WISCASSET — Stan Lucien, a craftsman from Old Town, clambered aboard the pile of wet, unstable debris in the old Wiscasset landfill, carrying chainsaws, wrenches and safety gear.

He was standing atop the remains of the Hesper and Luther Little, two four-masted schooners abandoned in the Sheepscot River in the 1930s that ultimately became a U.S. Route 1 tourist attraction and a beloved local landmark. The decrepit ships had been hauled out of the river and were now a jumbled mass of mud, iron, wood and shells. The Douglas fir masts had already been removed. The wood Lucien was after was oak, and the decades it had spent in the Sheepscot mud had turned it shiny jet black, like coal. It was hard as cement, and gave off a terrible stench.

Lucien’s goal over the next two to three hours (and two or three broken chainsaw chains) was to gather enough of this unsightly mess to make something beautiful of it again.

“You think about the number of people who have stopped” to view the ships, Lucien said as he recalled the day he combed through the wood, “the number of photographers, the number of artists that have painted those ships in various stages of decline over the years… You know, I’ve heard people say that they were the two most photographed ships in America.”

It’s been nearly 20 years since the surviving wood from the famous schooners was either sold or given away to anyone who wanted it, including craftsmen who took the rotting wood and transformed it into furniture and art. Thanks to this most unusual experiment in recycling, today the two ships live on in turned bowls, writing pens, tables, art frames and even a stunning kitchen.

It’s become fashionable to salvage old-growth timber from the depths of Maine’s lakes and rivers to use in modern flooring, furniture and other projects. But those are old logs that have been preserved and “reharvested,” notes Will Miller, a cabinet maker from Auburn who made a kitchen out of the remains of the Luther Little. The schooner wood, Miller said, represents “the ultimate reclaiming of materials and reusing them, from one usage to another.”

ABANDON SHIP

The sailing ships Luther Little and Hesper were built in Somerset, Massachusetts, in 1917 and 1918, respectively. Their primary job was to haul coal and lumber. They were purchased in 1932 and brought to Wiscasset by businessman Frank Winter, but a few years later his business failed, and the ships were abandoned in 1936, the victims of Winter’s mounting debt and a depressed economy.

For decades, the ships languished in the Sheepscot River. Curious travelers crossing the bridge on U.S. Route 1 watched them decay in slow motion. For many, it became force of habit when traveling north to turn their heads to the right and check on the health of the vessels. Teenagers tried to sneak on board to explore them, and during the town’s 1978 Fourth of July fireworks celebration, the Hesper caught fire.

Over the years, a succession of storms took their toll, until finally one big storm managed to fell the masts of the Luther Little, and the ships became more of an eyesore than an attraction. In 1998, the town decided to demolish them and take their remains to the old dump on Huntoon Hill Road.

Bob Blagden, a selectman at the time, helped haul the wood in a 10-wheel dump truck after it had been brought to shore by a barge at high tide. He made 160 trips to the landfill himself and estimates there were 300 loads in all. The town identified and set aside a few things it wanted to save – a rudder, a couple of bollards, the masts and some of the rigging. But mostly, Blagden said, “It wasn’t like a pile of lumber. It was more like a pile of mud with wood sticking out of it.”

No surprise little was left after more than six decades of neglect.

“People have been scavenging off those ships since the 1930s, from the moment they were left behind,” said Ben Rines Jr., a town selectman. “People took the sails and made smelt shanties out of them. A lot of it got used.”

In spring 2001, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection ordered the town to move the ships’ remains to a more secure location because of concerns about contaminants. The town, which had already paid $70,000 to move the ships, decided to open up the piles of debris to the public on a couple of summer weekends so they could take home a piece – or truckload – of Wiscasset history. Rines said at least a couple of hundred souvenir hunters showed up, including a couple from as far away as New Jersey.

All the kitchen cabinets in Cheryl Thayer’s home have been made from wood that was reclaimed from derelict schooners. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

“Many, many homes have some sort of knickknack from the tall ships,” Rines said. “When they were dismantled, many people got brass spikes and copper nails and stuff like that.”

Stan Lucien had tried to get permission to scavenge some wood while the Hesper and Luther Little were still in the water. Lucien, owner of American Heritage Pens, makes fountain and refillable ballpoint pens out of historic wood. He has made pens from the U.S.S. Constitution, the original floor boards of Boston Symphony Hall and a game-used bat from the New York Mets.

The town turned Lucien down a few times, but when he finally got a yes, Lucien spent several hours on two huge mounds of debris cutting up wood. It was, he says, “a mess.” But he gathered a pick-up truck load of wood and got busy making pens.

Some of the wood retained its original oak color, so he made some pens that were partially oak-colored and partially black. Lucien estimates he sold a couple thousand of the pens at craft fairs. He still has “an armload or two” of the wood, all of it jet black, and he still sells the pens, charging between $30 to $65. But now that so much time has passed and he no longer does craft shows, he doesn’t get many orders.

LAND BAR

The Twin Schooner Pub, part of Sarah’s Café, already had a mural of the Hesper and Luther Little painted on the plaster wall behind the bar when the ships were scuttled. The painting was done in 1996 by Glenn Chadbourne, a Newcastle artist who specializes in horror and fantasy and draws covers for Stephen King’s books. Bartender Greg McAllister said customers still ask about the schooners’ fate “every day.”

“Nothing lasts forever,” he said. “The state called them a navigational hazard. I don’t know why. They were stuck in the mud, and the channel’s on the other side of the river.”

