Fifteen miles from the ocean in Gray, Maine, the walls, ceiling, floor, stairs and benches of Steve Bunker’s barn are covered with ship’s lamps, wheels, navigational lights, anchors, portholes, compasses, flags, spyglasses, clocks, telescopes, sextants, octants, caulker’s irons, speaking trumpets, belaying pins, single and double sheave blocks, ship’s bells, rigging gear, deadeyes, bull’s-eyes, anvils, fids, spikes, palms, quarter boards, sea chests, carvings, maritime signs, posters and weaponry, including, pistols, knives, muskets, cannons and a wooden barrel full of swords. A layer of dust provides an additional layer of authenticity.
It’s cold inside the barn, so Bunker, who’s been collecting for most of his 75 years, uses a soldering torch to light the propane heater underneath the workbench. He then brings the 5-inch-long flame toward his face and lights his pipe.
Bunker—everybody calls him by his last name—sports a Van Dyke beard, gold earring, knit Portuguese sailor’s cap, shoulder-length gray hair, belt with a swordfish harpoon dart buckle, and fisherman’s boots.
There is nothing conventional about this collector of nautical history, nor his life. He’s been a seaman, soldier, historian, salvager, chandler, restorer, trader, and even a crimp of sorts.
In the early 1950s, Bunker spent summers accompanying his chief engineer father as a ship’s boy aboard colliers that hauled coal up and down the East Coast. During a stop in New York City, the crew took him to Fulton Fish Market. While the men went off to wet their whistles in a local watering hole, Bunker spotted a cannon on a sidewalk. “It was a 12-pounder, a Hotchkiss howitzer,” he says. Fascinated as any 8- or 9-year-old boy might be, he strolled into the shop, where the owner let him pluck a rusty sword out of a barrel for $5. Back on the ship, Mr. Leary the fireman helped him clean it up. He sold it to one of the crew for $22.
“I’ve never been the same again,” Bunker says. He’s been acquiring maritime items and arcane nautical knowledge ever since.
Bunker is a descendant of James Bunker, who landed in York, Maine, in 1640. The family name is all around Gouldsboro, where Bunker Hill Road, Bunker’s Harbor, Bunkers Cove, Bunker’s Wharf Restaurant and the Enoch Bunker Cemetery are all named for Bunker’s relatives. “They said, ‘If ya ain’t Bunkers, yer bastards,’” Bunker says.
Bunker’s grandfather was a chief engineer. His father sailed on schooners and tall ships, attended what’s known today as Massachusetts Maritime Academy and served as a ship’s engineer aboard merchant ships during World War II. By the time Bunker was born in Weymouth in 1945, his father was port engineer at Fore River Shipyard in Quincy. Bunker’s parents raised him around Boston, and after his parents moved to Florida and Cuba, he spent summers working on shrimpers. He then signed on as a deckhand on a charter fishing boat.
“I cleaned up after the clients threw up,” Bunker says, “and I was the guy with the guns.” He’d developed an interest in the Civil War and weaponry by then, and used a .45-70 caliber Springfield model 1873 Trapdoor carbine to shoot the sharks.
At age 19, he stepped off a ship in Jacksonville, Florida, got drunk and strolled into a U.S. Army recruiter’s office. “He told me that I could jump out of airplanes, which seemed like a wonderful idea at the time,” Bunker says. It was 1965. “I had never heard of Vietnam.” He got sent there, and spent a year in a small infantry unit doing reconnaissance and security work.
After the Army the sea looked good again, but after shipping out as a wiper—the lowest position in the engine room—he got lonely. He looked up an old girlfriend. “She knew a loser when she saw one,” he says with a chuckle. He did odd jobs, spent 18 months in college, and got thrown out for his anti-war acitivities.
He got married in 1971, shipped out a couple more times and had a son, but by 1974 his marriage was over. For a year he shipped out to the oil fields in the Gulf of Mexico, then returned to Florida.
A year before America’s Bicentennial and missing New England, Bunker stuffed a musket, a sword and a colonial outfit into a sea bag and with his last money bought a bus ticket to Boston to participate in the 200th commemoration of the Battle of Bunker Hill.
He worked on a lobsterboat, got a gig as an interpreter on the Boston Tea Party Ship Beaver and ended up in Baltimore as curator of Inner Harbor structures and exhibits. Baltimore gave him something he’d never had. “I was always gathering things, but I would find things and immediately sell them because I had no place to keep them,” Bunker says.
In 1978, he met Sharon Bondroff, a native Baltimorean. “She was this nice Jewish girl, very attractive, and we just hit it off,” Bunker says. Two years later, he opened a store on South Broadway in Fells Point. It would become the China Sea Marine Trading Company where Sharon would help out. “I never hired her,” Bunker says. “She just kept showing up, and frankly, she was more responsible as a businessperson than I was.”
