There’s a wonderful look into the past called “By Skiff and Baseket: Technology in Essex” on exhibit now through September 30on the third floor of Town Hall.

The exhibit showcases historic photographs of Essex clam skiffs (small open boats) taken from the Essex Historical Society and Shipbuilding Museum’s archives, and follows the actual construction of a new Essex clam skiff by students from the Topsfield Vocational Academy under the direction of EHSSM boatbuilder Jeffrey Lane.  

The program took the students more than six months to complete.  Also as part of the program, a section on traditional Essex clam basket making workshops was open to members of the public and was run by master basket maker Billy Ray Sims.  The baskets proved to be incredibly challenging and the baskets are also on display for the exhibit.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Essex clam skiff was nearly ubiquitous in Essex.  The type was developed for clamming, fishing, and transport in the protected waters of the Essex River, Essex Bay, and other nearby estuaries.  Despite the sheer number of clam skiffs in use in Essex, there are very few historic photos of them — they proved much less interesting to photographers than the schooners, steamers, draggers and yachts being built in the shipyards of Essex.  However, upon close inspection of shipyard scenes and launch day photos, these skiffs can be seen floating at anchor and pulled up onto the shore! In this unprecedented exhibit, the original images are shown alongside enlargements that showcase the clam skiffs.

Even counting these newfound images, not much information about these boats has survived to the present day.  Luckily, there is one known example of the type left, and using that boat (generously loaned to EHSSM by the Burnham family) as a template, students from the Topsfield Vocational Academy built a new Essex clam skiff to keep the tradition alive.  Each step of the process is documented in the exhibit, from measuring the original skiff and lofting it full size, all the way to launch day.

The white oak and wire baskets used to hold and transport clams were just as specialized as the skiffs, and they too were on the brink of being forgotten.  Using surviving examples, EHSSM partnered with master basket maker Billy Ray Sims to document the type and lead workshops to construct new baskets. They are not easy to make, but 22 new baskets have been finished so far.  Instructions and tools will be available from EHSSM for those who can’t make it to the workshops.

This project is funded in part by a grant of Essex County Community Foundation's Creative County Initiative (CCI), a collaboration with the Barr Foundation designed to elevate Essex County's art and culture sector and support our local creative economy.  Essex Historical Society and Shipbuilding Museum is the recipient of one of 11 grants awarded to serve Essex County communities through public art and creative placemaking projects.