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The Essex Shipbuilding Museum is easy to miss. Housed in a modest shingled building, it fits right in with the other historical structures in downtown Essex. Some people have called it a “stealth museum,” beloved by those in the know, but not doing much to court attention. Lately, though, that’s begun to change.

“It’s been a community grassroots, but very off-the-radar operation for a long time,” says KD Montgomery, who was appointed executive director of the Essex Historical Society and Shipbuilding Museum in 2021. “One of my goals is to get us onto the radar. Let’s make sure people know we’re here and what we have to offer.”

Shipbuilding has been at the core of Essex’s community identity for more than 350 years. In 1668, town leaders set aside an acre of land on a bend in the Essex River, adjacent to the present-day museum, as a municipal shipyard. By the 1850s, at least 15 shipyards in town were launching 50 vessels a year. These builders were the major producers of the iconic fishing schooners that still ignite imaginations today.

The Essex Historical Society was formed in 1937 to preserve that history, and the museum opened in 1976 to share it. “The cornerstone of who we are is that we’re carrying on hundreds of years of a legacy of craftsmanship,” Montgomery says. “We are a community center for cultivating that culture.”

In pursuit of that goal, the museum includes exhibits that trace the compelling history of shipbuilding in the region and its impact on the local economy and culture, archives packed with original plans for ships, and written documentation and photos of the process. There’s a working shipyard on the site of the original municipal shipyard where visitors can lay their eyes, and even their hands, on wooden ships and the traditional tools and materials used to build and repair them. The museum and shipyard also play host to community events like a fall festival, a 1920s-style speakeasy party, and holiday wreath-making classes.

The museum is also doing its part to pass on to the next generation the knowledge and traditions that shaped Essex. Since 2017, the organization has partnered with the Topsfield Vocational Academy to bring in a cohort of high school students who learn the shipbuilding process from initial designs and milling lumber to final construction and sealing. In the process, students also have a chance to develop important soft skills like teamwork, problem-solving, and perseverance, says museum educator and shipwright Jeff Lane, who works with the students.

Mark Webster working with a student

This spring, the students are rigging an existing boat to make it easier to haul crab traps out of the river. In early April, four students, Lane, and Topsfield Vocational Academy teacher Mark Webster journeyed out on the river and arduously pulled up a loaded trap by hand to help the boys understand the mechanics of the process so they could better devise solutions with their rigging design.

“There are great lessons on how to hit an obstacle and move forward without that getting you stuck,” Lane says. “There are so many good lessons to be learned.”

Since joining the museum, Montgomery has been working to grow programming and let more people know about the hidden historical gem. The organization is expanding its mission to focus on environmental concerns affecting the river ecosystems. The crab traps the students are working with are part of the first environmental project: researching, documenting, and helping eliminate invasive green crabs from the river and the surrounding marsh. This added focus is a natural extension of the museum’s existing work, Montgomery says.

“We’re talking about this great story of shipbuilding, but you can’t forget that the reason it thrived is the natural environment,” she says.

The museum has also started looking for another school to partner with to replicate the success of the existing vocational education program. It has also started offering, for the first time, adult workshops. Last August, a salt marsh dory workshop let aspiring shipbuilders construct their own wooden dories, from start to finish, in a four-day course. And more such workshops are expected in 2024, as the organization continues its ongoing evolution.

“We are interpreting history that’s still being made, and that’s a unique and special thing,” Montgomery says. “We’re growing and changing with the times.”

66 Main St., Essex, 978-768-7541,