He moved the shop to a bigger location on Thames Street, where he would give foreign sailors, including some Soviet defectors, a place to sleep. “I ran the last flophouse in Baltimore,” Bunker says. In 1987, he and other community activists formed the Waterfront Coalition and fended off developers who were trying to push elderly sea widows out of their homes.
After 10 years in business, he moved the shop to a waterfront location on Ann Street Wharf. “It was smaller, but better,” Bunker says. He still had stacks of dories from the Grand Banks Schooner Shirley Blanche and sea trunks full of 13-button Navy trousers. He slimmed the collection and moved the rest of it to the wharf.
“Square-riggers could tie up right in front of my door,” Bunker says. One of them was Bounty. Bunker would provide ships with electricity from his shop, find them carpenters, blacksmiths and riggers for repairs, round up crew, and sell the captains the supplies they needed.
Business was booming. Bunker became president of the community association and vice president of the Baltimore Harbor Endowment. “He was active in the community, going to City Hall while I watched the store,” Sharon says. “The shop also served as a salon, drawing folks from all over. Great memories, great stories.”
But for Bunker, Maine kept calling. At 41, he’d gotten his driver’s license, and in the 1990s, he found himself driving up to Maine, where he’d spent time as a child. “I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in Baltimore,” Bunker says. “I got trapped in Baltimore. I belonged in Maine.”
In 1998, he told Sharon, “I’m going back to Maine. I’m doing it for real.” Even though they’d lived separately, they’d been together most of 20 years, and despite having lived in Baltimore all her life, she told him he wasn’t going without her. “The best thing that’s happened to me, besides my son, is Sharon,” Bunker says. They bought an 18th-century Cape in Gray, said goodbye to their Fells Point friends and packed up the store.
In Portland, they opened China Sea Marine Trading Company in the Chase Leavitt & Company building on Dana Street. Chase Leavitt sold marine safety and survival equipment, but the 150-year-old company had recently closed its first-floor chandlery. It was the perfect spot for Bunker’s business.
In Gray, Bunker used salvaged wood from a collapsed barn to build the barn next to the house, and used Bounty’s former main yard as the center upright. It gave him a workshop and studio to do his painting, wood carving and restorations. “Bunker is a master carver and restorer,” Sharon says. “A true artist with an intellect I’ve seen in few others.”
They had three good years on Dana Street, but when Chase Leavitt sold its longtime location, the China Sea Marine Trading Company had to move. For five years, they rented another Portland location, but in 2010, they moved everything to the house and barn in Gray.
He misses having a store. “Bunker would hold court,” Sharon says about their days of running a store. “He’d like to open another one.”
Inside the house, two giant macaws, George and Wonder, perch on their stands. When George gets anxious and starts plucking his own feathers, Bunker takes the parrot on his arm. While Bunker talks about his collection and his life, the bird crawls all over him, hanging upside down off his belt, and sitting on his shoulder, happily bobbing its head up and down.
In a small side room, nautical books line the walls. The rug is covered with flintlock and percussion rifles. Bunker only trades naval weaponry. “I swore I would never have an antiques business or do military arms sales,” Bunker says. “The maritime crowd is infinitely healthier, and they don’t carry a lot of guns.”
Most of the guns on the floor are from the 18th and 19th century, but there’s also a pristine 17th-century blunderbuss. Bunker picks it up, cocks the hammer, pulls the trigger and—as the flint strikes the frizzen—watches as a spark flies into the pan.
“I keep salvaging and gathering things, and they have to go somewhere, so it piles up all around me,” Bunker says.
From a chair stacked high with pistols, he grabs one of his favorites. It has a large ratchet wheel on top. Bunker explains how, in the olden days, every ship had a cannon for signaling purposes, and every merchant captain needed a black powder tester pistol. Before purchasing gunpowder, the captain would put a sample on the pistol’s pan, pull the trigger to fire the powder and, based on how far the wheel would spin, be able to ascertain its volatility. Some merchants might dilute their powder to increase profits, and a tester pistol would keep them honest or expose the dishonest ones.
“Lately I’ve been restoring 17th- and 18th-century firearms, which is kind of weird,” Bunker says. “But I love the technology of it. I love the primitive technology.”
Collecting, restoring and trading maritime tools and artifacts, and studying their history, has become his life’s work.
“It’s only just a bunch of wood and metal if that’s what you let it be,” he says. “I have a stack of telescopes over here. The things those scopes have seen, they can’t tell you. When you end up using them, when you end up researching them. When you end up restoring them, that’s when you get to know them. And you realize, the soul that ships and artifacts and tools have is largely what you and I put in them.”
Photography by Pim Van Hemmen
This article was originally published in the May 2021 issue.