New Brunswick·Feature

A tale of a shed, a spat and a social media snafu

When a historic Maine shed floated away and beached itself in New Brunswick, reporters were calling from around the world. But the locals say no one's telling the real story.

When a small-town story about a runaway shed went viral, locals were left with a new set of problems

Michael Calder lays a board across the shed to guide his chainsaw as he cuts it apart. His company, Harper Calder and Son, as well as the American contractor Sunkaze Project Solutions, are overseeing the dismantling of the shed. (Julia Wright / CBC)

There wasn't a crazed looter in sight on Campobello Island Thursday afternoon.

Just a small construction crew from New Brunswick and Maine clearing away some now-infamous wreckage.

(Julia Wright / CBC)

Weirdly, a storm-beached shed has become one of the most famous American visitors to Campobello Island since the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who summered on the island beginning when he was a boy.

On Jan. 4, 2018, a storm loosened the brining shed from its rotting pilings in the McCurdy smokehouse complex in Lubec, Maine, about a mile across the water. The shed, built in 1907, was once the first stop for processing herring caught off the Maine coast. More recently, it was part of a museum on the last standing herring smokehouse in the United States.

The brining shed, as it once appeared. (Submitted by Courtney Crosby)

The shed drifted on the tides for two days before it was beached on a clam flat in New Brunswick.

The brining shed after it drifted off its pilings and across the Narrows, the body of water that separates Campobello Island from Lubec, Maine. (Heather Tenan)

In these days of grim news on the United States border, a 75-foot building going on a cross-border escapade was an irresistible image. The incident was chronicled by media outlets ranging from the CBC to the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, and Vice. The "shed" itself posts regular updates on a Facebook page (which lists, under employment, "retired & traveling the world by sea.")

As if the story weren't sufficiently bizarre, the shed also contributed to a minor government scandal.

Rachel Rubeor, a member of Lubec's local government board, was asked to take a one-month leave of absence after offending Canadians with her public comments on the "vandals" and "looters" who had "cannibalized" the building. Rubeor remains the president of Lubec Landmarks, the non-profit that looks after the site. She did not respond to a request for comment.

But according to folks from Maine and New Brunswick, no one's been telling the whole story.

And frankly, they're hoping the whole thing goes away.

The brining shed, submerged in foreign waters. (Julia Wright / CBC)

SOS: save our shed

On a freezing January morning with a light dusting of snow, contractor Michael Calder stood on the roof of the shed covered in sawdust and salt water.

(Julia Wright / CBC)

As the tide rose around the building, he laid down a long beam across its width and used it like a giant ruler to guide the tip of his chainsaw.

Once he'd sawed a neat section away, he tossed heavy chains around it and shouted a few words to his son, who used an excavator to hoist it up the embankment.

Michael Calder watches as his son hoists up a section of the shed roof with an excavator. (Julia Wright / CBC)

Piece by piece, father and son brought huge sections of roof up from the beach. It was a tricky job, but Calder seemed entirely in his element.

"No challenge," he said. "Just figuring out how to do it one step at a time. It'll tell you what it wants you to do."

Michael Calder throws chains around the wreckage to hoist it off the beach. (Julia Wright / CBC)

Calder has been in the salvage business since 1977. "But mostly I've been tearing 'em down, not saving 'em," he said.

"He's 69 years old but out there working like a teenager," said Peter Thornton of Sunkaze Project Solutions, the other contractor on the job.

Peter Calder, 69, started work Thursday at 6 a.m. “Hopefully [the controversy] will all go away after a while,” Calder said. (Julia Wright / CBC)

Thornton was packing in equipment for the winter when he got the call from Lubec Landmarks asking him to try to save the shed.

First, he thought he'd get someone to tow it back across the Narrows by boat, but "no one wanted to tow it because of the currents under the bridge," he said. "The Coast Guard was worried it would come apart right in the channel."

A fishing boat makes its way across the Narrows, a body of water with currents so fierce, Franklin Roosevelt dreamed of harnessing them for tidal power. No local captains would agree to tow the brining shed back to Lubec. (Julia Wright / CBC)

After "some horrendous weather," he said, "terrible cold, rainstorms and wind," they came up with a new plan.

Now, the idea is to salvage the long, heavy old boards — the kind you can't buy anywhere anymore — and truck them back to Maine to "build a scale model of it that they can put up in Lubec close to shore, and show people," Thornton said.

"It'll be an exact replica, but only 20 per cent of the size that it is now."

So far, there's no timeline and funding for that. The first step will be to get the pieces back to Lubec, which Thornton hopes they can do within a week. But if they find the money to build a replica, Thornton said he'd love to work on it.

After all, Thornton said, the shed is the "last one of its kind in the United States. [Lubec] is an old seaport city, and pretty soon it's all going to be gone. And then what do you got?"

The historic brining shed was showing signs of wear before it was ripped loose by a storm surge and floated over to New Brunswick. (Submitted by Lubec Landmarks)

'Raising you-know-what'

At some point — no one is clear on when — some quick-witted visitor rigged a Canadian flag around the shed's chimney.

The sentiment of the maple leaf waving jauntily in the wind was unmistakable — a clap-back from the so-called "looters" on the Canadian side.

Calder said he had "no idea" who put the flag up. Whoever it was, he said, was probably "just raising you-know-what."

After one American official accused Campobello Islanders of "looting" the shed, someone tied a Canadian flag to the chimney. Under Canadian salvage laws, said Michael Calder, people are entitled to scavenge items that wash up on the beach. (Julia Wright / CBC)

He doesn't mince words when it comes to the accusations from certain folks on the American side.

"There's nothing big anybody has taken out of here that I can see."

Contrary to selectwoman Rubeor's remarks, he said he's been over the whole building and the only chainsaw marks were the ones he put there himself.

"You see what it is. It's not like it's gold or anything. I guess the value is in the person that wants it, right?"

Folks from Maine and Campobello survey the progress at the site. (Julia Wright / CBC)

Pretty damned decent

Even if the shed was looted, the case is pretty clear-cut according to Canadian law, as far as Calder sees it, whatever washes up on the beach is fair game for salvagers.

"They could have taken whatever they wanted," he said. "They're being pretty damned decent by just letting the people have it back. They don't have to. The only things that people wanted were just little pieces for crafts and stuff like that."

Peter Thornton agrees, saying the folks in Campobello are "all nice people."

"They don't even have a gas station over here," he said. "Their only gas station is in Lubec. They come and go pretty freely, although it's a lot different than it was 20 years ago."

Contractor Peter Thornton said the people on Campobello are "all nice people" and the controversy over the shed has been fuelled by people speaking out of turn without thinking. (Roger Cosman / CBC)

As for the shed's 15 minutes of fame: neither Calder nor Thornton find that too exciting.

To them, time talking about the shed is time wasted away from the work – welcome work, at that, given that January isn't exactly prime construction season in either Maine or New Brunswick.

"Hopefully this will all go away after a while," Calder said. "Not really a controversy. Just a couple of people saying things they shouldn't be saying. As far as Campobello and Lubec ... we're all related as far as that goes. Been friends for years."

The picturesque view from Campobello Island, New Brunswick, looking over to Maine. The shed saga is a lesson, according to Michael Calder, about how fast a minor international dispute can escalate. (Julia Wright / CBC)

If there's any lesson to the shed saga, Thornton said, it's that words can move breathtakingly fast. It's impossible to predict where they'll end up — especially when they're exchanged between two very different countries.

"I think with Facebook, everything gets around so quick now, everybody doesn't have a chance to think about what they say," he said. He laughed.

"Maybe our president does that a little bit, too."

(Julia Wright / CBC)