When Maritime Curator, Michael Dyer, introduced cooper (barrel-maker) Marshall Scheetz on Sunday, September 5, 2009, he referred to Scheetz as an “endangered species.” Scheetz is a journeyman cooper working in the cooper shop at Colonial Williamsburg. On his recent research trip to New England, Scheetz visited Mystic Seaport, Nantucket, and New Bedford, looking for historical evidence of major differences and similarities between coopers of rural Virginia and maritime New England. His research was funded by a grant from the Early American Industries Association, and provided for a public demonstration of the art of coopering.
During the demonstration Scheetz showed how a piece of wood was turned into a stave for a barrel, using hand tools that he brought with him. The staves were shaped by eye, and assembled with wooden or iron rings into a barrel. With the use of a special plane, a groove was shaped at the end of the barrel to ensure a snug-fitting lid. The skill of the cooper was essential in shaping a liquid-tight container, such as a barrel used for whale oil, wine, or beer. Barrels in nineteenth-century America were used for storing and shipping many other kinds of goods, including bread, butter, salted meat, and even spare sails for a whaleship. Coopers also produced buckets and piggins.
Scheetz examined records from whaling ships and whaling outfitters in the Museum’s Research Library, and delved into the Museum’s collection of objects with Maritime Curator, Michael Dyer. In particular, Scheetz was looking for the way “shooks” or bundles of barrel components (staves, heads, and rings) were constructed and used. He also examined gauging rods, calipers, and marking gauges.
Coopering is an ancient trade, dating back at least two thousand years. Marshall Scheetz believes that approximately two hundred and fifty coopers, and possibly more, were working around New Bedford at the height of whaling in the 1850s. Watching Scheetz at work with his hand tools was a way to step back in time and bring nearly-forgotten skills to life. It was a multi-sensory experience involving sight, sound, touch, and smell—Scheetz commented that the barrel on which he was working smelled like coffee. The slogan of Colonial Williamsburg is “that the future may learn from the past,” and Marshall Scheetz is an engaging ambassador for the traditions of coopering.