ESSEX, Mass. - With a river basin view that mesmerizes, out-of-towners might miss the tree trunks stacked along the street by Harold Burnham's shipyard. But locals see these mounds of mostly white oak for what they are: the building blocks of the Massachusetts shipwright's dreams.
The raw stuff makes its way from the street to the sea, helping Burnham keep afloat a wooden boatbuilding culture in a town known for constructing more two-masted wooden fishing schooners than anywhere else in the world.
Many see the 45-year-old Burnham as a master of a dying art. At Burnham Boat Building, the Essex-born shipwright uses locally harvested wood and hand tools to build schooners with a modern adaptation of techniques used in Colonial times.
Burnham recently won a $25,000 heritage fellowship with the National Endowment for the Arts.
"This craft is so tied to place, in a way it's reconnected a town with its shipbuilding heritage that's sort of been lost," said Maggie Holtzberg, who manages the folk arts and heritage program for Massachusetts Cultural Council.
Burnham is the 28th member of his extended family to run a shipyard in Essex since the town incorporated in 1819, a tradition he can trace back 11 generations.
"It's as if he was born and had to do this," said Molly Bolster, who runs the New Hampshire maritime nonprofit
Burnham sees wooden boatbuilding as a local culture he helps perpetuate with local resources. Any wood that doesn't go into boat construction fuels stoves that heat the yard's lofting shop - and the house where Burnham lives with his family.
He trained at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, working as a merchant mariner on commercial ships and building wooden boats when he was onshore, before going full-time in the 1990s.
In 1996 someone hired him to build a 65-foot vessel. The Thomas E. Lannon now takes schoolchildren on sailing charters out of the fishing town of Gloucester.
Burnham counts each of his six schooners as a triumph and credits his community for helping him preserve the town's maritime culture. He said it's about keeping the art form going.
"It's been extremely difficult to have even built six," Burnham said. "But what I'm proud of, they all worked and they've been extremely well loved and taken care of by their owners."
Friends pitch in during construction, and thousands of locals show up when a craft creaks its way down greased slabs to splash into the water for the first time.
"He's not afraid to call his boats beautiful, because it's not just his work," said Tom Ellis, who commissioned Thomas E. Lannon. "It's the community's and everyone who came before him."
Burnham mills the wood he uses at the shipyard, preparing piles for the next schooner order he's always hoping will come in. When one does, Burnham designs, engineers, and constructs the vessel before he and his team launch it into the creek just off the Essex River.
Last year, he built a boat for himself. He was going slowly broke at the time, but friends, family and community members kicked in materials and labor to get the 45-ton vessel built.
Now Burnham captains that 58-foot schooner, Ardelle, on summer charters from a dock in Gloucester.
"With every boat, his reputation builds and it's not just that he's a throwback to the olden days," said Justin Demetri, a historian at Essex Shipbuilding Museum across the creek from Burnham's shipyard. "One man is almost encapsulating my whole museum."