Friday, March 25, 2016

Modeling the Albert Baldwin

An early view of the Albert Baldwin overwintering on the Annisquam River1
Photograph courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum
Howard Chapelle's article1 on "Rockport Granite Sloops"  in the July, 1931 issue of The Mariner, presenting drawings and photographs of the Albert Baldwin, precipitated great interest within the ship modeling community. At least one reader set out in pursuit of her still tangible lines.

The Baldwin in Smith Cove, Rocky Neck c. 1930
Photograph courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum
Having only the plan and side elevation of [the steam winch and windlass] I decided to go to Gloucester and photograph the necessary details. My first trip was rather unsuccessful for the simple reason that I had neglected to take into account that there is a tide....The boat was sitting serenely in the mud, and I very nearly did the same, though not serenely, while trying to get as close as possible for details of the bowsprit and rigging. My second trip was better, in that I got aboard, but somebody had walked off with the very thing I had come for, the winch.2 

Modeler/author A. Hutton Vignoles published the fruits of his quest two years after Chapelle in The Mariner.

The first Albert Baldwin model, 1933 by A. Hutton Vignoles2
Noted carver Percy Ashley caught the Baldwin spirit about this time. He produced a model that eventually came into the collection of the Cape Ann Historical Association in 1954.

The reception of the Percy model occasioned a retrospective newspaper article
Gloucester Daily Times, February 25, 1954
Captain Percy's model is on display today at the Cape Ann Museum, along with one contributed by local carver Bill Niemi. All this interest stimulated Gloucester ship's rigger Erik Ronnberg, Sr. to take up the motif. His son Erik Jr. was close at hand.
     My father built his first model of the Albert Baldwin back in 1954 or so. I was ten years old at the time. He owned it a long time before he sold it. I used to open up the hatch covers to investigate what was going on underneath. That was my secret piggy bank for a few years until my father caught me messing around with it. I loved that model.
Erik Ronnberg Sr. at the dining room table c. 1954
     Every evening back in the '50s, when the dining room table was cleared off, out came the shipyard. That was the best time of the day as far as I was concerned. If the job my father was working on happened to be particularly boring, my mother would come and read to him. I'd be there puttering away quietly. At about five years old my father handed me a block of balsa wood and rasp and encouraged me to go to it.

During his college years Erik Jr. took on his first "serious" scratch-built model, the Albert Baldwin, using the same Chapelle plans that his father had. As it progressed his school interest waned. The project in its incomplete stage landed him a job at the renowned industrial model-making firm Atkins & Merrill in Sudbury "where I got a real education."
     I took my mostly-finished model of the Albert Baldwin down to Mystic Seaport to see if they had any information that I could use for further detailing. At that time John Leavitt was Curator Emeritus. I left it in his office and came back later to see him. He wanted to know, "Is this model for sale?" I said, "Yes, sure!" "How much? $1,500? $2,500?" I chose the more modest of the two figures, never having gotten more than $100 for a model before that. He said, "Well finish it up and bring it here and I'll see if I can find one of our trustees to fund the acquisition.

Model of the granite sloop Albert Baldwin
Erik A. R. Ronnberg, Jr.
In the collection of the Mystic Seaport Museum.
Achieving realism in miniature requires diligence in research and execution. Erik discovered important photographs at the Peabody Essex Museum. One taken by a friend of the skipper from the mast crosstrees during her active years showed additional deck details.

The Baldwin from aloft
Photograph courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum
Further digging turned up a catalog illustrating the Baldwin's windlass along with a product endorsement from her skipper:
Catalog of the American Ship Windlass Company c. 1895
 The detailed drawing enabled Erik to fabricate this feature with precision at a scale of one quarter-inch to the foot using machinery at Atkins & Merrill.
The Albert Baldwin moored at the Hyatt's wharf, Annisquam
Photograph from The Mariners Museum, Newport News VA,
courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum
Research and imagination bring the model maker into the spheres of the shipyard and of the mariner as he reconstructs their world. Looking at the Baldwin's hull Erik analyzes every detail appreciatively. On the upper rim of the hull he notes "the wales are usually thicker planks that follow the shear line below the deck level. They go down several strakes. They add very materially to the longitudinal strength of the hull."

This structuring figures into the painting scheme. "On the bottom it was copper paint, then black rails with a white stripe. Between the waterline and the wales the hull was white leaded. The white lead made sense. It was probably the toughest paint around for protecting wood. In any event it gave her a very distinctive appearance. You can usually spot her at about a mile in most of the photographs."
Rigging at the juncture of the main mast and top mast
Erik Ronnberg's model of the Albert Baldwin
High above the deck the wind-harnessing features converge in a wonder of complexity compounded by the stone-lifting gear, a tribute to engineering and seamanship. The excellence of the reproduction at an intimate scale fosters admiration for the chain of tradesmen who could produce and work such a vessel in an earlier time. The model transmits a sensual experience that goes beyond information into art for appreciative museum visitors.
1. E. D. Walen and Howard J. Chapelle, "Rockport Granite Sloops," The Mariner: The Quarterly Journal of the Ship Model Society of Rhode Island, April 1931.
2. A. Hutton Vignoles, "Model of the Granite Sloop Albert Baldwin," The Mariner, July 1933
3. Photographs otherwise unattributed have been supplied by Erik Ronnberg. Italicized passages are from interviews with Erik.

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