Story and Photo by Art Petrosemolo
PHOTOGRAPHS, PAINTINGS AND models can link us to the past. In the maritime industry, an accurate model can bring the era of sail alive, show us the long lost detail of a World War II battleship, or the simplicity of a New Bedford whaling skiff.
Bahrs Restaurant in Highlands has a collection of models and nautical artifacts that fascinates its patrons. Today, with a major donation of exquisite models by master model builder Henry Schaefer, formerly of the Atlantic Highlands, and the help of the Navesink Marine Heritage Association (NMHA), the Bahrs collection has grown by more than 30 boats and is being documented to museum standards for all to enjoy today and long into the future.
Jay and Becky Cosgrove are the latest generation of family ownership of Bahrs that dates back to 1917 when John Bahr purchased the site, which was a houseboat, fisherman’s hotel and boat rental. After a major Nor’easter wiped out the rowboats, John Bahrs started to serve meals to the fisherman staying at the hotel. Now, nearly 100 years later, Bahrs is a seafood institution on the Jersey shore.
Bahrs always has housed nautical antiques and treasures from scrimshaw to sperm whale jaws and Jay Cosgrove smiles when he says, “There is a lot more stuff than what you see displayed in the restaurant. We just don’t have the space to put it all out.”
So a year ago, when Schaefer, then 84, stopped by to see Jay to interest him in his model collection, Jay was a little skeptical. “We get walk-ins all the time,” he says, “that want to sell or give us nautical memorabilia and I just don’t need anymore.” But it turned out Shaefer, who had run a nautical antique business in Atlantic Highlands for years, knew Jay’s grandfather. And besides, he just didn’t just have some models, he had hand-made, many from scratch, detailed boats and ships, most, one of a kind, that needed a new home.
“I’m in my eighties,” Shaefer says, “ and been making models on and off since I was a kid. They were just too valuable to me to sell and I wanted to find a spot where they could stay together and there was no better place than Bahr’s.”
Shaefer was pleasantly persistent and Jay and his wife Becky visited him to examine the collection. “Henry asked me to take all but two,” Jay said, “and they not only are exquisite and detailed, they all were protected in plexiglass cases for viewing which you need when displaying models in a busy place like Bahrs.”
The collection moved to its new home in early 2011 and that would be the end of the story had it not been for a visit to Bahrs by Navesink Marine Heritage Asscociation ‘s (NMHA) Rik VanHemmen, a local Naval architect. On his first look at the models, VanHemmen said he had an “ah-ha” moment.
VanHemmen has a strong belief that the marine industry is being overlooked by today’s teens. “The marine industry touches all of us in one way or another,” he says, “in the on-water shipping portion and all the industries it affects in world wide trade.” VanHemmen says that 99 percent of world-wide trade moves by ship which is not generally known. “This is an industry that is not going away,” he say. “It continues to offer great career opportunities for the 21st century.”
When not somewhere around the globe on a marine project, he finds time to speak at high schools and youth groups getting them as excited about the marine industry as he is. “When I learned about the exhibit and Henry’s donation to Bahrs, I immediately thought what a great opportunity to help Bahrs catalog the collection and involve high school students in the process, exposing them to this wonderful maritime heritage,” VanHemmen says.
He was invited to speak at Red Bank Regional High School about opportunities in the marine industry and suggested a possible project for students who might be interested in helping NMHA set up a data base-catalog on the Bahr exhibit. VanHemmen was starting to work on a new book for NMHA titled “Essays on the Maritime Industry” and had planned to use photographs and information on the model collection as part of the narrative.
With the help of marine science teacher Denise Barrett, VanHemmen hooked up with RBRHS Juniors Melissa Fingado and Noemi Valdetano and senior Frank Juliano. The three agreed to take on the photographing/cataloging of the collection as classwork and also as a project that could be used as part of their college application process. With VanHemmen as their mentor, the group has met at Bahrs one afternoon a week for the last several months. “We carefully take the cover off the models,” Fingado and Juliano explain, “and then using the macro mode of our cameras, we get in tight and photograph model detail.” That’s music to the ears of the model builder who said he took great pleasure in adding minute detail to all his models.
VanHemmen also is involving Scot Abel of Fair Haven, a PhD candidate in marine history at the University of Northern Illinois, to help in the ship research and cataloging.
The collection at Bahrs includes both kit and scratch models. “Kit models are built from plans and pre-cut piece,” Shaefer says, “although many of my kit models were European paper models that I built, took apart and then copied the pieces onto wood.” Shaefer also built scratch models. A scratch model means the model starts with just an idea, a photograph, a picture in the newspaper. “I have to research the ship,” he says, “and then start assembling parts. I get to a point where it becomes pretty time consuming and it all seems to come together.” Shaefer can spend months in planning and building a scratch model.
Although he has made more models than he can remember, he does have a favorite. “I am pleased with the German ship Atlantis,” he says. “It was a large scale model (it is four-plus feet in length) and I was able to build in a lot of detail. The Atlantis was a WWII “raider” or modern day pirate vessel that disguised its hostile intent by hiding armament from view in rather unique ways to look like an unarmed merchant vessel, explains Shaefer. The Atlantis sunk 21 Allied vessels in a cruise that kept it at sea for 622 consecutive days.
The RBRHS students have photographed a number of models and will continue until ultimately, the material will be assembled into a data base and museum type catalog so visitors to Bahrs will have descriptive literature while viewing each ship in the collection.
Although an octogenarian, Shaefer is not finished building. “I am working on a scratch model of a New England whaler,” he says, “similar to the Charles W. Morgan at Mystic (CT) Seaport. However, this model he says encompasses elements of many of the whaling ships of the day. You know I am going to continue to do this as long as my eyes and hands hold out.”