Mr. Gilbert—A Great Grandfather
©2006 J. Kaufmann
My mother, Emelene, once gave a talk on Mr. Gilbert in the old Temperance Hall at Shag Harbour, and she personalized ‘The Old Chairmaker’ by sharing a granddaughter’s memories of snuggling in his warm lap as he read her stories. She said he smelled of pipe tobacco and peppermint. As she grew older and expressed interest in learning more about the family tree, he wrote her long letters, in his careful script, sharing what he knew of the eight generations of Nickersons that preceded him. She remembered him as a nice man; quiet and concentrated in his carvings and writing; a man who loved his family and always retreated deep within himself when it came time to part. Folks in town remember him as softspoken, and friendly, and precise. When you asked him the time, he took out his pocket watch and told you the hour and minute and second. Kids sometimes circled around him to ask him the time. “In 12 seconds it will be five minutes to twelve,” he said. He then snapped the lid shut and tucked his watch back in the vest. Another kid then tugged on his sleeve and asked, “what time is it now?” He once again pulled out his watch and said, “in five seconds it will be five minutes to twelve,” and, again, put the watch away. He took a few steps, and another kid said, “Now, Now, what time is it now?” He pulled out the watch, and declared, “It is NOW exactly five minutes to twelve,” and the kids clapped and laughed as they trotted beside him, trying to keep up with his long-legged pace.
He walked to the edge of the village every morning and timed himself, keeping record of his speed. Yet he was not a man of routine. Time was a blank canvas to Mr. Gilbert, and he filled his days with creative and innovative pursuits; artistic, social, political and spiritual. One time a couple of kids were poking at an oil can with a couple of long sticks. The rolling can made a little jing-a-ling sound, and Mr. Gilbert stopped, and said in a sing-song, “rings on her fingers and bells on her toes; she makes music wherever she goes!” And did a little jig. He was the kind of guy who welcomed an interruption of a daily task as an opportunity to learn something new. If a visitor found him in his garden digging potatoes, he put down the pitchfork and lit his pipe. One woman in town told me that in his later years he used to “tap shoes.” She knew his eyesight was failing because when she put on her shoes she could feel the nails sticking up through the soles. But she kept bringing her shoes to Mr. Gilbert because it meant a nice afternoon in his kitchen, and he and Grammy Ida were good company; they always served tea with something sweet to eat.
He is best remembered, maybe even a little famous for, his fascination with shipwrecks, which, in his youth, occurred fairly frequently along the southern shores of Nova Scotia. We know him as the Old Chairmaker and for the pieces he carved from wreckwood. But there was more to Gilbert than the renowned chair. Before he took chisel and pick to the wreckwood, the sharp blows and intricate turns of just plain living shaped and carved his character with as much detail and precision he later devoted to his famous maple leaves.
He was born in 1859, the youngest of three children to Levi and Mercy Ellen Nickerson. His older brother Jeremiah, was 16 years his senior. Gilbert never knew his older sister, Barbara Ellen. As a little girl, she drowned in open cattle well in the pasture behind the house. Her parents knew something was wrong when the cattle refused to drink from the well. As a child, Gilbert sat in the family kitchen and listened to his father Levi describe his adventures at sea. Levi broke tradition from a line of Levis who built boats in Shag Harbour. He was the first, and last, to take to the sea. He told Gilbert of shipwrecks and searching for buried treasure and once outrunning pirates down in the West Indies. The Captain of Levi’s ship declared, “Boys that’s a pirate after us, but I will go to the bottom first before I will have my throat cut!” When his father brought him a carved figurehead from a wrecked barquentine lost off Cape Sable Island, Gilbert stared at the wood as he ran his hands over the intricate scrollwork, and with that first piece of wreckwood some genetic spark from his boatbuilding ancestors and his own love of the sea triggered a lifelong search for wood that survived “Neptune’s clutches.”
He never went to sea like his father; but he did fish in the summer and hauled lobster traps in the spring, sometimes as far away from Shag Harbour as Yarmouth and Tusket. In his youth, he went fishing with his brother for several seasons. Their lobster boat capsized once. I don’t think that experience discouraged him from the sea, but it likely made him take heed of his father’s advice to steer landward. Besides, one son on the water was enough, and the old folks needed the younger son to look after them. Brother Jeremiah, too, eventually left the water and worked as a fisheries officer; he married and raised his six children in the white house just above the yellow house where he and Gilbert grew up. Gilbert did not marry and stayed at the yellow house to take care of his parents. His father had spent a life at sea and was now suffering physically for his years under the sail. Levi had a painful arthritic-like condition in his joints; and could never get warm enough. The two often sat close to the stove at night. Gilbert read out loud to his mother, who was now blind; and listened to his father’s tales of the sea.
