Once the Chief Perpetrator of the Bar Harbor Siege Engine Society, retired woodworker Alan de Cheubell shares memories of a homemade trebuchet that appeared in several Fourth of July Parades during the early 2000s, and describes a wheel salvaged from the original device. He is joined by Heather Thayer, fine arts painter and former Chief Safety Officer.

An article about the trebuchet, Grindel, published in the Bar Harbor Times, can be viewed here.

Oral History:

Oral History Transcript:

ES: This is Eloise Schultz interviewing Alan de Cheubell on June 27th, 2019, for the MDI Historical Society History Harvest. Alan, thanks for chatting with me today.

AD: Thank you for having me. 

ES: Could you tell us a little bit about this wheel and the story of why you created it, and the project’s vision?

AD: Well, it was just art. It was the kind of art that would get people together in a fun way. It gave a way for everyone to participate. It’s a pumpkin slinger. It was made to sling pumpkins, and it did that pretty well.

ES: Can you tell us how the wheel fit into the design?

AD: That was for the purpose of winding up the springs.

ES: Now remind me where you got the springs?

AD: Great big overhead garage doors. 

ES: Right, that was it. Because you described them as being—gosh—as wide around as cans?

AD: Yeah, and some were big enough that they could have another one inside of it.

ES: So you’d turn the wheel, and unwind the springs…

AD: And stretch ‘em out. 

ES: And was it held in place by something?

AD: Once you got it wound all the way back, there was a latch it would click into. When you pulled the handle, it would release the latch and off would go the pumpkin.

ES: Can you talk about your first test run of it? Did you go down to the bar for that?

AD: Oh, dear. Everything worked! But we kept improving it over time.

ES: Can you tell us about the improvements? When did you find out that you needed to fill the pumpkins with water, for example?

AD: Oh, when we got the power of the thing going, the pumpkins couldn’t handle the thrust anymore. They would just collapse and get crushed before they got anywhere. The machine would throw pumpkin shards. And you could hear it—they would pop. 

ES: Were they pretty far in the air at that point?

AD: No, they’d pop as they were being released. It sounded just like if some big foot stomped on it. That’s the air in them.

ES: Did you try anything else besides pumpkins?

AD: Yeah, cabbages. Cabbages were good. They didn’t get far either, but it was fun all the same—air coleslaw. Confetti.

ES: Little leaves floating in midair.

AD: Oh yeah it’d leave like a comet trail of confetti floating behind it.

ES: Did you point the pumpkin slinger away from town, when you were out there? Toward the breakwater or back toward Hulls Cove?

AD: A couple different times, we were out there, we tried a couple different ways. A lot of times, the COA mooring float was a good target. If there was nothing tied to it. We could get about that far.

ES: Did you ever hit it?

AD: Oh, I think so.

ES: How did folks get the word that you had a pumpkin slinger?

AD: We got invited to do a lot of public events of different sorts. Science class at school, or the Fourth of July Parade. Or the Society for Creative Anachronism had us come, once.

ES: I don’t know about that society!

AD: Yeah, the Society for Creative Anachronism—you’ll have to look them up, I guess. They do “make-pretend” medieval stuff. They invited us to come to Fort Knox and shoot pumpkins off of the fort wall into the river below—that was a lot of fun. 

ES: Am I remembering correctly that the catapult came out of another society on the island?

AD: Well, there was the Bar Harbor Siege Engine Society. We had to say who we were, and that’s what we came up with. Like when you’re in the Fourth of July Parade, you can’t just say “me and my friends.” 

ES: Can you talk about the deal you had to strike to get in the parade?

AD: We wanted to be medieval, right? So we had a float pulled by a horse, but they didn’t want horses in the parade because of the droppings a horse might leave behind. But that turned out to be the best part of the parade, because Dan followed the horse with a coal shovel and a bucket.

ES: Who else was in the Bar Harbor Siege Engine Society besides you and Dan?

AD: Just half a dozen core members, and then another dozen or so—Sammy Michaud, he and I were the ones who built it and did most of the designing as well. One shot marbles, and a bigger one shot baseballs…

ES: When you did the demos for the classes, would you bring them outside?

AD: Oh yeah. We did those on athletic fields. 

[Loud knocking]

AD: And, there was a knock on the door!

ES: Heather, did you help build the catapult?

HT: Well, a little tiny bit.

ES: What did your role as safety officer involve?

HT: Keeping people from standing in the wrong place. 

AD: Heather was great. She came with me, the two of us went to this big family reunion in Massachusetts.

