YOUNGSTOWN – Robert Arlington Wiltshire II, of East Aurora, treks to Youngstown year-round to man the woodshop he has created in the French Castle at Old Fort Niagara.
Dressed in authentic period garb – which lately has included heavy wool clothing for the drafty, unheated stone structure built in 1726 – he toils away at his handcrafted workbenches, using his own hand tools to turn out everything from oven doors to candle stands.
When the natural sunlight from the window dims, Wiltshire sometimes works by lantern light. In a slight Southern drawl (he’s a native of Washington, D.C.), he patiently explains what he’s making and answers questions posed by curious tourists from around the world.
The fort recently named Wiltshire its Volunteer of the Year for a number of reasons, including his dedication. He logged 260 hours last year – even though he lives an hour away, in good weather.
Robert Emerson, the fort’s executive director, explained that there are a number of criteria to consider in choosing the top volunteer.
“There is reliability, skill level – Bob is a highly skilled craftsman – and there is the person’s overall contribution to the program,” Emerson said.
“Bob is very unassuming, but he took a little room that was empty and filled it with period workbenches and tools, and a lot of projects in progress,” he said. “It’s something very interesting for our visitors to see.”
Wiltshire recently talked about this volunteer work that combines so many of his interests.
How did you get involved with this?
I had been a Civil War soldier (re-enactor) for a number of years, and you reach a certain age when playing a 19-year-old private doesn’t work anymore. I had always loved woodworking and carpentry and had a number of tools in my basement, and I put a presentation together as a re-enactor. I did that for a year or so, but it would take me two hours to set up and two more to take down.
When I retired from HSBC in 2005, where I was a project manager in information technology, I called Old Fort Niagara and told them what I could do. I had the tents and tools and workbench, so I set up during the Civil War Weekend at the fort and people really liked it. The fort wanted me to do it, (on a permanent basis), but I needed to get appropriate 18th century clothing, because I had Civil War clothing.
At first, I was under canvas, and then they gave me a room in the French Castle. I’m on the second floor, in the French officers’ kitchen, which was unused, and I’ve turned that into a woodworking shop.
When are you there?
The fort is open all year, and I’m there all year, usually once or twice a week in the winter, depending on the weather. The road has to be open from my house to the fort! I pretty much come in when I want to and work the hours I want to, but I’m there from about 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. when I’m there. I’m there more often in the summer, at least a couple of times a week.
What have you made for the fort?
I’ve probably made something for every building in the fort. I’ve made bakery oven doors; washing sticks, which were used before washboards; stools; benches for people to sit on; four small, round-top chests; and candle stands; and restored the Porter sleigh (belonging to Augustus Porter, on display in the Visitors Center).
I have two appropriate workbenches, one British-style and one French-style.
I make whatever the fort needs. The next thing I’ll work on will be benches because the fort needs more benches for tourists to sit on.
What sort of tools do you use?
I supply my own tools. I have a large collection of hand tools that I’ve collected over the years, and I’ve selected some to bring to the fort that I keep in a locked chest there. I have restraints up now so that people can’t come into the room anymore, because they used to handle the tools even though I asked them not to, because they can be very sharp. But they can all see what I’m doing, and I talk about what I’m making and they can ask questions.
Tools hadn’t changed much until we went to power. Maybe the steel is a little better and the handles are little more ergonomic, but my tools are close enough to look authentic. I have some early 19th century tools.
Occasionally, I do use the maintenance building’s power for special projects, but mostly I use my hand tools.
What sort of questions do visitors ask?
People ask me, “Do you do this the way they would have done it in those days?” And I say, “Yes.”’
The most common question people ask is, “How long will it take you?”
If I have an estimate, I’ll give it. If not, I’ll say, “I don’t know … until it’s finished.”
If it gets too dark, I’ll work by (candlelight) lantern. I’ve had to figure out what I can and can’t do by candlelight.
People ask, “Did they really work by candlelight?”
Sure they did. They would do what they had to do.
You must do a great deal of research for this hobby.
I have walls of books on that time period. I have always loved woodworking and carpentry, and I make 18th century furniture at home. I have a piece sitting in my home that’s a Kittinger (built in Buffalo) next to another piece that’s mine, and people come in here and ask, “Did you make both of those?” They can’t tell the difference.
What’s your personal history?
I am probably the first Wiltshire born outside of Virginia in 300 years. I’m from Washington, D.C., where my father was a small-business owner. I did some research last year on my family. My grandfather was a carpenter, his father made coffins, his father was a cooper, and his father was a wheelwright. So I guess there’s something in my genes.
Our family goes back to the 1630s or ’40s in Virginia. The Battle of the Wilderness in 1864 – the first time Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant met Gen. Robert E. Lee – was fought on our family farm. My father’s side fought for the South, but my mother’s side was from the mountains of Kentucky and fought for the Union.
When I was a Civil War re-enactor, I wore the uniform of the South just once and then the Union uniform. My great-grandfather on my mother’s side fought for the Union, so I belong to the “Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War,” which is a congressionally chartered society (created in 1881), a legal successor to the Grand Army of the Republic.
You have to be a dedicated volunteer to make the trek year-round from East Aurora to donate your time and skills to the fort.
When I started doing this, it was just something to do. But then my wife, (Mary Ann Gallick), died suddenly in January 2010, and now this gives me a reason to get out of bed.
I try and show that the people at the fort had lives before and after they were here. They weren’t professional military, like they are now. And they had to maintain the fort. In the British days, they might use qualified enlisted men who would get paid extra to do things in the woodshop, to work as apprentices. When the French were here, carpenters actually came over here from France to earn the title of “master carpenter” because they could earn that title faster here.
There is 300 years of history at the fort. The fort is so important to our local history, and I just try and make that history come alive.
The Fort is open every day of the year, except New Year’s, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. It is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. January through June and from September through December; and from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. July and August. For more information, visit www.oldfortniagara.com. Know a Niagara County resident who would make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email email@example.com.