Gilbert was a voracious reader. He was educated to primary Grade 6, then left school, like most of his male contemporaries, to go fishing. Thereafter, he was self-taught, educated “between tides,” as the expression goes. He was always reading, and liked to challenge his mind. For pleasure he read the seafaring novels of Joseph C.Lincoln; and classics like Treasure Island and David Copperfield. He also read science journals, and was an early member of the National Geographic Society, often bringing the magazine with him down to Mr. E.R.Nickerson’s store where they talked about the world beyond Shag Harbour. He kept a daily journal, where he recorded the weather and events of the village and stories he heard around the kitchen table at night. On the blank pages of school-desk scribblers he pasted poems and newspaper articles that intrigued him. Many times he re-wrote articles he read, and then wrote them out again; his own personal tutorial of developing a writing style that would be suitable for the newspaper editors. My grandmother remembered sitting at the kitchen table, covered with a tablecloth of newspaper; and watched her father re-read an article as he ate. When the story he was reading continued on another page, Gilbert told her to” Lift,” and she picked up her dinner plate so he could complete the story.
In one of his journals he wrote a poem of yearning. As he neared age 40 he began to wonder if fate would bring him to marriage and the family life his brother knew, or, worse, would he force the issue and marry the wrong mate.
Somewhere in this broad world, a human soul is always
Waiting for its mate
Perchance it never comes, and the weary one may be joined
To that which heaven never intended it to be joined,
Or it repines and goes to the grave unloved.
One evening he paid a visit to the Rogerson house in upper Shag Harbour.
The Rogerson brothers came from Liverpool, England and ran the cooper shop in town. They sent money back to England to bring the rest of the family to Nova Scotia. On the mantelpiece of their home was a picture of their sister, Lizzie; and Gilbert stared at the image and declared, “THAT is the girl I am going to marry.” Lizzie Rogerson was 26 when she moved to Shag Harbour in August, 1897. Later that year she sent a sweet note of condolence to Gilbert when his mother died. They began courting, and it didn’t take Gilbert long to realize that Lizzie was his long awaited and fated mate. Gilbert’s father died in January, 1899; and in May of that year Gilbert and Lizzie married. The following spring, on April Fools day, their son, Walter Levi, was born.
Around this time, Gilbert went to work on the railroad. Before he married, he followed a twisted path of occupations. He fished with his brother and worked the odd job around the village as he cared for his elderly parents. On the railroad he was first hired as a laborer and helped lay the tracks between Shag Harbour and Barrington. When the rail was completed in 1901, he got a job as a section man, maintaining the rail. He made 15cents an hour. As the lead section man he supervised Howard Kenney and Ran Langthorne. They repaired the rail bed after heavy spring rains, replaced broken or rotting ties, and kept weeds and brush away from the tracks. Gilbert worked for the railroad for 22 years. He was known as a good supervisor of the three man crew. He never asked any man to do something he himself was not willing, and able, to do. The fellas who congregated at Mr. E.R.’s store in the evenings heard from the third man on the crew, Ran Langthorne, that Mr Gilbert was the definition of decent; and that he carried the most ornate lunchbox of any of the men. Mr. Gilbert built a handled box out of oak and painted a schooner in an oval frame near the clasp.
At the end of the day, Gilbert eagerly returned home to the family homestead. Lizzie was the love of his life, but he worried that her delicate constitution made her a battered rose to the harsh seacoast climate. The birth of their son completed the family portrait, and the two brother’s families were often in each other’s kitchens and parlors. Walter was doted upon by his older cousins from the white house Ena and Carrie and Gertie and Stella.
Lizzie took sick in 1902 and rarely left her bed. Gilbert wrote in his journal, “Lizzie died tonight Jan. 7th 1903 at half past seven o’clock, without a second’s notice, not even time to bid me goodbye or kiss her farewell.” The Rogerson family was plagued by early deaths; Lizzie’s sister and brother both lost children barely in their 20s to swift illnesses.
After Lizzie died Mr. Gilbert was inconsolable, and his brother’s wife, Emma, stepped in as surrogate mother to Walter. But Emma often took to her bed with a weak heart, still grieving for her own boy Levi who drowned less than three years before at age 19 on the wreck of the Monticello. The demands of a toddler aggravated Emma’s condition, and aggravated the generally grouchy Jeremiah who told Gilbert to bring in some help.
Later that year Gilbert hired Ida Doane Swaine, a widow from Cape Negro Island, to “keep house” and help with his son. Ida baked and cleaned and washed Gilbert’s clothes, and while she did not approve of Emma and her daughter’s doting over Walter, she did not interfere. Her job was to keep the toddler fed and clean. In 1905, after having lived with each other for almost 18 months, Gilbert and Ida married. This was not the marriage of poetry, and it is likely at first Gilbert lay in bed at night and wondered if it was the “joining to that which heaven never intended.” Ida was a woman with her feet planted firmly (and loudly) on the floor. In build and voice she came across as a rugged pioneer woman ready to take on any lazy ox that paused on the prairie. She was not genteel. She was 36 when they married. Where Gilbert saw the drifting clouds on a bright blue day as a spiritual pat of compassion; Ida saw the same sky as a weather breeder warning of a bigger storm to come. They didn’t have a lot to talk about, but there was little time for talking in this hand-to-mouth existence of task and work and duty. But Gilbert admired, and needed, her strength; and Ida clearly saw that Gilbert Nickerson was not cut from the typical cloth around these parts. She may not have always understood him, but she respected him. He was honest and friendly; she already knew he was easy to live with.
