SHELBURNE, N.S. - Back in the day, Sidney Mahaney would row his own dory across Shelburne harbour to his work, where during his career he was instrumental in the building of thousands of dories.
He started building dories as a teenager and for the meagre wage of 45 cents a day. It was a big deal when he got a promotion. Plus it bumped him up to the $1-a-day pay bracket.
Mahaney, a master dory builder, was still building dories into his 90s before his death.
Long after his death in the 1990s, a cardboard cutout of Mahaney sits in the Dory Shop Museum in Shelburne. His spirit is ever present as the tradition of dory building lives on through the museum’s displays and upstairs where dories are still being built.
It’s here you’ll find Milford Buchanan, the Dory Shop Museum’s current master dory builder. Coming from a boat-building family, Buchanan learned the craft when he was eight, albeit back then it was mostly boat models he was building.
He hasn’t built as many dories as Mahaney did. But at around the 60 to 70 mark it’s still significant.
The building in which the museum is housed on Dock Street was built in 1880 by John Williams. At one time it was one of seven busy dory shops producing the wooden boats used in the days of the Grand Banks fishery.
Whereas now fishermen go to sea in fibreglass fishing vessels, in the 1800s and early 1900s they fished at sea in dories, loading them up with the fishing “technology” of the day, much of which is on display at the museum in the form of artifacts.
The flat bottoms and flared sides made the dories perfect for the decks of schooners and Canadian and American schooner captains coveted the boats.
CHANGES IN TIME
A lot has changed since then. The Shelburne Dory Shop is the only building left here still producing dories. The ones being built are for the Queen of Hearts Dory Club in Barrington, which during its season has dory row and rides on Tuesday nights at the Cape Sable Island Causeway from 6-8 p.m.
STEPPING BACK IN TIME
Even in the present day, it feels as you’ve stepped back in time as you step through the doors of the Dory Shop Museum in Shelburne.
Plus Buchanan, it turns out, is a descendant of Sidney Mahaney. They were distant cousins.
Buchanan has been at the museum for 18 years. He’s helped out by Mick Fearn, a volunteer who comes in as frequently as he’s needed, Fearn says. Asked why, Fearn responds, “I do it for the companionship of my friend Milford, that has to be it.”
Then after a laugh is shared between the pair he says, “I love building the boats. It’s something that gets into your blood.”
The same is true for Buchanan, who has been building boats for close to 40 years. So how does one become a master dory builder?
“I had to be certified. I had to have 12,500 documented hours. I had to have three letters from three professional boat builders who have been doing it for close to 30 years,” Buchanan explains. “Then I had to take an oral test . . . and of course they checked my work.”
The dories constructed now are still built as they would have been in the 1880s except they epoxy the bottoms instead of using cotton caulking. Cordless drills are used at times to speed up the process, but the planing of the dories is still done by hand. Mechanized equipment from 1920 is also still used.
And the dory clip created by Shelburne boat builder Isaac Crowell in 1887, which allowed builders to make dory knees by joining two straight pieces of wood together, is considered just as revolutionary today as it was back then.
Visitors to the museum are invited to do some work themselves on the dories. None can resist the invitation to hammer nails.
For his part, Buchanan loves meeting the people who come to visit the dory shop just as much as he loves building the boats themselves.
He also builds ship models, whirligigs, even the occasional coffee table.
“I guess you can call me handy,” he says.
Just like Sidney Mahaney.
Buchanan is asked how long he plans to continue building dories.
“Right now I’m looking until at least 75 so I’ve got another 15 to go. I just told you how old I am,” he says with a laugh. “But I love it. I can’t wait to get to work.”
The Dory Shop’s season goes to Oct. 15.
The museum is part of the Shelburne's Historic Waterfront Museums by the Sea complex and also part of the Nova Scotia Museum which includes museums and historic sites throughout the province.