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Canoe restoration nearing completion

Rick Castellano, director of the Island County Historical Museum, looks over a 170-year-old canoe that once belong to Chief Snakelum. The cedar canoe is being restored and will become the centerpiece of the museum’s Native American exhibit. - Michelle Beahm photo
Rick Castellano, director of the Island County Historical Museum, looks over a 170-year-old canoe that once belong to Chief Snakelum. The cedar canoe is being restored and will become the centerpiece of the museum’s Native American exhibit.
— image credit: Michelle Beahm photo

After two years of hard work, a 170-year-old canoe that once belonged to Chief Snakelum is almost finished being restored.

Rick Castellano, executive director of the Island County Historical Museum, has taken a personal interest in the historic canoe and is even putting the finishing touches on it himself.

“It’s been a goal of mine to get this restored ever since I got here eight years ago,” Castellano said.

With very little left to do, Castellano took charge of painting the exterior of the canoe.

However, restorers are reluctant to paint the interior of the canoe at all, partially to allow viewers to see the hard, complicated work that went into restoring the canoe as authentically as possible, but also to avoid covering up the remnants of the original paint.

This type of canoe, a popular style that was, according to Castellano, “like the Model T Ford of canoes,” and was always painted black on the outside, and usually red on the inside.

This canoe, however, was painted blue on the inside. Because of it’s unusual color, the historical society wants to leave the interior of the canoe unpainted.

Chief Charlie Snakelum was a prominent Skagit tribal leader and Central Whidbey resident. He lived from 1843 to 1943, according to the National Park Service.

The restoration, funded by grant money from the Swinomish and Tulalip tribes, as well as the Coupeville Arts and Crafts festival, has taken two years and three carvers.

Steven Brown started the restoration project, but according to Castellano, it was Gordon Grant who did the majority of the work and much of the intricate fittings for the round patches. Jim Short was brought in for the finishing touches before Castellano started painting.

Other than the painting, all that is left in the restoration is to finish caulking the cracks on the inside of the canoe, with the traditional cedar bark, although the restoration is being done with cedar bark saturated with water-based glue, instead of the traditional tree pitch.

“When we moved the canoe, it was a wonder it didn’t fall apart, because of the cracks,” Castellano said.

Between that and years of people picking off parts of the canoe for souvenirs, there was a lot of work to be done.

“It’s just been worth every minute of it,” Castellano said. “A once in a lifetime opportunity for everyone involved.”

Once the restoration is complete, the canoe will be moved to the Swinomish Lodge for a few months while the museum’s basement is prepared for the new exhibit.

“It will live indoors for the rest of its days,” said Castellano, of the canoe. “It will be the centerpiece of our new Native American exhibit.”

Often, restorations are forgone on historical artifacts to preserve the original pieces, but Castellano wanted this canoe to last for years.

“This is one of maybe two or three left of this age,” he said. “I don’t mean in Washington, I mean anywhere. It’s just a beautiful example of craftsmanship.”

Castellano expressed hope that the exhibit and canoe would be ready by early summer, and plans on a community celebration when it is brought back to Coupeville. He called the celebration “the culmination of a two-year project and a long-term goal,” and a welcome home party for the canoe.

 

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