The Essex Shipbuilding Museum has partnered with master basket maker Billy Ray Sims to revive an almost forgotten Essex tradition

Sims has recreated a traditional Essex clam basket for the museum and is leading workshops on how to a make them. The workshops are part of a larger project, “By Skiff and Basket,” which celebrates the long history of clamming in Essex through these basket workshops, reconstruction of an Essex clam skiff, and a traveling exhibit on the history of these nearly forgotten pieces of local history.

The half-bushel clam baskets are made of galvanized wire and white oak or galvanized wire, white oak, and cane. Their strength, durability, size and shape makes them ideal for use on the clam flats and allows them to stack neatly into the clam skiffs without damaging any of the catch, according to the museum. Once ubiquitous in Essex, the type was replaced by cheaper and longer-lasting baskets.

Through this project, the museum has received loans and donations of surviving examples, some in near perfect shape and others showing the wear and tear of untold trips downriver and back. From studying these baskets, it is clear that there were multiple basket makers working in town, each a unique style. The workshop baskets are modeled after an example graciously loaned to the museum by Nancy Lutts.

Sims’ path as a basket maker has ranged from weaving the sweetgrass baskets of South Carolina to New England black ash pack baskets and river cane from the Southern Highlands. He is the former executive editor of WoodenBoat and Cooking Light magazines, and as a woodworker, he has built and restored custom furniture and wooden boats, including a 32-foot sailboat in which he cruised to and from Bermuda and the Caribbean.

The museum has already hosted two basket-making workshops and two more are scheduled on Sept. 8 and 15. 

"We had a dedicated group of students and excellent instruction from basket maker Billy Ray Sims and (museum) volunteers," said Christopher Stepler, the museum's operations administrator, of the most recent session. "At the end of the workshop, five new Essex clam baskets were finished!"

Each September workshop will run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and is open to adults and children 12 and older. Coffee and lunch will be provided. The workshop is free with a $65 materials charge.

More information, tickets, and pictures are available on the museum's website,

The project is funded in part by a grant of Essex County Community Foundation's Creative County Initiative, a collaboration with the Barr Foundation designed to elevate Essex County's art and culture sector and support the local creative economy.

 Public Safety play day

On Monday, Manchester Parks and Recreation sponsored a public safety day for its summer playground program. 

Officers and firefighters from Manchester Fire and Police and the Essex County Sheriff’s K9 Unit played a round of kickball with the children enrolled in the program, served slushes donated by the Laughing Gull convenience store off Singing Beach, and presented a K9 unit demonstration.

"It was a huge success and the officers that participated had a great time," Manchester Police wrote in a prepared statement.

A whale of a week

In case you were wondering, Essex's former police chief and harbormaster, Peter G. Silva, spent Friday, his first official day of retirement, on his boat. He was treated to impromptu whale watch when a cetacean breached near his vessel in Beverly Harbor. 

On Tuesday, the Essex Police Benevolent Association feted Silva at a dinner at the Essex Room of Woodman's Restaurant. In attendance were local police and firefighters, many area retired police chiefs, town officials and businesspeople, and friends and family. State Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr and state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante gave Silva citations recognizing his years of public service.


And on Thursday, he finished his stint as chief at the swearing-in of new Chief Paul Francis and Sgts. Thomas Shamshak Jr. and Daniel Bruce.

Quick hits

* The town of Manchester's accounting department is seeking artwork for its Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. Local artists are invited to submit their artwork to be featured throughout the pages of the report. Those interested are asked to contact Town Accountant Andrea Mainville at


* This year's Festival by the Sea, presented by Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce, is this Saturday, Aug. 3, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., in downtown Manchester. Fine arts, crafts, jewelers, food, beer and wine will be available to purchase from a number of vendors. Live music will be performed at Masconomo Park’s waterfront stage, and on the Town Green. Admission is free.


Town Talk is compiled by Michael Cronin. If you have a news tip or an item for Town Talk, please contact him at 978-675-2708, or


Recommended for you