On their 25th wedding anniversary, Gilbert wrote a poem about his marriage to Ida. It says a lot about the spit and spark of their relationship.
Throughout the years that we’ve been wed
With all their stormy weather
And all their fits of doubt and dread
Somehow we’ve kept together
Somehow, my dear, in spite of care
And hurts that came to smart us
And little wrongs that seemed unfair
We’ve never let them part us
Oh we’ve had days of storm and stress
And we’ve had griefs that tried us
Somehow in spite of all I’ve done
And said when irritated
We’ve managed to keep going on
Like sweethearts newly mated
We’ve had our share of ups and downs
And tasks to irk and fret us
Our foolishness brought frequent frowns
Our blunders grave upset us
But since the tie that binds oft snaps
For others just as plucky
And we’ve escaped this fate, perhaps
My dear we’ve just been lucky
In 1908, their son William Austin was born, named for Ida’s brother; and two years later, a daughter, Eva, named for Gilbert’s cousin. With a family of her own there likely was a family discussion on the chain of command with stepson, Walter. He was now a schoolboy, full of play and mischief as he roamed the town from Uncle Billy’s cooper shop to Aunt Dorcas’ house up the road, and flitted between the white house and the yellow house. By all known references he remained an impish elf, and while he was respectful to his stepmother, as everyone was; Ida was determined to raise her two children with far more structure and discipline extended to Lizzie’s boy. Gilbert did not interfere; and Grammy and Uncle Austin both knew that Ida ruled the roost.
In time, Walter graduated from primary school and, entering adolescence, decisions had to be made as to how he would contribute to the homestead. Mr. Gilbert repeated his own father’s advice for the boy to seek work on land. When World War I broke out in 1914, the military became an option for Canadian youth; and in early 1915 Walter left for Halifax, an ordinary seaman aboard the “Canada.” Walter regularly received letters from Papa and Aunt Emma.
February 11, 1915
My Dear Boy Walter
There comes a first time to most of us and the first time of leaving home has come to you and the first time of writing home has also come, and the first time of writing to my boy has come to me. We received your letter and cards allright and I am very glad to have the one of the ‘Canada’ and I shall make a frame for it and keep it as long as I live as a souvenir of First Ship that my First Boy ever went in.
I felt very sorry to see you go away, but I did not let you know it as I had an idea that you were not feeling any too well about it yourself. But I had an idea that you were going to a place where you might find it to your liking, perhaps, better than what it would be exposed to the cold and wet in a motor boat at the lobster fishing. I hope you may like your job so that you may be contended where you are and get along all right.
Eva cried and said ‘Walter had gone and she had not one to stay with her while Mama went to the crossing.” Her and Austin both have had bad colds but are a bit better now. Hope your cold will be better when this letter reaches you.
……….Your Aunt Emma was very anxious to hear from you and was glad to hear that you liked the place where you were. I suppose she remembered the going away of her own boy and of his coming home in his coffin, and I suppose you have grown up and into her affections a little. She wishes you success and hopes you may get along allright.
There are lights and shadows in all of our positions that we might find ourselves in, and there may come some shadows into your life on the boat, but there will be many
a streak of sunshine mixed in with the shadows. ‘Our lives are what we make them” and all you have to do is to do your duty as well as you can, keep a civil tongue in your head and give all due respect to your superior officers and be obliging to those you come in contact with and you will get along very well.
…I enclosed your mother’s Bible in your suit case and also her picture inside. I am sending you my own picture and you keep them together as you are the connecting link between the two.
..Be a good boy and remember that ‘Honor and Shame, from no conditions rise, Act well thy part, there all honor lies.”
Goodbye and best wishes to you
From your father
February 18 1915
Received your letter Tuesday night and was so pleased to get it and the post card. Thank you ever so much—hope that it won’t be the last that you will send either to me.
Ray Banks, Aubrey, and Freddie are here playing ‘nations’ with Malcolm. The mail has just come in and you know what this is like. Carrie and Miss Freeman have gone up to Mrs. E.R Nickersons to tea and spend the evening. Ashton Shand is keeping shop for her. Horace Nickerson, Clayton Sears, Charlie Garron are going to join the Oddfellows. They have to wait some here—that’s why the shop is open. I hope that Charlie won’t faint away like he did when he joined the Division….
