Ship model a tribute

Guests look over the shipyard diorama recently unveiled at the Carpenter Museum in Rehoboth. (Staff photo by Elysa L. Coles)

REHOBOTH — Artists Jim and Lynda Plante build model ships. The late Frank DeMattos, curator of the Carpenter Museum, knew talent when he saw it. He admired the Plantes' work.

Jim Plante made a promise to DeMattos. If DeMattos could find proof that just one ship was built in Rehoboth, he would build the museum a model.

A year went by before Plante heard from DeMattos. Out of the blue, DeMattos stopped by with the answer to the question.

“He said I might not like the answer to the question. He found 137 of them,” Plante said. “He asked me if the offer was still good. I said, `Absolutely.”'

During the nine months it took to build the model, DeMattos visited the Plantes every day. “At the end, he was coming to the shop every day, like an expectant father” Plante said, describing DeMattos' love for the project.

DeMattos was known to do almost anything to land a talented artists exhibit, for display in the museum. Plante sealed the deal, and delivered the model to the museum in January. DeMattos was there to see it through, and died just two days later.

Mason Street and Barney Avenue have something in common. They were named in honor of Mason Barney, a man rumored to have built more ships than any man in the United States. He built the ships at the Mason Barney shipyard in Rehoboth.

Barney wasn't born with a hammer in his hand. When he took over the shipyard from his father in 1801, he had no carpentry skills and no shipbuilding experience. He was a businessman, specializing in hiring and organization.

DeMattos found 137 ships that were built at the Mason Barney Shipyard from 1803 to 1858.

The ships were built in the shipyard located at the Rehoboth/Swansea border and were towed to Warren, Rhode Island, for launching.

The ships were made out of lumber from Dighton and Rehoboth trees, and some iron form the Palmer River Iron Works. The shipyard was eventually edged out, when steel vessels were introduced in the late 1850's.

However, they Mason Barney ships were quality ships, that varied in style and use, including slave ships, coastal traders, whaling vessels, canal boats, and the gunboats used by the government during the Mexican War.

But there was only one clipper ship built at the shipyard, The Sparkling Wave.

According to historians, she was magnificent. Launched in 1853, she had three masts, and measured up to her weight of 656 tons.

In 1854 she also pulled her weight, selling for $50,000 somewhere in New Orleans.

The Sparkling Wave was a very fast cargo ship, who served the waters well, holding the passage record for the route from Montevideo to San Francisco for over 20 years.

The British eventually bought her and she sailed under the British flag for years to come, and was also used as a blockade runner during the Civil War.

Researching and building

While researching the history of the shipyard, Plante was allowed to visit the grounds, which are now privately owned by residents. Plante said the neighbors were helpful in the research, and even gave him parts of history to work with and donate to the museum.

A piece of the original shipyard was used to build the ship model. It came from a ship mast, built as Mason Barney. In years to come, the historic mast was later used as a flagpole. “We cut off a piece of that and used the wood from an original ship mast, to make the model,” Plante explained.

Plante learned there was also a blacksmith shop located on the property itself, a neighbor found an anchor chain and gave it to Plante to donate to the museum.

The Rehoboth Antiquarian Society commissioned the Plantes, and after a tremendous amount of historical research and detailed craftsmanship, the diorama depicting The Sparkling Wave being built in the Mason Barney shipyard was unveiled at the Carpenter Museum Barn.

The Mason Barney exhibit will be a permanent part of the museum.

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