Gilbert Nickerson started collecting pieces of wreckwood when he was but a lad. There were many wrecks in those days, and many “wrackers” (as they are still called) men who sprang to small boats the instant a ship was known to be ashore. Eager to save lives, yes; but more eager to be first on the scene and have the pick of the ships rich furnishing and its cargo. Filled with a frenzy to cheat the sea (and the legitimate owners!) of everyone possible to be boated away, and to demolish what they could not carry off, they hacked and cut at the beautiful woodwork and furnishings and perhaps threw a likely looking piece or two into their boats. Others garnered choice bits from the driftwood that lined the shores when a ship had completely broken up. Then, long after, when the greed and the excitement had died away, a man might see a piece of wood about his barn or fish-store and say to himself: “There’s that stick I got off last winter’s wrack, no earthly use to me. Cal’ate I’ll send it to Gilbert Nickerson; he sets great store by such trash, they say.”
As Gilbert’s hobby became known along the coast others, who had treasured bits of wreck-wood, felt that such pieces should become part of a permanent collection rather than be lost or thrown out when those who knew their stories should be gone. So the collection grew, and Gilbert began to fashion little tables and sewing-stands from wreck-wood and finally made his chair—to be followed by others, but only the first has its pieces numbered and listed and thus identified. From small bits he carved picture frames and maple leaves which he sold to visitors who came to see his chairs and who wished souvenirs of their visits.
To them, as to me, Uncle Gilbert would point out the faded pink bow on the back of the chair; it came from the wreck of the Hungarian. Ah yes, the Hungarian. The very name was a lament in his ears and mine. I touched the faded bow lightly and told of a doll’s petticoat, made for my grandmother’s doll; the brown and black plaid silk from the Hungarian’s cargo is still strong. Unconsciously we spoke of the Hungarian in hushed voices, as people along this shore still do, nearly a century after her loss. That was a tragedy to daunt the greediest and most hard-hearted wracker, for all her 205 passengers and crew perished. Much of the cargo was later salvaged and many young ladies of the district had their first silk dresses fashioned from the rich materials of the Hungarian’s lading. Every woman on Cape Island, they say, sported a beautiful silk parasol. I wonder if sometimes they did not feel through their finery a chill as from sea-filled hold where drowned bodies rubbed against the bales and boxes, and if, in the swish of their silken skirts, they never heard the still spiteful hiss of a glutted sea.
We turned from the saddening memories of the Hungarian. Every bit of wood in the usual chair could tell its tale of fair voyages, or perilous ones; of despair and often death, as the ship of it which had formed a part found its final berth. The history of our long dangerous coastline is here, written not with pen and ink but with knife and saw and hammer and out of a deep love for the past.
The Wreckwood Chair by Evelyn Richardson
Available for purchase at Cape Sable Historical Society