This is the 3rd part of my special series “The Story of Shad Boats.” The series features Earl Willis, Jr. and Mike Alford’s extraordinary journey to document the history of North Carolina’s “state boat.”
Here we meet the gentleman in whose boatyard the first shad boat was built. His name was George Washington Creef and in this photograph he stands in his boatyard in the village of Wanchese, on the southern end of Roanoke Island, N.C., sometime around 1890.
He has an adze in hand and has been shaping the shad boat keel on the ground to our right.
In a way one could not find a better place to begin to dig deeper into the shad boat’s story than that man, that boatyard and that keel. So in today’s post I’m going to look at the significance of that keel and what it says about the origins of shad boats.
Then, in my next post, I’ll look more closely at George Washington Creef’s life on Roanoke Island, which is also an important part of the shad boat’s story.
An Intellectual Leap
When hewing out a shad boat’s keel, or “bottom piece” as it was also called, Creef and other builders began by using a broad ax, followed by the adze. They made the keel from a juniper log.
As did most other shad boat builders, Creef obtained his juniper (also called white cedar) from one of several sites either on the Outer Banks, to the east of Roanoke Island, or in swamp forests on the mainland of Dare County, to the west of Roanoke Island.
Whenever I discuss shad boats with Mike, he always emphasizes that the uniquely shaped keel was the boat’s defining feature. It represented, to quote Mike, “an intellectual leap” on Creef’s part that was central to the boat’s distinctive design.
According to Mike, the keel also says a great deal about the boat’s ancestry.
Often, he has said to me, we can gain greater insight into a boat’s ancestry by its construction than we can from its outward appearance, in much the same way as an evolutionary biologist might use animal bones to see the connections between species that may not be outwardly apparent.
On a shad boat, the keel is a long, sculptured timber, lean and sharp at the bow, widening at the mid-body and rising to the transom at the stern. The bottom of the keel runs straight from stem to stern and the frames (the “ribs” of the boat) are attached to the keel.
It is a strikingly original keel. In Mike’s eyes, Creef’s fundamental flash of inspiration was his solution to the problem of twisting the boat’s planking sufficiently to form its shape: at some point, Creef realized that, if he could not twist the planking to fit the keel, then he could hew the keel to fit the planking.
It is a hard thing for me or anyone else that is not a master boat builder or marine architect to appreciate fully, but from that revelation the rest of the boat’s design emerged.
Of Keels and Kunners
What’s also striking about that framing scheme is that it shows close kinship to that of a kunner, a historic dugout-type boat whose two sides were made from either two logs or one split log.
On the North Carolina coast, fishermen, freight haulers and other watermen relied on the kunner and its larger cousin, the periauger, more than any other workboat throughout the 1700s and into the 1870s and ‘80s.
You can also find a more general introduction to those workboats in a post called “The Boat We Had Before Skiffs” that Mike and I co-authored previously on this blog.
Some of the leading American authorities on traditional wooden boats apparently misinterpreted the shad boat’s distinctive keel and frame structure.
The most esteemed of those leading authorities, Howard Chappelle, wrote admiringly of the shad boat’s design and sailing qualities. However, he apparently only examined shad boats that were in the water at the time. Consequently, he did not get a good exterior view of their construction.
Looking from the inside of the boat, Chappelle concluded in error that the heel of the frames (again, the “ribs” of the boat) ended in the middle of the garboard, which is the plank next to the keel. That would have been an unusual circumstance and not at all resembling a kunner’s construction.
If he had seen the boat out of the water and looked closely, however, Chappelle would have realized that what he thought was the garboard was actually part of the unique keel.
Mike discovered this when he was still at the N.C. Maritime Museum in Beaufort. At the time, he concluded that shad boats most likely had a very strong relationship with those dugout boats.
Consequently the shaping of the keel, as George Washington Creef is doing in the photograph above, was the key component of a shad boat’s construction.
The special character of the shad boat’s keel simplified the shaping and fitting of the planks to the curvature of the boat’s shape.
Mike would not go so far as to say that the shad boat “evolved” from the kunner. He rarely discusses boat design in that fashion. To quote Mike, ”Boats don’t `evolve’—they are developed by boat builders based on experience.”
In my conversations with him on the shad boat’s origins, Mike has often explained that the shad boat was in his eyes a totally unique boat with no clear line of descent from the state’s earlier boat types.
However, he does believe that the construction techniques for those dugout boats showed up in the keels of shad boats.
“Wash Creef built kunners”
A direct line between the construction of kunners and shad boats can also be found in George Washington Creef’s boatyard in Wanchese.
Creef was, in fact, no stranger to building kunners. “`Wash’ Creef built kunners,” another veteran shad boat builder, Worden Dough, recalled when he and Earl talked back in the 1980s.
The Dough family was among Roanoke Island’s most accomplished shad boat builders. Worden Dough’s father, Otis Dough (1868-1957), had learned boat building in George Washington Creef’s boatyard.
Worden Dough and his brothers were also master shad boat builders.
Regarding George Washington Creef and the construction of kunners, Worden Dough made clear that the shad boat’s most important builder had built both kunners and shad boats.
“He had to build them, because before shad boats there were only kunners,” he told Earl.
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Next time– Part 4– “A Grand Old Soul”