We all miss you a lot running out and in and getting into all sorts of mischief. It’s all quieted down. Uncle Jerry and Malcolm have gone to bed and I will try to finish my letter. Am glad that you like your work very well and its not hard work. Would like to see you in your new suit—say, have you got used to getting your pants on right yet? When you have your picture taken be sure to save one for me and send it that I may see how you look in long pants.
I pray for you that you may be kept from evil—grow to be a good and useful man. ….will close with lots of love
March 31 1915
My dear boy Walter,
Received your very welcome letter allright, and was glad to hear that you are getting along the long road to recovery. Hope to see you home before soon. I have sent for your permit and shall send it to you next week. I shall send it to the military hospital and I suppose you will still be there…
April 11, 1915
My dear boy Walter
A fortnight has passed since you have written us and I would like to know how you are getting along. Surely you must be well enough to take the air at this time. I am sending you some paper and envelopes so that you may be able to write home….Aunt Emma wants to know how you are getting along by this time and you had better write upon receipt of this letter….You answer this letter as soon as you can as we are rather afraid some other sickness may have overtaken you.
With Kindest regards and best wishes I remain
Walter died of pneumonia on April 13, 1915, shortly after his 15th birthday. He never saw the last letter from his Papa. Later, Mr. Gilbert received a note from a hospital orderly who described Walter as a cheery patient and pleasant to serve; by his years of hospital experience, he was surprised at how quickly Walter succumbed. The boy had the Rogerson genes and, like his mother, died “without a second’s notice, not even time to bid me goodbye…” Walter was returned to Shag Harbour, along with Lizzie’s Bible and the letters from his father and his Aunt, and a bill for his embalming.
When his son died in the war, Gilbert applied for Walter’s naval pension. At first, the request was denied because father was not a dependent of his son. Gilbert suffered high blood pressure, and the taxing work of a section man aggravated the condition. He had a pending claim for disability with the railway, and, he argued in letters to the military, that he most certainly was dependent on Walter’s naval income. He was told to re-submit the request for Walter’s pension when the railroad completed its review. Gilbert retired on disability pension from the railroad at age 62 in 1922, and was later awarded a tiny pension from his son’s three month service in the Navy.
With Walter’s death a chapter closed in Gilbert’s life. He grew quiet and often spent time with Emma and Jeremiah up at the white house reminiscing about the old days. Ida took action. Gilbert had a young family to support and she feared his romantic melancholy would get the better of him. My grandmother Eva was often asked for details of Lizzie and Walter. Grammy had to admit she and Austin knew little of Gilbert’s early life; it was a closed book, she said; and Ida kept it locked. One morning, while Gilbert was down at Mr. E.R’s shop, the junk dealer stopped by the house. Ida sent him away with all things Lizzie: combs, clothes and pictures. The family has no known photograph of Lizzie; there is no record of where she is buried. In wiping out Lizzie, Ida wasn’t being mean; Ida was being practical. She needed her husband to stand on two feet; and for too long he had one foot in the past. I asked Uncle Austin if Gilbert got mad when Grammy Ida gave away Lizzie’s things. Austin said he didn’t get mad; he got quiet, which was worse.
The strongest thread amongst so many torn and snipped in Gilbert’s life was his hobby of collecting wreckwood. As a youth he often joined the “wrackers” who raced to a stranded ship to save the cargo before it was claimed by the sea, or the ship’s owners. The eager salvagers knew Gilbert wasn’t interested in competing for the bolts of cloth or nautical equipment on board. He just wanted pieces of wood. Over time, he accumulated a lot of pieces of wood, and when word spread of his eccentric hobby, he received gifts of wreckwood from salvagers along the Nova Scotia coast and beyond. He researched the circumstances of the wreck, and corresponded with survivors and witnesses and historians, and, in his later years, encouraged by his friend and local naturalist and author Bonny Castle-Dale, he began sharing what he learned about the wrecks in newspaper articles titled Tales of the South Shore. In his journals are first drafts and second drafts of his tales; in an early draft of one of his first stories he wrote, “How many of the younger generation of today are familiar with or have knowledge of the events of the sea that happened 40 years ago? To those who are not familiar with them and to those who are to come on the scene later, these Tales of the South Shore are written to have them recorded and so that they may not be lost to future generations.” Mr. Gilbert was paid for his writing, which sat just fine with Grammy Ida; and in time he became a regular correspondent of both local news and historical tales.
As to the wood, it piled up in his barn over the years. White oak, gumwood, teak, pine, rosewood, ebony. Some pieces plain; some pieces battered and worm-eaten; some gilded and elaborately carved; some with paint, most stained or sea-bleached. He was often asked what he was going to do with all that wood, and, by his own admission, he had no idea. He just felt something of the event should be preserved. He knew how quickly the sea erased all traces of a wreck.
