One of Ruth Major’s favorite childhood memories was playing Pilgrim with her brother by the bushes behind their Newton home.
Her relatives are descendants of two families, the Aldens and Tilleys, who were aboard the Mayflower on its voyage to the New World in 1620.
Now retired, the 66-year-old has transitioned from a career in teaching to artist, specializing in historical paintings that include depictions of the Mayflower II, a replica of the original vessel berthed in Plymouth Harbor.
So last winter, when Major saw an announcement in a magazine asking the public for white oak tree donations to make urgent repairs on the Mayflower II, she didn’t hesitate. Her home on Martha’s Vineyard is on an abundantly forested area with many white oaks. Major has her favorites, she said, but would gladly give them up for the Mayflower II.
“For me it was, if there’s anything that I have that can help that ship, or contribute to that ship, I would give it up,” said Major, who vividly recalls the times she has been aboard the vessel. “You can really feel your ancestors. You can imagine that voyage. . . . All of that becomes very real when you see it.”
The public plea for white oak captured the attention of people who, like Major, felt a connection to Mayflower II, either by ancestry or interest in the story, and wanted to help.
Scores of tree offers, suitable or not, came from all over the state and as far as Kentucky, Georgia, and England, where the 56-year-old ship was built, said Peter Arenstam, manager of the maritime artisans department at Plimoth Plantation, the museum that owns the Mayflower II.
“People all over Massachusetts are looking at white oak trees in yards and pastures. . . . They really want their tree that’s been growing on their yard for hundreds of years to be part of the Mayflower,” he said. “It reminds me how special Mayflower is. It’s an iconic historical structure that so many people identify with.”
The search for white oak got started in January, when planks were removed from the side of the ship during an inspection, revealing that the frame was significantly rotted, Arenstam said. The ship was scheduled to have about $80,000 of repairs over the winter, but the surprise hull and frame work pushed that to $400,000, he said.
It was work that would have been done eventually, since Mayflower II is in the first year of a seven-year, $2 million restoration leading up to 2020, the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s voyage to Plymouth. Ignoring it now would have cost the ship its Coast Guard certification, he said.
But the search for white oak, one of just a couple of hardwoods suitable to keep Mayflower II seaworthy, went slower than anticipated, keeping the popular tourist attraction away from Plymouth and frustrating business owners and tourists alike.
Among the donations were two white oaks from the Framingham State University campus that were used to repair the frame. Enough white oak was eventually donated, or purchased from sawmills and lumber yards, that the Mayflower II, still dry docked at Fairhaven Shipyard, is likely to return to Plymouth Harbor early next month, said Sarah Macdonald, spokeswoman for the museum.
But business owners like Jim Owens, owner of the Seabreeze Inn bed and breakfast on the Plymouth waterfront, said they can’t afford to wait much longer. Business has been flat all season, he said, and with the Mayflower II absent, it’s tough to persuade guests to stay more than two nights.
“The sooner the better for us,” Owens said of the ship’s return. “What was frustrating, I think for a few people, is they were waiting for a particular species of wood. Why does it have to be white oak? ‘Well, because you have to make it authentic.’ Yeah, but it’s a replica.”
According to Arnestam, the wood needed for repairs is not the type of lumber you can buy at the big box hardware store. The wood has to come from a 120- to 150-year-old white oak tree, clear of knots, rot, and animals, with a base of at least 3 feet in diameter. Individual planks on the Mayflower II are 22 to 35 feet long, while frame pieces run 7 to 9 feet, he said.
“It’s very durable wood, it’s very hard . . . and it also holds water very, very well,” Arenstam said. “It’s a large vessel; to do quality work takes time. We could slap some planks on there to just get the ship back [to Plymouth], but then we’d be endangering the ship and could lose it forever. It’s vital we do quality work, so the ship remains for years to come.”
Shop owners in the area of the Mayflower II say business is down 15 to 20 percent, despite visitor numbers similar to last year’s, said Paul Cripps, executive director of the tourism promotion organization Destination Plymouth. But they hope to recoup the losses when the Mayflower II arrives for the second, and busier, half of the season that runs from August to November, he said.
Macdonald said the ship should be closed up this week and put back in the water so new wood has a chance to swell. After that, it will be inspected by the Coast Guard. White oak donations will continue to be accepted so the museum can maintain a stockpile for future repairs, she said.
Plimoth Plantation plans to throw a big party when Mayflower II comes sailing in, Macdonald said.
Owens, the Seabreeze Inn owner, said he can’t wait.
“I’m looking forward to having her back,” he said. “It’ll be a tearful moment for sure. Tears of joy.”