Throughout the summer, volunteer boat builders from the Alexandria Seaport Foundation have been constructing two punts at Mount Vernon’s Pioneer Farm. These small boats resemble a punt built by Sambo Anderson, an enslaved carpenter at Mount Vernon. As the team worked, they interacted with guests and taught them about the construction process, Anderson, and the role of boats and fishing at Mount Vernon.
Mount Vernon’s guests weren’t they only ones educated during this process. The ASF offers an apprenticeship program that teaches young men and women to build boats and important life skills to boost their self-confidence. Chris Adkins, a 19-year-old ASF apprentice from Florida, worked alongside the master boat builders to reconstruct Sambo’s punt.
Before this apprenticeship, Adkins performed manual labor at a family business. He experimented with carving knife handles and kendamas (ball-in-a-cup toys), and he discovered he enjoyed working with his hands. When a family friend told him about the ASF program, he knew he wanted to apply.
"I felt camaraderie with everyone and learned something within the first five minutes," said Adkins.
Each day, Adkins works on the boats and helping his fellow apprentices stay on task. Using wood from felled trees at the estate, he worked with period tools to cut the beams to size, bend them, and put them together.
"They say if you can build a boat you can do anything, he said. "Not only is specific math involved, you have to know every tool that's involved. You have to know varnishing, painting, fitting wood together, bending the wood. You have to measure twice and cut once so you don't waste any material."
While Adkins studied George Washington as our nation’s first president and a general during the American Revolution, he didn’t know about Mount Vernon’s Five Farms and Washington’s entrepreneurial ventures. Working on the Pioneer Farm encouraged Adkins to learn about Washington’s fishing operations and the role of the enslaved workers on the plantation. Thanks to the last three months on the estate, Adkins can discuss Mount Vernon’s fisheries and fleet with visitors.
"Working with other master boat builders is awesome, they are very knowledgeable about all aspects of carpentry. I was really psyched to get the opportunity to work here, not only to hear the history but to be able to work on a boat how they did in the past."
"I've learned perseverance and patience. I am really humbled by this program to exist and I had this opportunity. I think of building a boat like life. You can start from nothing and create art, and that's beautiful."
Adkins's apprenticeship will continue for several months, and at the conclusion he hopes to become an electrician or mechanic. Visitors can see the completed punts on the Pioneer Farm.