ES: Was that for the Park superintendent?

AD: The head ranger, actually. She was more than just the safety officer, she was the manpower. I could wind it up about once, and then I was beat. Heather could do it maybe half a dozen times before she was beat. It took a lot of work.

ES: How many times would you have to wind it, to reach full tension.

AD: About fifty. And it got harder each time around! At first, you could wind it with that handle in the middle. But after a while, it got so hard to turn that you had to use the outer spokes. Yeah, It was all for fun. 

ES: How long did you end up doing the demos?

AD: A few years, three or four years, I guess. We went all different places.

ES: And what was the story you were talking about, with you and Dan—after you did the family reunion, and you were practicing in the Park, and the park ranger came up—what happened then?

AD: Well, I guess he didn’t like us there. We were leaving anyway. He was very much into being a TV-style law enforcement, and kinda overdoing it. So we kinda had some fun with the poor guy. He got out of his car and came up to Dan with this really man-in-charge kinda strut, with his hand on the hilt of his gun there, and walked up to Dan and said something and Dan says, “Go talk to him.” And he looked at Dan for a second and then he came and talked to me. He looked at me and said, “So, are there any other weapons inside of the vehicle?” I said, “Other weapons? You mean, besides yours?” And then he was stuck for a while. 

ES: He didn’t know what he was reckoning with, with the Bar Harbor Siege Engine Society.

AD: He blocked the way out so that we couldn’t leave, and just kind of hung there for a while. Finally after ten minutes of waiting, I knocked on the window of the park ranger car, which he had all wound up with the air conditioning on. He didn’t want to open the window at first, so I banged on it pretty hard, and he lowered it just a bit. I said, “Are we under arrest?” and he said “Just a minute” and wound the window back up. So I waited, just “a minute.” And then I banged on the window again, and said “We just wondered if we were under arrest, because we got other places we wanted to go. And things to do. So are we being arrested, or being kidnapped?” He let us go. But yeah, he was kind of stymied because his timing was so bad. The party that Heather and I had been to the week before was sponsored by his boss’s family. The thing that really got him, I guess, and made him have to go back to the car and sit down, was that he asked me, “Just exactly what’s going on here?” and I said, “We’re shooting pumpkins into the ocean.” He said, “I thought I saw you throwing stones.” I said, “I have no idea what you thought you saw, but if you ask me a question and don’t believe my answer, I don’t know why you bothered to ask me.” He kind of wound down after that, poor guy.

ES: So what happened to the other pieces from the catapult?

AD: It’s all gone, taken apart. Just saved a few cool parts of it. It really was kind of dangerous. So we took it apart. It sat out in the weather for a number of years.

ES: Well, I know that you inspired a generation of engineers on the island from those demos.

AD: Yeah, there’s a couple of science classes that—some of the bright kids were into it, you know. And built catapults of their own. At least one that I heard about is a structural engineer, now.

HT: Did you tell her about the little one in the Fourth of July parade?

AD: That we used to shoot candy out of? Heather was the traction power. In order to provide the desire to go, we had a pole hang out the top of the machine, with a line hanging down like a fishing pole, and a beer—just out of her reach.

HT: You know, like the mule and a carrot?

AD: The whole freakin’ parade. It was great.

HT: It was super funny. I think it was Jimmy Pincoe, he was blocking the corner of one of the streets. And Alan fires it, and candy rains down on Jimmy’s head—and all the kids come out and surround him.

ES: How big was that miniature one? That’s like, three or four feet?

AD: It could shoot apples and oranges, that kind of thing. It was a little bit more primitive design. More of a reproduction of something you’d find a picture of. Then we did some experiments and found that springs work a whole lot better than counterweights.

ES: So that was one of the prototypes you made before the big one.

AD: Yes, and then the big one got pulled by a horse.

ES: So that happened before some other projects, right? In the time that I’ve known you, there’s been the rocket you did with Spencer [Gray]—a water rocket?

AD: Oh my goodness, I forgot about that. Yes, we made a rocket out of a soda can. Not the kind you drink out of; like the kind you’d find in the drugstore. Three feet long and a foot in diameter, that kind. I forget how we did it, exactly, but it was part full of water and part full of compressed air, and it worked pretty good. It was fun. You didn’t want it to come down on you, it was pretty heavy.

ES: That one you put on the YMCA field, right?

AD: Yeah. There’ve been a number of crazy things that have happened over the years. We built some nice boats. And we built an airplane, a one-third scale airplane, which has a one-third scale model of me in it.

ES: Well, Alan, thank you! That’s a great story.