By KATHY JOHNSON
The Shelburne Barrel Factory is back in production and looking pretty sharp after extensive remedial and renovation work was done earlier this year by its new owners, George and Beerta Van der Meer.
“We were shut down about two and a half months,” said George in an interview. “By mid-April we were running again. The first thing we had to do was some trawl tubs to catch up with the fishermen and then once that was done, we resumed making barrels and planters” including custom orders that “makes the job kind of fun.”
Raising the building, constructing a new foundation with a concrete slab covered by a wooden floor, and new roofing have been completed, with plans to replace the lower section of exterior siding and insulate before winter. A new front door with custom signage is also in the works.
“It will always look like an old building,” said Van der Meer. “We’ll fix the windows as needed, keep that style of window, get the tools hanging back on wall … the biggest change is all the barrel making stuff and all the barrel related stuff is downstairs now.”
Van der Meer plans to organize the shop so all the barrel making machinery and tools, some that date back to at least the early 1900s, are placed around the periphery, with the centre an open area where visitors can watch the work in progress.
“We’ve been getting a lot of visitors,” he said, as several more stroll in. “Every day. It’s a really busy tourist season.”
Making a bathtub out of two trawl tubs for a local fisherman, cutting a barrel in half length-wise and requests for oak barrels to cure and salt meat, sauerkraut and cucumbers from as far away as Austria are among the custom orders that have come in to the barrel factory this summer.
Beerta, meanwhile, has put her creative stamp on the planters produced at the factory by staining the staves individually, creating multicoloured works.
“She numbers the staves, assembles it, marks it, knocks it apart again, stain the staves individually in a specific order and then put it back together,” said Van deer Meer. They have been selling like hotcakes.
While new life has been infused into the historic barrel making tradition on Shelburne’s Dock Street, the story does have a very sad chapter, when earlier this summer longtime cooper Donna Rhuland passed away suddenly.
“She was here setting up barrels with me on a Tuesday and on Wednesday she was in hospital on life support,” said Van der Meer. She passed away four days later.
Losing Donna left a big void, said Van der Meer. “She was fun to work with. She had a special character that somebody might think was kind of brisk but I discovered she was like an aunt to all the young people on this street. Prom season all the young girls would come in and show their prom dresses to Donna and Donna would set up barrels and take pictures of them and then people who had problems with their pets would phone Donna … I discovered that on this street she was a go-to person.”
Rhuland passed away on June 29. “Donna worked as a cooper at the Shelburne barrel factory for 41 years, the only woman cooper in the world. She was considered the ‘Queen of Dock Street,’” reads her obituary.
It was from Donna and her husband Raymond that the Van der Meer’s purchased the barrel factory last year. Van der Meer said he could tell that both Donna and Raymond were tired when he first was considering buying the shop. “Since the renovation I seen a new spark come into her life. She was getting excited about it again,” he said.
For Monique Fillmore, who owns the nearby Beandock café which Donna’s considered ‘her second home,’ talking about the loss oF Donna is still heartbreaking. “She was a great help to me whatever I was doing here,” said Fillmore. “Fixing signs, broken chairs, gardening, she was always there for me, she was just always here and now she’s not. She touched so many different souls. She was an icon on Dock Street.”
A lover of cats, Donna had three at the barrel factory that she cared for: Bert, Henry and most recently a stray that was named Junior by Van deer Meer and Donna “because he’s young and skinny.”
Bert, who had been there the longest, was hit by a car and killed about a month after Donna had passed away.
“Little were we to know that this would be Bert's final Saturday shift at the Shelburne Barrel Factory,” wrote owners of The Cooper’s Inn bed and breakfast, Pat and David Chute, on their Facebook page. “Bert, the cat, was one of Donna's best friends and something of an institution in The Cooper's Inn Garden. He brought us peace and love and the sense of calm only an independent feline can instill in caring hearts. It seems Donna needed him more than us. We'll miss him.”
As for Junior and Henry, they will continue to live at the barrel factory.
“It’s like a cat bed and breakfast,” said Van der Meer smiling. “I feed them. They sleep here and nod to me when they walk out and when they come back, they nod and look at me until I feed them,” adding they do earn their keep by helping to control the rodents.