Stephen Shay is a talented craftsman who turns out a wide array of wooden folk-art pieces from his workshop on the shores of the St. Lawrence River in Maitland, Ontario. He operates under the name, “The Wood Shepherd,” in homage to his past career as a Christian clergyman, and signs all of his work with a custom-made brand which incorporates a shepherd’s crook and his initials.
Recreating History One Piece at a Time
The broad range of subject matter that Steve draws on for inspiration to produce his art includes wildlife, architecture, planes, trains and ships, to name a few. He may be working on a beautiful lighthouse scene one day, a playful school of fish or a colourful bird the next, and a World War I era biplane as a follow-up. I dare say that there aren’t many things that he wouldn’t consider modelling!
The items the Wood Shepherd produces that caught my attention, however, were his ship models, and in particular, those of the early 1000 Islands tour boats. Having grown up in the Finger Lakes District of New York State, and spending summers on the St. Lawrence River, in the 50s and 60s, Steve experienced firsthand the many wooden boats and “Lakers” that sailed on the lakes and River. As a youngster he also had a chance to ride on many of the 1000 Islands tour boats that operated out of Alexandria Bay and Clayton, NY. These early memories of boats developed into a lifelong passion and now make up a significant part of the Wood Shepherd’s creative endeavors.
Some of the first 1000 Islands tour boat models that Steve created were of the “Uncle Sam” vessels which operated out of Alexandria Bay. The models were made in his signature “folk art” style and were not meant to be a true scale replica of the original. The early models captured the essence of the tour boats, but they were not all that historically accurate, as far as the details were concerned.
Over time, Steve began collecting more historical information on the old boats and that allowed him to refine his models significantly. Although the later models still retained the charm of Steve’s artistic style, they were definitely more reflective of the originals. Characteristics like the shape of the hull, the size of the cabin, the number of windows, the placement of accessory components, such as navigation lights, air intakes, railings and flags were all studied and incorporated into the models. Steve’s models are now not only true works of art, they are historically accurate representations of the original tour boats.
For the most part, the wooden “folk art” items are hand crafted from repurposed, first-cut Upper Canada pine salvaged from the floorboards of houses, barns and boat houses built by early Upper Canada settlers. The hulls of the model boats are shaped by hand in the shop, and the other various wooden components are also fabricated on-site. The final steps in the production of the tour boat models include painting or staining, assembling all the components together and installing the accessory parts. Unique touches, such as the brass wingnuts that are used as propellers, give each model a distinct personality and charm.
The Thousand Islands tour boats that Mr. Shay has modelled to date have grown into quite an impressive list. Included in the group, in addition to the early “Uncle Sam” models, are several of the “Miss Brockville” boats, “Miss Clayton I” and “II,” “Pat II,” “That’s Her,” “Elva II,” “American Venus,” “Spray VI,” “Maxine III,” and “Lynda VIII.”
I couldn’t complete this article without sharing an interesting anecdote regarding the “Lynda VIII” model, one of the old Gananoque Boat Line tour boats. I used to see this boat a lot when I was a kid heading out on the River in my little punt. It would be tied up near the swing bridge in the Gananoque River along with the other “Lynda” boats. When Mr. Shay asked if I had any pictures of the original “Lynda VIII” that I could share with him I was only too glad to do so. I was thrilled when he let me see the first pictures of the completed model before he made them public. My request to share the pictures on Facebook was granted and I posted them on one of the popular Thousand Islands group pages. The posting generated a lot of discussion and eventually word of the model reached Lynda Beckstead, for whom the boat was originally named after. Lynda and a friend showed up at the Wood Shepherd’s studio one day soon afterwards to see the model and ended up purchasing it. As I told both Lynda and Steve, I couldn’t think of a better person to acquire this beautiful piece of Thousand Islands history!
The 1000 Islands tour boats that Mr. Shay builds, not only help to support his business, they are also a big part of his personal philanthropy. Several model boats have been donated to support worthy causes. A model of the “Maxine III,” one of the old Combined 1000 Islands Boat Tour’s boats, was donated to the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, to be used for fundraising. Steve also offered a model of the “Pat II” to the Finger Lakes Boating Museum in Hammondsport, NY. The “Pat II” was a 1000 Islands tour boat from 1924 until 1956, when she moved to Skaneateles Lake to become a mail boat, and is currently undergoing a complete restoration at the museum. The folks in Hammondsport were so impressed with Steve’s model they asked him if he would be willing to build another one that they could use in a permanent display. The request was happily granted. The WPBS public television station in Watertown has also been the lucky recipient of several of Mr. Shay’s folk-art pieces over the past several years.
Wooden tour boats haven’t been built for use in the 1000 Islands since the 1960s and very few of the old boats have survived the ravages of time. Most have fallen prey to the two mortal enemies of wooden boats, rot and fire, and have long since either been taken apart or burned. Thankfully, through the efforts of Stephen Shay, the memories of these lovely old boats are being preserved for a whole new generation to enjoy and appreciate. Thanks for your exceptional work Steve and keep those beautiful models coming!
By Tom King
Tom King and his wife Marion have lived in Milton, Ontario for the past 37 years, where they both worked and raised their family of three children; Kris, Mike and Becca. Tom still has a strong attachment to the Thousand Islands, having grown up in Gananoque and being a “River Rat” from a very early age. The family tries to return to the islands every summer and for the past several years have been renting a cottage on Sampson (a.k.a. Heritage) Island, just out from Gananoque - we say tries, as this summer's high water put a damper on the holiday!
This is Tom’s 21th article for TI Life! He is our “go-to” historian for Tour Boat history, and he has once again hit the mark. Be sure to see all his articles here – but watch out for the dock spiders!