Friday, July 2, 2010

Helping to Keep Old Ironsides Shipshape

By Larry Favinger
Staff Columnist
For two-and-a-half years a South Berwick man fought the commuter traffic to and from Charlestown, Mass, five days a week to work on a piece of United States history.
Sunday (July 4), Barry Person and a host of others will sail out of Boston Harbor as part of the USS Constitution, the Navy’s oldest commissioned warship.
“It was a bit of a challenge but really exciting,” Person said in a telephone interview from his South Berwick farm.
Person’s work was part of a three-year project to refurbish the renowned Old Ironsides, a project that should come to a close in November. The work was done partly to ready the ship for the centennial celebration of the War of 1812. It was during that conflict that the Constitution earned her nickname.
The Constitution gained fame in August of 1812, when under the command of Connecticut native Isaac Hull she met and defeated the HMS Guerrier. English shots bounced off the Constitution’s thick oak sides, thus gaining her name while she was destroying the enemy ship.
Hull went on to a distinguished Naval career including becoming the commander of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in 1813 and building Quarters A at the yard, a building which still stands and is the oldest structure at the yard.
Each year the Constitution goes on a turnaround cruise from her berth in Charlestown which allows her to remain a commissioned Navy vessel and allows each side of her to face outward during the year.
“I never did any service,” Person said of not being involved with the military, “but it felt like that is what I was doing” while working on the ship.
Person was part of the Naval Historical Center, Detachment Boston, Department of Defense, which was charged with the refurbishing.
Person said it was a “temporary, fulltime position” which meant when “the time frame ended you left.”
Upon his arrival with the first group of additional carpenters hired he said he did “odds and ends” as they awaited the arrival of the necessary materials.
One of the first things Person did was replace the two “cat heads on the ship.”
The cathead is a large beam located on either bow of the ship, angled outward. It is used to support the ship’s anchor when raising or lowering it, keeping it away from the sides of the wooden vessel.
Person said large equipment was needed to put these in place as they weighed in at about 2,300 pounds each.
It was a common practice to carve the projecting end of the beam to resemble the face of a cat.
Once that was accomplished he helped the entire crew replace the spar deck of the ship, the first level when visitors come on board the ship.
After that, he said, “they moved me around to different places” including a project to foremast in the front of the ship.
He has done historic restoration of old houses and barns and learned of the project while doing a barn repair for the late Joseph Frost of Eliot. He applied and was among the initial group of carpenters hired. More was added later in the project, he said.
While not working on historic ships Person said he “loves to farm” and “loves raising pigs. I’ve been doing that since I was a kid.”
He combines his love of farming and historic restoration doing work with the New Hampshire Farm Museum in Milton repairing buildings to their original configurations.
Originally from the Midwest, Person came to New England in the summer of 1987 and has remained ever since.
He is married to Julie Person, a guidance councilor at the Rollinsford Elementary School, and the couple has two children, Madison, 8 and Baylor, 10.
Person said the time spent on the job “took a toll on everybody” in his family. The drive took between 50 minutes and an hour each day. He was up and out early every day performing farm chores before leaving for work. He was there between 5:45 and 6 each morning, returning home in late afternoon.
In addition to his farming Person also does wood carvings, especially large herons. His work is available in galleries including the N.W. Barrett Gallery on Market Street in Portsmouth.
Photo caption: A South Berwick resident has spent the past two-and-a-half years helping to restore the USS Constitution. ( photo)