Flora of Essex

Inspirations can be widely shared or private. We’ve all enjoyed being inspired by a chance encounter with someone who becomes a dear friend or reacquainting ourselves with an old friend presumably lost. Some are inspired by the myriad forms of performance and visual arts; others find inspiration in playing or spectating sports. Some are elated with breezy, warm, sunny days while others find gray, quiet days stir something in them. I belong to a small, elite group that drew inspiration for many years—in some cases many decades—from a 1906 oyster boat called Flora of Essex. Reports differ as to whether she was 53, 55, or 60 ft. long from stem to stern, but all agreed every pound of her 50 tons was magnificent.

Flora had been a working oyster boat until she was retired to a ship graveyard in Massachusetts. Half-submerged, she was purchased in 1967 by C. Stuart (“Stu”) Ingersoll of Essex, CT, a banjo player who turned it into a party boat. Together, man and boat became a legend up and down the Connecticut river and shoreline, all the way up to Boston and across to Long Island.

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The best way to visualize Stu is as a cross between Winston Churchill and W.C. Fields, though he was less gruff than the Prime Minister and not as funny as the comedian; the main source of humor when you were around him was how seriously he took everything. A bulldog of a man (an apropos description; he and several other banjo buddies graduated Yale in the early 1950s), Stu was indefatigable. When not playing the banjo or tuba, he acted as the owner/operator of the Essex Boat Works, the centerpiece there being a bright red corrugated steel shed that was 60-feet high, 120-feet wide and 100-feet deep, with two cavernous bays that were used as often to host banjo rallies as to tinker with boats.

Flora in the 1970's
Flora in the 1970’s

Flora lived at the Essex Boat Works. The red of the shed matched the red of her wheelhouse. There are photos of her (and a much, much…much…younger me among the partiers) sprinkled on this page. They all date from between the early 1970s to the mid-1990s. Several times a year from spring through fall I’d receive a call from Stu that went something like this:

“Jeff, I need you to play for me this weekend on Flora. The cruise is for (here you can insert almost any group: the Daughters of the Revolution; Essex Corinthian Yacht Club; the Rotary Club; exchange students from East Berlin; bigwigs from the Lego corporation; a private wedding, funeral, divorce, bar mitzvah, bris) and it should last about two hours. I’ll pay you $100 plus as much beer as you can consume.”

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“Great Stu!” I would reply, knowing I could at least double my pay in beer consumption, “What time do we launch?”

“No lunch will be served,” Stu intoned (he was always a trifle hard-of-hearing). “We leave at 4 pm so be sure you’re not late.”

“Will I be back in time to make my gig at the Griswold Inn that night?”

“It’s a distinct possibility.”

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[The Griswold Inn is still operating in Essex, CT. It is the oldest Inn in America; it opened on July 4, 1776, and has never been closed. The 9th owner has pledged it will last forever. I’ll tell more about “The Gris” down the line]

You might think this was a tony gig, and in some ways it was. Although I lived 40 miles away, the beer was usually warm Bud (or, if I was lucky, the least offensive of the watery US lagers, Busch) and inevitably the two hours became four, to be on that boat was always an undiluted thrill. Truthfully, I’d have done many of those gigs for free. I’d likely not be the only musician onboard; I’d often be joined by my friend, and Stu’s longest and best friend, Artie Doran (Yale class of ’53—they were roommates, born a week apart), bon vivant banjoist and ribald raconteur, or any number of orphan banjo players (some of these banjoists with—not against—whom I played ate those old banjo jokes for lunch with their skill). As well, the cruise would occasionally lead to better paying, but most often less fun, engagements.

Flora of Essex
Jeff Barnhart surrounded by banjos on the Flora. (photo courtesy Jeff Barnhart)

Most important, I didn’t have to schlep a keyboard onto the boat. Stu had bolted a fire-engine red piano onto the deck that he had built from spare parts. It sounded as good as you think it would…not very at all! It was also rather soft; if there were a couple of banjos and a tuba I might as well have been playing air piano. I’d get behind it and sit on the (red) bench, Stu would blow Flora’s LOUD horn, start the engine (using a laborious process I’ll describe when we revisit good ol’ Flora in a future installment), run up to the wheelhouse to—sometimes successfully—navigate around the yachts in his boatyard and AWAY we’d go, hurtling across the water at our maximum speed of eight knots—the snail-like pace being a prime reason we often returned dockside much later than planned.

The zenith of the year’s gigs was always Flora’s participation in the Antique and Classic Boat Rendezvous at the Mystic Seaport in Mystic, CT, the highlight being the Antique Boat Parade Flora led up the Mystic River, into Long Island Sound, and (hopefully) back the same day. In addition to the prizes she won listed in the caption below one of her pictures, Flora (and we) would often take home the “Best Entertainment” and “Most Spirited” awards. Somehow, there was seemingly nothing that connoted revelry and freedom like a massive tug-boat shaped scow bedecked with patriotic bunting and filled to the brim with, in addition to dozens of passengers, 25 inebriated banjoists wearing boaters (24—Art no longer drank), four lurching tubists wearing bowlers, a three-horn front line that should have been wearing more and one piano thumper that was wearing on everyone, besotted with warm beer and their love for humanity belting out “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” or a slurred Cohan medley!

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The red piano eventually fell apart and was replaced by a much larger and louder 6-foot-tall brown upright with the top and bottom front boards removed and it is at this (?) point that my story takes a weird, funny, then sad turn. THIS piano was indestructible. It was bolted in the same spot the deceased red one had been, and Stu never did anything to it. EVER. He never had it tuned and he left it uncovered year-round, so the sun beat mercilessly on it, the rain drenched it and the snow froze it. The first time I played that piano each year I arrived early to remove any bird or squirrel nests from the inside before we launched (lunched). The kicker? Although our beloved editor will never be able to believe it, the tall brown piano on Flora was NEVER out of tune. The treble sang out in clarion tones, the bass thundered, the action was simply perfect. I LOVED that piano.

Flora of Essex
Jeff “Where’s the camera?” Barnhart with hat

Alas, phenomenal piano and beloved boat shared a tragic demise. One evening, Artie arrived at the weekly gig we had in Mystic at the Seamen’s Inne (we called ourselves “Don’t Shoot!” and, yes, we got away with that for over 10 years), his countenance uncharacteristically glum.

Flora of Essex
(photo courtesy Jeff Barnhart)

“Sit down,” he advised. “It’s the Flora.”

“What happened?” I tremulously inquired.

“This morning Stu went to the Boat Works and all that was still above water were her smokestack and the flagpole.”

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“She sank?”

“She did. She’s survived storms, 100s of banjo players, YOU steering her (yet another future installment), Stu’s navigating skills, war, pestilence and overnight she simply sprung a leak and sank at her moorings like a rock…well, not really like a rock but more like a 50-ton oyster-boat from 1906.”

I was horrified. I loved that boat and REALLY loved that piano. I’ve never played another like it. Rumor has it that Flora is still under the docks at the Essex Boat Works, although I think that is an old-banjoist’s tale. If I ever find out this is true, I’ll get into scuba gear, dive down to her and play that piano again. I’m sure it’ll still be in tune.

Next up, a look at the festival circuit over the past 25 years. Until then, as Ralph Sutton reminds us, “Keep Breathin’!”

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Jeff Barnhart is an internationally renowned pianist, vocalist, arranger, bandleader, recording artist, ASCAP composer, educator and entertainer. Visit him online at www.jeffbarnhart.com. Email: [email protected]

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