In the years following Walter’s death, he began to carve maple leaves from the wood. He had earlier carved pieces while his parents were living, but after Walter’s death he began turning the leaves out in assembly line fashion. It was good therapy for grieving. He used a few basic patterns. He traced the outline of a leaf onto a piece of wreckwood, and then began cutting and chiseling. He talked with visitors as he filed and tooled the wood. He kept his equipment in a drawer under a leather settee in the kitchen. Sometimes his visitors had to lift their feet so he could open the drawer to get a different-sized file or blade. In tiny script from his ink pen, he wrote the history of the wreck on the back of the leaves, always leaving room for his signature and address of Shag Harbour, Nova Scotia, Canada. From larger pieces of wreckwood he made lamp tables or picture frames, all of which he sold to locals and visitors. Maples leafs cost 10c; small picture frames a quarter; larger picture frames 75cents; and tables, depending on the size, $1-$3. Each came with a written guarantee that the wood was authentic to the wreck described.
When a fisherman from Cape Sable Island sent him an entire sofa from the wreck of the SS Hungarian, he got the idea to fashion a piece of furniture, a chair, made entirely of the wreckwood he had accumulated. In a newspaper interview he described the evolution his famous wreckwood chair.
“During my railway days, I was at Woods Harbour Station,” he said, “Looking idly through a magazine while there, I saw a picture of a man sitting on a chair. The idea came to me that I could make a chair like that. So when my fortnight vacation came, which was during the winter, I drew from my stock of wood and made a chair like the illustration I had seen in the magazine. I put it together in our sitting room and felt very proud of my chair. I went to take it out, and, to my chagrin, found I could not get it through the door. In constructing my chair I had never given a thought that someday I might want to move it from one room to another. But I did not intend to be beaten out of my chair, and so on my next vacation I made a chair from my wreckwood that would go through the door”
Mr. Gilbert then described going to Tusket one time and seeing an outdoor chair made of spruce. “I took measurements in my head so that when my next vacation came I could make me a chair of that pattern, which I finally did.” Using that pine chair as a model, and with wood from about 25 wrecks (some accounts say 24; some say 35), The Wreckwood Chair was born.
Talk of the curious chair spread, and journalists now sat in the parlor of the yellow house. Many a dinner was interrupted by a knock at the front door from a visitor wanting to see the Wreck Chair. Mr. Gilbert turned no one away. Each visitor had to sign the guest book; and his collection of signatures from the 1931-32 season shows Mr. Gilbert received, on average, four tourists a week. In a letter he wrote to his friend Mr. E R Nickerson in 1935, Mr. Gilbert tallied 135 visitors to the house that year. “They all carried away some of my maple leaves,” he wrote, “and the ones with my snap(shot) seemed to be quite a bit in demand.” My grandmother said Mr. Gilbert enjoyed having his picture taken.
The Old Chairmaker, as he soon became known, guided his visitor on a precise verbal tour of each piece to the chair and its tragic pedigree. My Aunt remembered that once the parlor door was closed, no one could interrupt. Dinners were often kept waiting until Mr. Gilbert’s visit was completed, no matter how much noise Grammy Ida made with her pots and pans. Once he began his tour it was good not to interrupt. People remember he was an absolute gentleman in the way he told some visitors that it was better to listen than to speak.
Evelyn Richardson wrote of how Mr. Gilbert’s tour began with the remark,”Now this chair is like the throne of England. There is no other like it in the world. If it should come to harm it can never be replaced.”
From his journal Mr. Gilbert wrote, “When one considers the age of some of the pieces of wood that had entered into the construction of this chair and the ships from which they have come and the conditions under which they were wrecked and the loss of life connected with the stranding of some of them, all this goes to show that this chair possesses a history and that there is no other chair can be made to equal it as there is wood in this that cannot be put into another one, so it stands in a class by itself. From the standpoints of what this chair represents it is a very valuable chair and with its marine record would do well to grace any museum The maker would rather for it to stay in some
Provincial Museum than for it to be carried away from Nova Scotia, as the material entering into the construction of the chair is all from along the south shore of Nova Scotia and should be of more interest to Nova Scotia than to foreigners.” Mr. Gilbert’s chair was eventually donated to a museum. Most of his other historical pursuits scattered in the years after his death. His first piece of wreckwood, that elaborate figurehead, was given to a family friend who took it home to Ontario as a garden ornament. Mr. Gilbert’s journals and papers sat in the barn for years, covered by dust and bird dung, and were saved from one of my grandfather’s great barn cleanouts by granddaughter, Emelene, who caught sight of them on the trash pile.
A BRIEF TOUR OF THE CHAIR
The mahogany arms to the chair came from the sofa washed ashore from The Hungarian. The steamer went aground off Cape Sable Island during a winter Nor’easter in 1860. People on the mainland could see the ship, but could not get out to her due to ferocity of the storm. The passengers and crew climbed the rigging, trying to stay above the sea. The gale intensified during the night, and, as the tide rose, the seas pounded the steamer’s hull to pieces. The only survivor was a dog, and it died shortly after reaching the beach. A woman’s diary washed ashore; her final entry scribbled during the storm. “The ship has struck. We shall be lost. Lizzie dies tonight.”
