Just before Thanksgiving, a special load of Kentucky timber began a two-day pilgrimage to Massachusetts.
The 30-foot planks will become a part of history that stretches back to the founding of America. The wood was the first of what is likely to be several batches of boards destined for the Mayflower II at Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum affiliated with the Smithsonian and dedicated to the English Pilgrims and their 17th-century colony at Plymouth, Mass.
The Mayflower II is a re-creation of the original Mayflower and was itself the culmination of several dreams: In the 1950s, the Plimoth Plantation commissioned naval architect William Baker to draw up designs for a ship to exhibit near Plymouth Rock; meanwhile, an Englishman named Warwick Charlton wanted to build a replica to honor American help during World War II.
Eventually the two groups agreed to collaborate and build one ship that would be given to the United States. In 1957, the finished ship sailed across the ocean in 54 days, and it has been on display almost every summer to visitors from all over the world. But it has rarely been under full sail since that first voyage.
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Still, every year, the ship must be inspected by the Coast Guard. In 2012, the inspectors and ship builders determined that repair work was needed to the wooden hull, constructed of English oak in the traditional manner.
That winter, the shipwrights began by taking off the outer planking. They quickly discovered that a major refit would be required.
Where to get all the wood? To rebuild the 90-foot hull of the four-masted, square-rigged sailing ship would take very long, three -to four-inch-thick boards, without any knots, as well as specially shaped wood for ship parts like futtocks and knees, none of which can be obtained at a lumber yard.
Enter Terry Conners, University of Kentucky forestry professor. His family has lived in Plymouth since the 1970s. In fact, his father, Tom Conners, 87, works at the Plymouth visitors center.
"He let me know the Mayflower needs renovations," Terry Conners said. "I was thinking, 'They need some white oak.' Because a ship is basically an inside-out barrel — with bourbon you want to keep the liquid on the inside, with a ship you want to keep the water out. It has to be both strong and watertight."
Conners followed news of the restoration effort and posted an article about the repairs on his office door at UK.
One day, about a year ago, part-time forestry grad student Clint Patterson was reading that article when Conners looked up and asked if Patterson knew where they could find wood.
"I was familiar with the Mayflower project ... but I assumed somebody had come up with the wood already," Patterson said.
Actually, no, Conners said, "They're hard up, they can't find any."
To repair the ship would take special trees.
"He asked if I thought we had any of the size and quality to meet those needs," Patterson said. "I said, 'I think we do.'"
Patterson isn't just a grad student; he also is the forester for Berea College, which owns 8,600 acres of managed woodland about two miles east of town, not far from Daniel Boone National Forest.
Berea College in Madison County has a forest because of horticulture professor Silas C. Mason, a pioneer in conservation.
"He had a vision to buy a large forest holding so the college would have its own wood source, to help raise funds for college and to help secure the water supply," Patterson said. "That was a very visionary thing for anybody to do."
Mason began buying large tracts in 1897. One of the major benefactors was a Boston woman named Sarah Fay, who endowed a fund that allowed the purchase of thousands more acres, according to a history of the forest.
The link to Massachusetts was an important reason Patterson and Berea were eager to help with the Mayflower II.
"I thought it would be a really interesting project to be involved in and I saw a value to connect our history with the history of the Boston area," Patterson said. "I'm all about the history of the forest and tying it in with a project like that. So I went out and tried to find some trees."
Like a lot of Kentucky's forests, the land the Berea Forest is on had been largely cleared for farm and pasture land by settlers.
Conners had considered UK's Robinson Forest, but it had been clear-cut as late as the 1920s.
But the Berea Forest had been regrowing for more than 100 years.
Patterson scouted a few pockets of old growth forest that had never been cut. But nothing would work.
"You can find trees this big, this old," he said "But it's really hard to find clear wood to 30 feet. Usually, after 16 feet, or sooner, you have limbs and knots."
Then, after an ice storm hit the region in February, Patterson was clearing forest roads of downed limbs. As he was going along a route to a popular lake, he glanced up an old logging road no longer in use.
