“Beloved local historian.”
“The Old Chairmaker”, Gilbert Nickerson, 1859-1945, lived all his life in the yellow house in the field across from the museum. His grandfather was the last of the Nickerson boatbuilders in Shag Harbour; Gilbert’s father was the first, and only, member of the family to go to sea himself. He brought back stories of sea adventures, and, on one occasion, a figurehead salvaged from a wreck. The figurehead triggered his son Gilbert’s imagination as to the circumstances of the wreck and the people involved, and started him on a life-long journey of collecting wreckwood and documenting the stories of the wrecks. In the days before lighthouses and detailed mapping of reefs and shoals, many sailing schooners and early steamers were lost along the southern Nova Scotia shore. As a young boy, Gilbert collected pieces from local wrecks. When word spread of his curious hobby, he received wreckwood from witnesses and salvagers of other wrecks. Sometimes he joined salvage expeditions himself.
As a young man, in his mid 30’s, he started carving maple leaves from the wreckwood; on the back he wrote, in tiny script, a brief history of the wreck itself. Later in life, Mr. Gilbert fashioned chairs from larger pieces of wreckwood, which he had accumulated and stored in the upper loft of his barn (also still standing, across the road). The chair on display here is one of 3 wreckwood chairs he completed. The first, and most famous, is on display at the Archealus Smith Museum on Cape Sable Island; the wreckwood used in that chair was indexed by Evelyn Richardson in her pamphlet “The Wreckwood Chair”, on exhibit here.
The notoriety of this wreckwood chair brought many visitors to the front parlor of the little yellow house in the field. When Mr. Gilbert completed his verbal tour of the chair and its sad stories of shipwrecks, the visitor received a carved maple leaf as a souvenir. Other maple leaves were sold to tourists and local villagers. Many elders in town remember visiting “The Old Chairmaker” and his wife, Mrs. Ida, in the kitchen of the home, where Mr. Gilbert sat at a little table in the corner by the stove, amidst a pile of wood shavings, as he carved another leaf from a piece of wreckwood. One neighbor recalled, “Even as an old man, whenever he was brought a new piece of wood, his blue eyes went wide, and his voiced jumped a bit higher, and he sounded all of 9 years old, he got so excited.”
Mr. Gilbert developed an assembly line approach to these maple leafs, and worked on them in the evenings after supper. He used a few basic patterns. He traced the outline of a leaf onto a piece of the wood. He kept his tools 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 of blade.
These maple leafs know a lot of history. They were built into ships, and sank in the sea. They were reborn in a local kitchen amidst the chatter of village news, and knew the patient and skilled hands of a master craftsman.
And they survive them all.