A support to the back of the chair came from The Express, a sidepaddle steamer which lost her way in the fog and ran aground on Bon Portage Island 1898, her steel bow aimed directly toward the lighthouse. Passengers and crew safely climbed off the ship and ate an evening meal with the lighthouse keeper while awaiting rescue vessels. The Captain lost his ticket as a coastal trade master for that mishap, and worked in lesser capacities for the shipping line until 1900, when he got a second chance with another sidepaddler, The City of Monticello. The retiring captain said to his successor, “You stubbed your toe once trying to do too much with the Express. If you bring your boat in two days behind, the company won’t find much fault with you provided you DO bring her home and don’t leave her a wreck or stranded someplace. But if you keep the ship out and get her knocked to pieces in a gale, the company won’t want you anymore….” Fateful words, because on his first command the Monticello steamed into a tyrannical storm and the ship quickly realized every engineering flaw to its design. The wind pushed against her broad side, dipping the sidepaddle into the deep-troughed seas; shifting the cargo and ballast. The water just poured into the side of the ship. It sank within 5 miles of the shore and only 4 were saved. The Captain was among those lost, as was Mr. Gilbert’s nephew, Levi, Emma’s son, who had just signed on to the ship that fall. A back support to the chair is from the City of Monticello.
The wreck represented by the most pieces of wood is The Castilian, which went aground off Yarmouth on her maiden voyage with no loss of life. At least none from the crew. One of the ‘wrackers’ from Shag Harbour named Kinsman Smith drowned when his dory overturned. Mr. Gilbert also joined the ‘wrackers’ on that one and described the frenzy of the salvagers stripping the ship of cargo and livestock. One man got hit on the head by a
flying wheel of cheese; and another was seriously injured when he got between a ham tossed from the upper deck and a dory below. The rules of ‘wracking’ required that items salvaged be returned to town where the owner or the insurer sold them at auction. The ‘wrackers’ got a percentage of the auction price. “As generally the case,” Gilbert once wrote, “we were not enriched very much for our time and labor spent in salvaging the materials.” Consequently, few wrackers played by the rules. They raced to get out to a wreck and left with salvage before it could be inventoried; one “wracker” in town flew out of the house in his red long-johns and his wife chased after him with a pair of pants.
Another cross piece comes from the Anglo Saxon, a Donald McKay clipper, barely eight months into service when it went aground just off Shag Harbour at Duck Island. The ship was carrying a theatrical troupe to England, and had a lot of gold pieces on board. Mr. Gilbert remembered how fisherman went out to Duck Island at low tide, “with shovels and tubs and when the sea would run out, they would scoop up a few shovel-fuls of sand and then run from the returning wave back on the shore, overhaul the sand that they had scooped and sometimes would be rewarded by one or more gold pieces.”
A cross bar came from the Kaiser Wilhem’s yacht, when it was dismantled in Halifax during the First World War. One of the bottom slats is from The Aberdeen, a Canadian Coastal Service steamer lost off Seal Island in 1923 under the command of Mr. Gilbert’s neighbor and friend, Loran Kenney. The pair of gilded brackets under the arms came from the cabin fittings of a barque, Blanche Thomas wrecked off Shelburne at what is now known as Blanche, named for the wreck. Mr. Gilbert got one of the gilded brackets from Grammy Ida’s father, who lived on nearby Cape Negro Island; ; but didn’t know how to incorporate a single bracket to the chair. One day he was discussing the dilemma with Kenneth Larkin of Emerald Isle, who went into his barn and returned with an almost identical bracket from the same wreck. Mr. Gilbert wasn’t the only one to save such junk.
Smaller pieces, carved into decorative maple leafs, came from more diverse and historic vessels, Although not a wreck, two leaves are from wood saved from the USS Constitution when it was overhauled in the 1920s. Another leaf came from a Danish ship captured by Lord Nelson, The Pyramus.
The last piece of wood he received for the chair came from the Titanic. The wood was sent to him in 1930 by a clergyman named Canon Cunningham, who was likely aboard the ‘body boat’ from Halifax commissioned to search the wreck site for victims and debris. He carved a simple leaf from the wood, and it decorates the chair; but no one knows which leaf is from the Titanic. For a man with a penchant for precision, Mr. Gilbert never wrote out a complete catalogue to the pieces used in the wreckwood chair. It was all in his head. Mrs. Richardson visited with the Old Chairmaker in the 1930s and made detailed notes of his verbal tour, and later published a catalogue for the local historical society. But even she didn’t identify which leaf came from the Titanic. Visitors were always interested in that piece of wood. In fact, the most tiresome visitors to the Old Chairmaker’s parlor were those only interested in touching the wood from the Titanic. I suppose it remained anonymous for fear of vandalism. The Old Chairmaker knew which
piece came from the Titanic and had no reason not to tell Mrs. Richardson; but, if he did, each took the secret to their graves. Some things are best left to the imagination.
