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Steeplejack tasked with replacing 100-year-old flagpole

By MIKE PATRICKJuly 8, 2019

MILFORD, Conn. (AP) — Paul Bastiaanse shimmied up a 40-foot flagpole last year when part of it squished in his hand. Flagpoles, by design, shouldn’t be squishy.

“Three-quarters of the way up, there’s this area where I put my rigs on, and it squeezed and water was just pouring out,” he said. “That’s when I found out I couldn’t get any higher than that.”

Like his father before him, Bastiaanse is a steeplejack. He scales flagpoles, church steeples and spires to paint, guild or repair them.

Around this time last year, the 41-year-old owner of the Torrington-based Valley Restoration was in the Woodmont section of Milford, painting its flagpole in advance of Independence Day, when he noticed it had rotted.

“The older ones always rot from the inside out,” he said. “This one, it’s just time. And it has no protection out there.”

“Out there” means in the waters of Long Island Sound. For more than 125 years, Woodmont’s flagpole has been affixed to a rock surrounded by tides that sometimes rise to 10 feet.

Bastiaanse, who also lives in Torrington, said though he’s been caring for Woodmont’s flagpole for 15 years, installing another that will withstand more than a century of punishing hurricanes and briny winds, as the current one has, is an engineering feat he may not be able to achieve.

Using a ladder and a harness-and-pulley made of thick rope and ¾-inch plywood, Bastiaanse has scaled the 40-foot flagpole to paint it every couple years for the past 15 years; first with his father, who started the company, then by himself.

He uses the same mechanism to scale church steeples, clock towers and more.

“Steeplejacks are jacks of all trades,” he said. “We do copper work, slate work, we do waterproofing, a lot of painting and gold leaf.”

In the Northeast, he said, there’s no shortage of aging churches with tall steeples and spires that require his high-altitude historic preservation craftsmanship.

Google his name, and you’ll find Bastiaanse atop steeples at Stonington Congregational Church, Mystic Congregational Church, Westfield Congregational Church in Danielson and the Edmond Town Hall in Newtown, as well as at the tip of Newtown’s iconic flagpole that stands in the middle of a traffic circle in the town center.

While he might not be involved in the replacement job in Milford, he said the effort will present great challenges for whomever does it.

“It’s a race against time to get it done and to get out of there,” he said, adding because of the tides, workers will have “two to three hours at the most” to work out there each day.

Plus, he added, “You’re climbing on those slippery rocks.”

The stars and stripes didn’t always fly in the salty air of this historic Milford hamlet.

Milford’s Woodmont section was farmland until the Reconstruction Era, when a wealthy preacher from Naugatuck purchased a 10-acre plot from farmer John Merwin, said Ed Bonessi, the borough’s warden.

Merwin soon realized he could make more money selling off parts of his property to wealthy outsiders for summer cottages than he could as a farmer, and carved it into the streets and plots that today make up the 0.7-square mile borough, Bonessi, 60, said.

In 1895, the residents affixed the cedar flagpole to a rock near the shore; that rock has since come to be known as “Signal Rock,” since the flagpole was later used by oystermen to help pinpoint where the better beds were.

The American flag flew on that pole until its rigging was destroyed by the Hurricane of 1938, a storm so devastating it toppled an adjoining dock made of tons of granite blocks. The ruins still sit in the waves there.

The pole stood there without a flag until 1975, Bonessi said, when the upcoming Bicentennial prompted the borough to fly it again.

Bonessi is a nearly lifelong Woodmont resident and a font of historical facts, data and trivia about the section.

Prompt him, and he’ll gladly tell you that Albert Einstein was an occasional visitor to a local restaurant where he loved the oysters; of the early 20th century theater magnate who built an enormous seaside mansion, and 10 smaller mansions for his children and grandchildren; and that the flagpole on Signal Rock served as the mast of a whaling ship, or the like, for decades before being affixed to the rocky shore.

Proof of the latter is there, though not easily seen by the naked eye.

Looking closely enough toward the top, one can see a section that has been shaved away; that’s where the ship’s yardarm would have been bolted in.

“Wouldn’t you know, that is the spot that has rotted,” Bonessi said. “That’s where the water got in.”

Bastiaanse recommended the pole be replaced with one made of fiberglass, and proposed a $10,000 job.

At a meeting of the Board of Warden and Burgesses on Monday night, Bonessi said he’d discussed with a Massachusetts-based company a pole installation that might be more permanent.

It would use a custom-engineered tabernacle - steel bars that would sandwich the three-foot stainless steel bottom of a fiberglass pole.

While Bastiaanse said his flagpole would have withstood winds of up to 120 miles per hour, Bonessi said one affixed with a tabernacle could endure winds of 180 miles per hour - more in line with the hurricanes that sometimes punish this historic village.

The cost of the pole with the tabernacle is not yet known, he said.

The borough’s annual budget, not counting public works funding provided by the city, is $135,000. Most of that, Bonessi said, pays the salaries of police dedicated to the borough, and the police vehicle.

He started an online GoFundMe campaign to help defray the cost of the new flagpole. As of Wednesday, it raised nearly $5,500 of its $8,000 goal.

Bastiaanse said he’ll have no hard feelings should the borough decide to go with the other flagpole company. He acknowledged that while steeplejacks are, indeed jacks of all trades, geotechnical engineering isn’t really one of them.

“I’ve never done anything like the super-high-end Florida hurricane poles; I think that’s where they’re going to go,” he said. “I completely understand where they are, they want something to last 150 years, just like the other one did. Whatever’s best for the town.”

Besides, he said, it’s not like he doesn’t have enough work. Valley Restoration is “notorious,” he said, for being completely booked.

“I always say,” he said, “if it’s built by man, it can be fixed by man.”

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Information from: Republican-American, http://www.rep-am.com

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