovered a copy of a paper I wrote in 1977 in college on the origins of the Fair-Haven Sharpie, a flat-bottomed oyster skiff popular in New Haven, Connecticut in the 19th century. I wrote this for Professor William Ferris, then a professor of American Folk Lore in the American Studies Department of Yale. While most of the syllabus and lectures focused on his work in African-American music and culture of the Mississippi Delta, I went down a more local path and researched the development of the sharpie, tracing its origins back to the dugout canoes built by the Iroquois.  The research entailed me walking east from my dorm room across to the Fairhaven neighborhood on the banks of the Quinnipiac River in search of any old timers who might have worked in the once burgeoning oyster fishery. I had a cassette recorder, a notebook, and a cheap camera.

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I thumbed to Mystic Seaport a few times to check out their collection of small boats and did my time in the research library there reading Howard Chapelle, the dean of American small boat design and curator at the Smithsonian. Chapelle had speculated on the dug out canoe origins of the long, narrow skiffs and I went a little deeper and keep digging into the construction techniques and coastal migration of the design up and down the East Coast. The sharpie was a very popular working boat and was utilized in the commercial oyster fishery from Cape Cod to Florida.

I lucked out with my leg work when I poked my head into a Fairhaven barber shop and asked the old timers there if they knew any old oystermen.  I was directed to a local nursing home and there I met three very old codgers who still had their wits and could regale me with stories about the boats they built, sailed and worked from most of their lives.

When it came time to present the final paper in Ferris’s class, the grad student who ran my seminar (the once a week gathering of a dozen students and their assigned seminar leader) interrupted me and told Ferris I had never, not once, attended a single seminar during the entire term. Which was true. I worked in the library printing press during the afternoon before rowing practice and needed the job to keep my scholarship, so I blew the seminar off which I did in almost every lecture because I saw no point listening to blowhard classmates suck up to the grad student.

Ferris (who also graduated from The Brooks School, my prep school) said something to the effect of, “Oh yes. The oyster boat paper. About that. Have you considered post-graduate work in maritime history? I’m giving you an A+ and recommend you continue the work, it’s fascinating and the most novel piece of work I’ve seen in ten years of teaching this class.”

Wow. Okay. Wonder how he would have felt if he knew I had handed in the same paper to two other professors that same term and racked up two more A+’s for the same work.

Anyway, a reporter at the Cape Cod Times was doing some research on sharpies for his brother who was building one, and he came across a copy of the paper on file at the New Haven Historical Society. I guess one of the three professors deemed it good enough to submit it on my behalf.

Here it is — my writing circa sophomore year.

The Fair-Haven Sharpie

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

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