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Bill Peterson’s ‘Mystic Built’ tells of village’s rich maritime past | daily-news-alerts

NORTH STONINGTON — Growing up by the Mystic River with a schoolteacher/storyteller for a mother, the Mystic Seaport in his backyard and a renowned Connecticut historian for a university mentor, William N. Peterson was destined to become a researcher and writer with a knack for telling stories about Mystic’s rich maritime history.

Peterson — a well-respected local historian who has written any number of articles (and presented many a paper) on regional maritime history — has just released a new book, “Mystic Built: Ships and Shipyards of the Mystic River, Connecticut,” a revised edition of his seminal book on Mystic shipbuilding.

The earlier book, “Mystic Built: Ships and Shipyards of the Mystic River, Connecticut, 1784-1919,” received the prestigious John Lyman Book Award from the North American Society of Oceanic Historians for the best book published on American maritime history when it was published in 1989.

Published by the seaport museum, the new book is a 406-page, hard-cover, fully illustrated volume with 225 period photographs, paintings and other images, including views of 89 “Mystic built” vessels.

“Mystic Built” includes expanded discussions of the importance of shipbuilding to Mystic; the important place of Mystic-built ships in American maritime history; appendices containing chronological lists of the vessels built at each Mystic shipyard and all the known vessels built at Noank; additional details on the individual shipyards and the supporting trades and industries; and shipbuilding in Mystic through the 1900s up until the launch of the schooner Amistad in 2000.

Peterson, now 74 and a North Stonington resident, drew on more than 40 years of research in manuscript archives, period newspapers and historic photograph collections to describe the individual shipbuilders and shipyards, place them in their local and national contexts, and detail the histories of 563 vessels built in Mystic between 1784 and 1919.

In the book, Peterson writes about the early shipbuilders who established shipbuilding in Mystic after the American Revolution:

• The three Greenman brothers, who introduced large-scale shipbuilding at Mystic and established the Seventh Day Baptist community of Greenmanville, which produced 97 vessels.

• Charles Mallory, who came to town as an itinerant sailmaker and prospered to build ships and manage whalers and shipping lines.

• Mallory’s sons Charles Henry, who was a renowned yachtsman, and David D., who built steam engines and tried to introduce iron shipbuilding at Mystic.

• Mason Crary Hill, an orphan who became a master ship carpenter, modeling some of the fastest and most distinguished clipper ships of the 1850s.

• The Greenmans’ protégé, William Ellery Maxson, a skilled designer and builder.

• DO Richmond, who specialized in yacht construction for more than 50 years, and the shipwrights who labored in the yards and in supporting trades, such as blacksmithing, mast-making and ship carving, who contributed to the shipbuilding industry.

Peterson, who earned his bachelor’s degree in history at Eastern Connecticut State University — where he studied with the late David M. Roth, a noted Connecticut historian — spent more than 40 years as a staff member at the seaport museum, retiring as senior curator in 2009 and continuing today as curator emeritus.

On a recent afternoon, Peterson sat inside the living room of his North Stonington home with late winter sunshine streaming through an enormous, arched picture window. Claire White-Peterson, his wife of 44 years, sat across the room, a ceramic bowl full of white miniature orchids sat in the center of a round table in front of him, and by his side de ella was his cane de ella and a copy of the new book.

Peterson, a former member of the North Stonington board of selectmen, a founding member of the Mystic River Historical Society, a member of the North Stonington and New London County historical societies, a member of the North Stonington Community Grange No. 138, a longtime volunteer at the North Stonington Fair and member of the North Stonington Volunteer Fire Department, had a stroke in 2013. Years of physical therapy have done wonders, he said, though his cane remains nearby, a handy aid.

In the cozy living room — where pale blue walls were filled with tasteful original paintings of mostly Mystic artists — conversation flowed to many areas: from gardens and prize-winning squash (both Petersons love to garden and Peterson earned a few blue ribbons in his day ) to Labrador retrievers (White-Peterson raises Labradors and is the president of The Pawcatuck River Labrador Retriever Club) to Steven Spielberg (Peterson was a consultant for the movie “Amistad” and met both Spielberg and Matthew McConaughey) and Fess Parker (an early inspiration for Peterson and White-Peterson named one of their labs Davy Crockett).

But the discussion always came back to the Mystic Seaport (the couple first met at the seaport where they both worked), his book, to boats, photographs and to the many people Peterson credits as inspiration.

He devotes two pages to the people who helped and inspired in his “Acknowledgements” section, including a tip of the hat to his wife: “My special appreciation is offered to the photographers of Mystic Seaport Museum, Mary Anne Stets and Claire White-Peterson They are both unsung heroes of this and I dare say many other Mystic Seaport publications.”

“David Roth was very much an inspiration,” said Peterson, who also did graduate work at the University of Rhode Island.

Another inspiration, he said, was a man named Lou Pellegrino, who was in charge of the grounds and maintenance at the seaport when Peterson was a college student and worked there during the summers.

“He taught me about gardening,” Peterson said. “I worked my way through college working for him in the maintenance department.”

“The late Harold Cone was an inspiration too,” Peterson said, referring to the former New London County Historical Society president. “He was an old-school gentleman… a World War I veteran… I learned a lot from him.

“I spent a lot of time at the Westerly library, too. I read The Westerly Sun, the Narragansett Weekly and the Literary Echo.”

“I enjoyed the research,” he added. “That was the fun part. The writing was the hard part.”

“And Carl Cutler,” said Peterson, who was the Carl C. Cutler Chair of Maritime History and Material Culture at the seaport. “I actually met Carl once when he was visiting the seaport. He wrote a lot of important books and I was very happy to be named the Cutler chair.”

Peterson also praised his friend, editor Andrew German of Mystic. (“His knowledge of maritime history is second to none,” he said.)

“And of course, Jim Giblin,” he added. “Jim was really pushing to get me to reissue the book. He pushed the Noank stuff.”

Giblin is a former seaport museum employee who served on the board of trustees from 1984-2005.

Peterson devoted a chapter of his book to Noank’s shipbuilding history and pays tribute to Giblin and his generosity in a notation on the front of the book.

The book is dedicated to Peterson’s mother. “To Virginia F. Niebling, my mother,” she reads the dedication, “for her early patience and guidance from her.”

“She was a learned woman,” White-Peterson said. “She did the New York Times crossword puzzle in ink and she lived to be 102.”

“She taught in a one-room schoolhouse,” added Peterson.

Peterson also co-authored with Peter M. Coope “Historic Buildings at Mystic Seaport Museum” (which received an Award of Merit from the Connecticut League of Historical Organizations), contributed to “Boats: A Manual for Their Documentation,” which was published by the American Association for State and Local History, and to the highly acclaimed book “America and the Sea: A Maritime History,” published in 1998.

He was also the historical adviser and contributing writer for Connecticut Public Television and the Connecticut Humanities Councils collaborative documentary, “Connecticut and the Sea” (which received the Wilbur Cross Award in 1990), and has written about the Mystic ship carvers and the New London Jibboom Club, a 19th-century seamen’s fraternal organization.

He also served as curator of the Mystic River Historical Society, and has been the North Stonington Town Historian since 2013.

Although he hasn’t seen a copy of Peterson’s new book yet, Tobias Goodman, a retired Westerly physician who serves as president of the North Stonington Historical Society, called Peterson “a valued senior member of the society.”

“He is highly respected and his experience and advice is appreciated,” Goodman said one day last week as he spoke about the historical society and Peterson’s contributions.

“I’m just happy it’s out,” said Peterson.

nbfusaro@thewesterlysun.com

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