A piece of wood salvaged from the schooner Little Luther rests on the bar at Twin Schooner Pub. Wiscasset is home to several examples of products made from reclaimed schooner wood. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

The pub salvaged some planks from the landfill and made a wooden frame for the mural. The frame, which is draped in tiny white lights and lined in front by a row of liquor bottles, still has peg holes from the original schooners. Two lobster buoys hang from the top, in between Boston Celtics and Red Sox pennants.

Several tables have also been made from the schooner wood. Anthony Vincent, a custom woodworker from Richmond, owned the Maine Table Co. in Brunswick with his friend and fellow Navy vet Will Ober back when they heard the Hesper and Luther Little were being dismantled. They managed to get 4 to 6 timbers and milled just enough boards from them to make a large dining room table. Vincent said when they cut the wood, it smelled like gun powder.

“We were talking about going back and getting more wood to make matching chairs,” Vincent recalled, “but by that time it was gone.”

The table was 7 to 8 feet long, and for a few years the men took it with them to home shows. But they didn’t have room to store it long term, so eventually they donated it to Maine Public Television for its annual auction. Vincent still has a few small pieces of wood left over; he plans to use them to make decorative butterflies.

One day Peter Asselyn, a woodworker from Durham, visited their workshop and they gave him some of the schooner wood. Asselyn likes doing historical pieces – he recently finished nearly 500 bowls made from a tree planted in the late 1800s by Joseph Brackett, the Shaker who wrote “Simple Gifts.”

Working with the schooner wood, Asselyn said, was “just terrible.” It dulled his tools immediately, so he constantly had to sharpen them.

“It was like trying to turn a piece of cement,” he said. “They were almost petrified, and the whole shop would just stink of clams and clam flats. It was really nasty work.”

Asselyn estimates he made five pieces total, and kept just one thing for himself – a small vessel shaped like a cup. “It’s another knick knack that my wife has to dust,” he said, laughing.

For several years after he sold his last bowl, Asselyn said, he continued to get phone calls from people inquiring about them. Once a woman from New York called, but all he had left was a tiny piece of wood. “I sent it to her and I guess she’s using it as a door stop or something, but she really wanted a piece of the ships,” he said.

Cheryl Thayer’s home has been accented with wood that was reclaimed from derelict schooners, including the rafters and window trim. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

GORGEOUS GALLEY

Of all the objects we learned about made from the schooner wood, the showstopper is the kitchen of Bill and Cheryl Thayer. Their kitchen cabinets are made from the Douglas fir masts of the Luther Little. The masts were salvaged before the town of Wiscasset let the public loose on the ships. There was talk of doing something special with them, Blagden said, but nothing ever came of it. Some of the masts were given to a Dresden laser engraving business that planned to turn them into plaques to be sold as memorabilia, with a share of the profits going to the town. But the business folded after it made just a few. One still hangs in a meeting room at the town office today, lined with nautical rope and engraved with an image of the two schooners.

Blagden rescued the rest of the mast wood from the Dresden business, and eventually – about 10 years after the public giveaway of wood – it was put up for auction and purchased by local builder Paul Ruff. Around the same time, Bill and Cheryl Thayer were in need of a new kitchen. The home they had lived in for 22 years had burned down in 2010, and they wanted to rebuild. They went to Blagden’s sawmill to pick up wood for a new mantle, and that’s when they first saw the Luther Little masts.

“I got in the truck,” Cheryl Thayer recalled, “and I said to my husband, ‘Boy, wouldn’t that be nice to put in our kitchen?’”

Both Thayer and her husband grew up in Wiscasset and learned about the Hesper and Luther Little in school, “and the older you get, the more interested you are in them,” she said.

First they called the men working on the kitchen, Dave Eddy of Knox Eddy Builders and Will Miller, the cabinet maker from Auburn. Both said they would love to work with the wood, so the Thayers bought it for $2,000.

All the kitchen cabinets in the Wiscasset home of Cheryl Thayer were made from wood that was reclaimed from the derelict schooners. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Though the Thayers own their own business, Bill Thayer has also worked for the town’s highway department for 38 years, and Cheryl Thayer for the school department for nearly 25 years, “so it was kind of special that we had a piece of the ship in our house.”

The new honey-colored cabinets were so beautiful they practically glowed, and Thayer was nervous about actually using them. They were installed in the fall of 2012, and that Christmas it was her turn to entertain 28 friends and family. She had visions of scratches and scribbles, courtesy of careless guests and unattended children, but the cabinets made it through the party just fine. The cabinets are solid, she says, and they clean up well with a little Murphy’s Oil Soap.

The Thayers kept a rough, unhewn piece of wood and had it installed just above the stove as a reminder of where the wood originated. She plans someday to hang a framed photo or painting of the schooners in the kitchen as well.

Cheryl Thayer’s daughter, Chelsey, made this tabletop from wood that was reclaimed from derelict schooners. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

The leftover wood was used as rafters and trim in other rooms, and by their daughter, Chelsey, to make a small table. Cheryl Thayer said her husband has considered making keychains out of the rest to give as thank-you gifts to the many people in the community who helped them after their house fire “just so people could have a piece of the ship. He may do that down the road.”

Miller said the Thayers’ “Luther Little Kitchen” marked the first time he’d ever transformed old wood used for one thing into a completely different useful object. The result, he said, “will hopefully last someone else’s lifetime.”

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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