IMAGINING MR. GILBERT
For all we know of Mr. Gilbert, there is still much left to the imagination. If he were to sit with us today one would meet a tall, lean, erect man in a black suit. He always wore a vest, even when digging potatoes, and a flat black railroad cap. From his vest pocket hung the gold chain of his pocket watch, precisely set and wound as part of his morning ritual. His eyes were a grey blue; his face round, with large ears; and he had a drooping white mustache on his upper lip. He would be glad to be here, as he set great store by history.
In his journals he recorded weather and fishing conditions; births, deaths; the day he got his yearly pig (‘our 1941 pig was purchased today on 4th April 1941’); how much milk he got from his cow, Jersey Lily; even a cure for bedwetting. His journals also reveal Mr. Gilbert’s politics. In 1938, after a particularly bad fishing season, the Federal Government granted relief to the fishermen, but the Provincial government insisted they work for it; and the only men who could get work were men who were married, since married men with children typically voted Conservative. Mr. Gilbert, a Liberal, like most residents of Shag Harbour, channeled his distaste for the political mischief in a poem:
”But this did not suit Premiere Angus (McDonald)
As it was against his code
And all the help we got from him
We worked out on the road….
There is one thing that is not quite clear
With all the toil and strife
Why some men did not get any work
Because they had no wife
His politics paid off when he was appointed the official clerk to the giant scales on the government wharf. Any item requiring an official weight, like fish or Irish moss brought in from the sea, or coal dug from the piles delivered to Mr. E.R.’s store, were placed on the scale. Mr. Gilbert carefully adjusted the weights and scrutinized the numbers and wrote out the official weight. Kids liked to climb on the scale and get weighed and Mr. Gilbert happily obliged; sometimes weighing a kid alone, and sometimes in a cluster. The children all walked home with a slip of paper, dated and declaring their weight as measured by the municipal appointed official of the Scales. Although a bit aloof from his own children, who silently regarded the Wreckwood Chair as a kind of third sibling, and a competitive one at that; Mr. Gilbert was very involved with the children of the village. Every other Friday, alternating with Captain Loran, he went to the schoolhouse and delivered a talk on some interesting show ‘n tell. Once he brought a cannonball found on Bon Portage from a volley with American privateers in the early 1800s. Another time he brought in samples of rock found around Nova Scotia. One child remembers holding a
piece of gold Mr. Gilbert passed around the classroom, and believed him to be the richest man in Shag Harbour. And, of course, he had the chair; and at least once a year he brought it to the school and allowed every child a chance to briefly sit in it as he told his tales of ships lost at sea.
Mr. Gilbert’s fame as The Old Chairmaker sprouted some curious off-shoots, such as an entry in a Ripley’s Believe it Not column. As part of a newspaper promotion, he once had his handwriting analyzed by a woman in New York. She concluded: “This is the handwriting of a somewhat restrained person, one who is friendly and social but not demonstrative or expansive, a person of exceptional poise and good sense; he is, I judge, generous but not extravagant. The writer is a person of good taste; he is mindful of convention—is quite conservative. He has a critical mind, is strong willed, very practical; is not easily swayed from any purpose or aim. He is very kind hearted; is probably interested in reform movements, social welfare and the like; he is naturally altruistic; is a good neighbor; is public spirited, a strong and useful member of the community. He is sufficiently social and affectionate, but not over emotional…”
Curiously, the handwriting expert omitted his strongest characteristic. Mr. Gilbert was obsessively creative. He was a writer and a woodworker, and a painter. He once completed a large canvas of a schooner built by his grandfather, using left over oil paint bought for the house the season before (and carefully noted the expenditure in his journal). He had a touch of the inventor as well. He created a double-spooled device over which he wound his newspaper columns so they could be read without fingers tearing the pages or smudging the ink. He liked new gadgets. He went around town and took pictures with an early box camera; sometimes sending them to the newspaper. He snapped pictures of Franklin Roosevelt’s yacht when it moored off Emerald Isle in 1936, along with the military escort and the crowded press boat. Folks around town remember him taking pictures of their latest boat or car or family gathering. He then he brought them the developed picture in one of his homemade wooden frames. He always signed his name on the back of the frames, just as he did on his maple leaves. Gilbert Nickerson, The Old Chairmaker, Shag Harbour, Nova Scotia, Canada. He who so valued historical memory, himself wanted to be remembered.
