- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 10, 2004

CAMBRIDGE, Md — Inside a dark, dusty workshop near the Choptank River, a half-dozen men labor steadily at making what amounts to a real, working anachronism.They use machines that by all rights should be in a junk heap or a museum. They were patented more than a hundred years ago and were built as long ago as the 1930s. Constant coaxing and fastidious care have kept them working. The men fashion wooden barrels by the thousands.

These dry-goods containers, known as “slack” barrels, were nearly eliminated by cardboard boxes in the years after World War II.

But Brooks Barrel Co., one of only four slack cooperages still operating in the United States, is thriving by selling these ancient vats for display on Hollywood movie sets and in specialty shops, such as coffee houses. Lovers of modern moccachinos enjoy seeing their espresso beans scooped out of old-fashioned barrels.

“They’re so scarce. A lot of people have never seen a barrel except for in a magazine,” said Paul Brooks, 82, explaining the attraction of barrels. Mr. Brooks started the Cambridge cooperage in 1950, when the Chesapeake Bay seafood industry was booming.

Slack barrels, which look like the more common watertight, oak barrels that hold wine and whiskey, were perfect for shipping crabs and oysters before trucks were refrigerated. Mr. Brooks’ uncured pine barrels were filled with seafood, Delmarva poultry or meat from Philadelphia, and packed with ice. As the ice melted, water drained out, leaving the meat unspoiled.

Coopers over the centuries found they couldn’t improve the old design.

Tops and bottoms fit just inside the ends of the barrel and have beveled edges so that when the barrel is filled, the weight of its contents make those barrel heads secure. The dimensions made them easy to move, because a filled barrel uses its weight as momentum when rolled on its side.

There are no extra parts, nothing ornamental.

After refrigeration and after corrugated cardboard, slack barrels became less common — but they never went out of style. Coopers have their theories about why barrels still hold an attraction and how they survived the 20th century.

The legacy of cooperages is strong, said Ken Knox, who was a medical lab technician before he started working at the shop in 1980. He fell in love with the barrel business and bought it from Mr. Brooks in 1991.

Because of their history, the sight of a barrel is pleasant, Mr. Knox said.

“People today are trying to hold onto some of our heritage,” he said. “This is something that was going on when our forefathers came to this country. Coopers, blacksmiths, candlestick makers — all these people had trades that were vital to our country. That’s how we all got started.”

The only thing that changed in barrel making was the advent of machinery. The antique equipment at Brooks Barrel Co. is not easily managed. If a part breaks, it has to be rebuilt; no one is making these machines anymore.

“We know how they breathe,” Mr. Knox said of the old contraptions.

When kicked into motion, the equipment slips into gear under dark layers of oil and pine dust. One machine rivets the strips of steel into loops, and another stretches them into smooth circles.

Piles of fresh pine logs, cut from Eastern Shore forests, are stacked outside. The shop’s own mill slices the wood into slightly bowed staves.

After the parts are prepared, Mr. Knox and his four coopers can each make a barrel a minute.

The process is almost quicker than the eye. The cooper picks up about a dozen staves, arranges them inside of a ring, hammers them in and drops a cable to jerk them into shape. They pop into perfect symmetry, all while the cooper pumps a pedal on a machine that maneuvers the hoops.

Out comes a perfectly smooth, symmetrical barrel. Two thousand of them a week. The average cost is $50, and they are shipped all over North America.

“It’s definitely a craft. It’s a lost craft,” said Bob Fairbanks, a Cambridge native who has worked as a cooper at Brooks Barrel for 10 years.

Like Mr. Knox, Doug Boyd, owner of Maine Bucket, a slack cooperage in Lewiston, Maine, sells barrels for displays in grocery stores and for planters at home and garden centers — not for shipping potatoes, apples or limestone, as hundreds of Maine coopers did in the mid-1800s.

Mr. Boyd also has sold his wares to Hollywood for big-budget movie sets. “The Patriot” wanted his barrels. “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Gods and Generals” used Mr. Knox’s barrels.

Not all of Mr. Knox’s business is new chic. He still makes barrels to hold nuts, bolts and railroad spikes.

With the old and new, Mr. Knox is careful not to take more orders than his woodshop can fill, he said. He has turned down large government orders that demanded a rapid turnaround time.

“You have to continue to grow, but at a moderate rate,” he said of his 54-year-old shop. “Sometimes you have to ask yourself, how much do you want the business?”

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