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Cecil County Life

In the spotlight: The Chesapeake Wooden Boat Builders School

Dec 31, 2020 11:45AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
By Ken Mammarella
Contributing writer

They humbly call themselves students, although participants in the Chesapeake Wooden Boat Builders School have built, restored and repaired dozens of boats and models over three decades and have also become teachers, instructing members of the public, teens and each other in their craft.

And their studies, school co-director Bud Gillis repeated, are truly fun. “It’s a social thing, as much as anything,” he said, noting that some students at times gather outside their Tuesday evening classes to go out on the water or just go out to lunch.

The school is in North East Community Park, next to the Upper Bay Museum, with both in buildings that used to be part of the H.L. Harvey seafood processing complex on Walnut Street. “The goal of the school was, and continues to be, to teach wooden boat building skills using readily accessible materials as one way to perpetuate the maritime heritage of the Upper Chesapeake region,” the school says on its page on the museum’s website ( “We cater to the interested amateur who wants to build their own craft but are afraid to start.”

North East’s maritime heritage was in shad and herring (witness the name of Herring Snatchers Park, once known as a spot to snatch herring stuck by a dam), said Rick Bouchelle, president of Upper Bay Museum. Nearby waters are now mainly known for catfish, crabs, bass and yellow perch.

The museum displays three boats renovated at the school. One is a bushwhack boat, used for duck hunting in the mid-20th century and on loan from the Litzenberg family. A second is a punt gun skiff from the early 1900s and donated by the Coulter family. A third is a gilling skiff, used to tend nets a century ago, built by Sam Barnes (a relative of Gillis) and donated to the museum.

Gillis’ life is entwined with water and wood. He lives in Belcamp, close enough to the Bush River to often go canoeing with his two sons, his five grandchildren or “everybody.” His grandfather was a waterman, and his grandfather and father were woodworkers. “Since the mid-’70s I’ve had a canoe in my basement or my garage – 10 when I retired, and 15 or so now. It’s fun to take apart something’s that not worth anything and restore it. Very satisfying. When I saw the school’s shop, I fell in love.”

Gillis shares school leadership with Bob Silcox and Don Kerr. Students meet from 7 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays at the school, a nondescript building that is 30 feet by 60 feet, enough space to work on five or six boats at a time.

The school began in 1989 in conjunction with the Harford Community College. Today it’s affiliated with Cecil College, with students paying $175 a semester for the Wooden Boat Building, Repair and Restoration class. Most of that money goes to the boat builders school, and that financial arrangement also covers insurance and other background logistics.

A Teen Boat Building class, listed in the college summer camp brochure, allows the school to spread their knowledge to a far younger group. Participants create a double paddle canoe and get a water safety class.

As the school grew, it has relocated multiple times, with stints in the Seneca Cannery in Havre de Grace, in the old Post Office, in the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum and since 2014 in North East.

It all began with a Chesapeake Bay Sharpie, and over the decades students have built, repaired and restored a variety of boats up to 16 feet long, plus models. “We’re trying to teach students how to do the work, what skills they need and where to get materials, so they can do it on their own,” Gillis said. “Most guys have a boat or two at home they’re working on as well.”

Most of these guys are retirees, which gives them a different perspective on time and which also means they don’t count the hours they devote to a particular job. “We have always refrained from that,” he said about clocking their time. “Been there, done that. Don’t want to do it again.” That said, some boats have taken more than a year of work, including delving into their history.

Over the decades, some work has been on pay boats, meaning someone in the community paid to have the work done. Other boats have been raffled or purchased by students. And for potential students who have boats that they want to restore or a desire to build their own, Gillis advises signing up for a class. “Find out who we are, and we’ll find out who you are,” he explained.

As the school says online: “The school, unfortunately, does not have the space for every student to work on their own boat. We have also found over time that it is best for new students to start out working with under construction school projects.”

The largest number of students build and restore boats. The school also organizes itself with model making (some running with radio controls, some just to be displayed), canoe restoration, community education (traveling with an exhibit of skills and projects) and mini courses and demonstrations.

“Been there for over 5 years,” Craig Hank Passi wrote on the school’s richly photographed Facebook page. “Excellent staff and good eager students who share the spirit of renovating boats, great group to share laughters and [has done wonders] to serve our community.”

“Having the school next door is win-win,” the museum’s Bouchelle said. “It’s good for the park and the town. It’s another way to see our heritage.”

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