"The log road goes up a steep hill, and I saw this huge tree that had fallen across that log trail, and I walked up there to check it out," Patterson said. That white oak was perfect. Straight, tall and — most importantly — without lower limbs.
He found nine more trees close to that one.
"They had to be growing very close together with other trees, so they would shed limbs early on," Patterson said. "And they had to be on a fertile site to grow that tall in the first place. And the right species."
He has since counted the rings and determined the trees were about 90 years old; they started growing in the years just after Mason purchased and began managing the land.
Patterson later found two more trees, closer to a road.
To cut the wood and saw it would take a rare saw, with an extended carriage. Getting everything coordinated took time.
Finally, in March, they did their first test cut, and managed to get one plank out of the tree. One perfect 30-foot plank.
Conners shot close-up video of the plank from one end to the other, and showed that video to the Plimoth Plantation people working on the Mayflower II project.
Whit Perry, captain of the ship, said they were very excited when they saw the quality of the wood.
"These are beautiful trees that Clint Patterson hand-selected out of a managed forest," Perry said. "It's very hard to find the quality they have available. Beautiful."
The shipwrights began working on ways to simplify the process, and in November it all came together, with a team from Holderness, N.H., that specializes in working on historic wooden structures such as covered bridges coming in just to transport the 25,000 pounds of planks.
The rest of the trees were harvested: they managed to get 22 planks and other pieces of wood from them.
Arnold M. Graton of New Hampshire, who handled the transporting of the structural timber, made sure the planks were swept and kept clean every step of the way.
"To get that much clear wood takes a special tree," Graton said. "Has to be straight grain, and really the best of quality because they have to bend it into quite a few strange shapes to fit the hull."
Just before Thanksgiving, the Kentucky planks were shipped to Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, where the Mayflower II was towed for the winter.
"We have been trying to develop a collaboration with Mystic for several years," Perry said. "They are the Holy Grail of traditional wooden shipyards. We couldn't be more excited to be working with Mystic and Berea, these two educational institutions."
Mystic Seaport, which is a world-renowned museum and maritime research facility, recently restored the 1841 Charles W. Morgan, the last surviving American whaling ship.
Every summer for the next few years, the Mayflower II will return to Plymouth for high tourist season, but in the off months the Mystic shipwrights will turn their attention to completing the multimillion-dollar restoration in time for the 400th anniversary in 2020 of the Pilgrims' landing on Plymouth Rock.
And for that they will need much more wood.
"The ship is in the shape to be expected of a 57-year-old vessel," Perry said. "Lots of structural and cosmetic issues. That's why we need so much of the nice white oak Berea College was able to provide."
How much? About 2,300 board feet, Perry said.
Including at least 60 planks, plus futtocks and knees. Futtocks, the curved ribs of the hull, are especially difficult because the wood must be growing that way naturally. Knees, which are L-shaped braces between the futtocks, also must come from wood growing in that shape.
So Patterson has been looking for more trees.
"I've found five more trees they might want," he said. "Two have bends in them that I think they might want."
He's sent pictures to Perry, and they hope to get the trees cut and shipped for sawing this winter.
Eventually, the partnerships between Berea College, the Plimoth Plantation museum and Mystic Seaport museum could branch out in many directions.
Patterson hopes to get a sawmill for Berea College to use and involve students in the project. He thinks they can provide tulip poplar bark for Plimoth Plantations' native huts and maybe get their help building one at the Indian Fort site being developed in the Berea Forest.
Perry wants Patterson and others involved to visit the ship in Mystic, see the wood they cut being woven back into history.
"Square-rigged ships are the last of a real interesting breed," Perry said. "In the 17th century, squared-rigged ships were very sophisticated, state-of-the-art machinery. ... At that time period, these were cutting edge for transport."
Patterson hopes to visit in February or March, once the work is underway. Looking at all the pieces that had to fall into place to get the story, a hundred years or more in the making, to this point — the trees growing just so, all the right people in the right places at the right time — he wants to see where it goes next.
"I'm a big proponent in things happening that are meant to be," Patterson said. "I think things like that have significance. I'm not superstitious, but I recognize it when that happens."