Master craftsman and boat builder Richard Scofield reflects on his career in St. Michaels
Quiet, soft-spoken Richard Scofield has worked for 33 years to restore some of the world’s most iconic boats.
He has the history of being the longest tenured staff member ever at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, a distinction that would make him an institution in itself, but Scofield is too modest a man for such a label.
His retirement earlier this year is the passing of a torch of knowledge, the type of knowledge you can’t learn from a book. It is a torch he has passed many times to many people.
Recounting Scofield’s long tenure is like watching a history lesson — with the humble beginnings of a museum that had a lighthouse, old waterfront residences, and a handful of workers braving the elements next to the waterfront on a bare peninsula.
He was no novice to the world of boat restoration when he came to the museum as a full-time rigger, painter, and carpenter in 1985. Scofield had grown up in Stamford, Conn., and hung around his great uncle’s boatyard as a child.
One of his first paying jobs was when his uncle convinced him to shimmy up a mast to retrieve a halyard — he was 12 years old, didn’t mind heights, and weighed about 100 pounds.
“When I came down, my uncle said, ‘Let’s not tell Mom, let’s make this our secret,’” Scofield said, adding that his uncle slipped him a $5 bill. “I thought that was the coolest thing in the world.”
From then on, Scofield spent all his spare time there — rigging, doing odd jobs, and earning extra cash. His family owned a farm near St. Michaels, where he spent summers.
St. Michaels proved to be a veritable wonderland for a young man who loved to work on boats — he earned money at the museum during summer 1980, then spent four years at Higgins Yacht Yard.
After high school, he went to Bates College in Maine and earned a psychology degree. Two days after his college graduation, he got a chance to work restoring and crewing on Gleam — the oldest active America’s Cup class 12-metre sailboat in the world, considered by many to be the “grand dame” of that fleet.
Scofield was hooked. And, he said, he found out: the nicer and more historically significant the vessel, the greater the pleasure it is to restore.
“Just wonderful boats,” Scofield said. “And you get to use these boats. I enjoy working on boats, restoring boats. But to later get to use them — that’s a pretty cool thing.”
Also a very cool thing, Scofield said, is to spend your days working dockside near St. Michaels harbor.
Far from the cubicles of those grinding out their living in front of computer screens, Scofield and his fellow restoration specialists worked outside in the elements, for the most part. And when the weather is good in St. Michaels, it’s very, very good.
Scofield began full-time at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in 1985, during an era when the museum was under the leadership of Director R.J. “Jim” Holt, who was determined to set the museum on a course of expansion and professionism. He acquired additional adjacent acreage fronting Fogg’s Cove and worked to have the museum accredited.
By then, the museum would have acquired the historic 1889 log-hulled bugeye Edna E. Lockwood; the famed skipjack Rosie Parks that was built in Wingate, 1955, by Bronza Parks; and the buy boat Mister Jim, a modern replica built by legendary shipwright Jim Richardson of Cambridge. They also just had acquired Old Point, a 1909 crab dredger. And those were just the highlights of the floating fleet.
Scofield had a hand in the hauling out and recommissioning of all of them, year after year. During the 33 years he was there, that floating fleet more than doubled.
In 1989 the museum acquired the 1934 Hooper Island dovetail Martha, also built by Bronza Parks; the 1912 tugboat Delaware; the 1926 trunk cabin power cruiser Isabel; the 1920 buy boat Winnie Estelle; and the 1934 Hooper Island dovetail Dorothy Lee.
Several racing log canoes are kept ready for season by the museum, including the restored 1930s-vintage log canoe Edmee S., and more recently, the historic 1932 Flying Cloud and Bufflehead, which was built on the museum grounds beginning fall 2014.
The total number of boats, including those that are on display on dry land throughout the museum campus number more than 100, and these days, the museum’s collection is considered to be the world’s largest of Chesapeake Bay boats.
Manpower to take care of all of those boats was the need that sparked the museum’s apprentice program, which began in an effort to attract summertime help and grew to an internationally known curriculum that attracts boat-building students from all over the United States and Europe. Students who are accepted are graduates of other boat-building schools, such as the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding in Port Hadlock, Wash., or The Landing School in Arundel, Me.
The professional shipwright apprentice program has been a source of pleasure for Scofield. In his early days, he was mentored by shipwrights, such as Joe Leiner, Jim Richardson, and his own uncles and grandfather.
“A number of years ago, it was pointed out to me that all those people who taught me so much, they passed away and had given their knowledge to me,” Scofield said. “And for me to take that knowledge and not pass it on was pretty selfish.”
The apprentice program that Scofield helped develop has turned out boatbuilders who are working in shipyards, for private companies, restoration concerns, and museums across the nation. He said he often hears from former apprentices who continue to keep in touch as they advance their careers.
A new crop of them at the museum currently are working on a major three-year project — the complete restoration of the historic bugeye Edna E. Lockwood.
Scofield was an integral part of that project’s beginnings, just as he was an integral part of the complete restoration of the skipjack Rosie Parks that was relaunched in 2013.
During his tenure, Scofield climbed the ranks from rigger, painter, and shipwright to assistant boat shop manager, boat shop manager, and retired as assistant curator of watercraft.
These days, exhibit buildings at the museum number more than 15 and the staff numbers slightly under 40 people, according to Scofield. There are interactive exhibits, educational seminars, and workshops.
Visitors learn the economic, cultural, and social stories of those who live and work on the Bay through interpretation, the boats, and a vast collection of boat models, artwork, photographs, decoys, guns, ship’s trailboards, and other historic Bay artifacts.
Scofield sayid one of the prevailing themes that has survived from the early days of the museum was created by the man who hired him, R.J. Holt.
“He was a great guy with a forceful personality, and walked around the museum and would talk to anybody,” Scofield said.
He said Holt never was too busy to chat with visitors, and frequently held long conversations with out-of-towners.
Scofield said, as boat shop manager, it was that personal interaction that he stressed to the shipwrights working under him — they needed to enjoy stopping and connecting to those guests who were watching and asking questions.
Now that he is retired, he said he is going to look after his own boats, make some furniture, turn some wooden bowls on his lathe at home, and do some work on his house. He may find his way back to the museum to volunteer, he said.
It was suggested that he might use his psychology degree from Bates College.
“Oh, I supervised 10 shipwrights in the boat shop,” Scofield said. “I had to use my psychology degree every day.”