If Mr. Gilbert were here for a visit, Miss Ida would be here too. She’d likely raise her hand and tell us he was an impractical man, especially where money was concerned. The family was poor, and my grandmother recalled many a fish in the pot coming from a neighbor during the “hard times.” At one time, Mr. Gilbert mortgaged the family home to Captain Kendrick down the road (and paid it off in 1924) Yet, Grammy recalled, Mr. Gilbert always had the money for stamps and stationary for his correspondence, and for books. In the depth of the Depression, in 1932, Mr. Gilbert paid $2 for a little pup for his son Austin. $2 in 1932 would be $100 today, if not more. The dog was called Towser, but if his name were left to Miss Ida she’d call him Midas because he cost a fortune. Both Grammy and Austin remembered a lot of stiff moments between their parents over money.
Mr. Gilbert was a spiritual man. He was a founding member of the Methodist Church, built in lower Shag Harbour in 1885. The congregation consisted mostly of Nickersons and Kenneys; it is some gauge of the limited membership when the first marriage conducted in the church occurred ten years later, on Christmas Day 1895 between Loran Kenney and Mr. Gilbert’s niece, Lillian Gertrude, or “Gertie” It wasn’t the first time a Kenney married a Nickerson. Leonard Nickerson Kenney, Captain Loran’s grandfather, married Mr. Gilbert’s grandmother’s sister, Priscilla. Then, years later, Mr. Gilbert’s daughter Eva married Captain Loran’s son Joseph, further tangling the branches of their family trees. Mr. Gilbert described the family sitting at the dinner table for Christmas 1941: “Today at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert Nickerson was a family gathering consisting of themselves, their daughter, Mrs. Joe Kenney and her four children, Emelene, Buddy, Lillian, and Marilyn, who are grandchildren of Mr. and Mrs. Nickerson, and also their great great nieces and nephew; and Captain and Mrs. LA Kenney who are also grandparents to the children, and Mr. Nickerson is also an Uncle to Mrs. Kenney and a second cousin to Captain Kenney. A very nice Turkey dinner was enjoyed…”
Mr. Gilbert was intense in his pursuits, and passions; but he also knew how to relax. On Tuesday nights he and Grammy Ida walked up the road to listen to Amos ‘n Andy radio show with Howard and Deborah Kenney. Mr. Gilbert played the fiddle, and on Sunday afternoons the family parlor featured little musicals with Gilbert on the violin, Ida on accordion, and Austin on harmonica. Grammy didn’t have any musical gifts. She just hummed.
He was a very sentimental man, although, true to the handwriting expert’s analysis, he did not express his emotions well. He best articulated his feelings in his private journal. In one of life’s tragic misunderstandings, the last time my grandmother saw Mr. Gilbert, she left believing he was mad at her. She had come home from Yarmouth with the kids and spent a week in Shag Harbour before the family moved to the States in 1944. When it came time to say goodbye, Mr. Gilbert was sitting in the corner of the kitchen, his head bowed in deep concentration as he worked at his carving. His daughter said “It’s time to say goodbye, Papa,” but Mr. Gilbert did not get up; he didn’t even look up, and she left in tears. She never saw the entry he made in his journal that night; she never understood how torn he really was.
August 26th 1944
BREAKING HOME TIES
The family of Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert Nickerson came to the ‘parting of the ways’ this week as their family who have been with them this week broke up and may never all meet again. Their son Wm Austin Nickerson came home from Labrador where he had been serving in Military Service for a year. Then their daughter Mrs. Eva Kenney of Yarmouth, but who is now moving with her family to Wollaston, Mass. Her children, Emelene, Buddy, Lillian, and Marilyn came down for a week, and then went back to Yarmouth;
and this morning they were to leave for St Johns enroute to Boston. And also this morning Austin took his leave for Dartmouth to take up his military duties.
Again and tonight the Old Couple are alone as they were when they were first married in April, 1905
“All have scattered and moved and fled,
And when I ask, with words of pain
When will they meet again?
The old clock seems to make reply,
His poem was prophetic. Mr. Gilbert did not live to see his son or daughter again He died after a short illness in 1945, at age 86. He is buried in the churchyard at the top of the hill. On his tombstone the world is reminded he was a local historian; but he himself made history too; and remembered best as a gentle man. When the Old Shopkeeper, Mr. E.R. Nickerson, learned of the Old Chairmaker’s death, he wrote to Grammy Ida: “We have been friends since the day when he took me as a boy of about ten up to the Still Waters and initiated me into the mysteries of catching trout, and later used to go to his house evenings and listen to him read aloud to his father and others. I remember the class he used to teach Sunday mornings in the Sunday school in the Methodist Church, and the interesting Bible Studies we had there. He was a customer of mine during all my business life there, and there was never a jar in our business relations.
If, as the poet Burns said, An honest man’s the noblest work of God, he was one of the Maker’s masterpieces”
Sifting through old clippings and photographs my mother kept in a trunk, I found Mr. E.R’s letter in the wee hours of the morning, long after Shag Harbour was quiet and sleeping. The next day I walked over to the churchyard where Mr. Gilbert lays and gave his tombstone a pat, and wondered if we would ever know the likes of this man again.
I expect the answer is,