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Watch Now: Friends built personal craft for James River Batteau Festival

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The sound of gushing waters from the creek next to Brightwell’s Mill in Amherst County is a fitting sound as Roger Huffman uses power tools on a batteau under construction.

The James River is where the flat-bottomed vessel is destined to end up as part of an eight-day journey from Lynchburg to Richmond in late June.

Huffman and a small group of laborers, including Ricky Brightwell, are building the Brightwell’s Mill batteau, a craft popular in the 18th and 19th centuries to transport tobacco and other cargo on the river. Brightwell, whose family has owned the mill for just more than a century, said the wood for the batteau came from trees on the mill’s property.

The labor of love will lead to the new batteau joining roughly two dozen others as part of the James River Batteau Festival, which marks its 36th year from June 19 to June 26.

Brightwell said Huffman, the group’s chief craftsman, has built four previous similar boats. They planned to get the vessel into a local lake last week.

“The sooner the better,” Brightwell said of getting the boat water-tested.

“We’re looking forward to when it doesn’t leak,” said Randy Lee.

Letting it soak in the water for a few weeks makes the boards in the craft swell up, Brightwell said.

The trio and others working on the project will enjoy the fruits on their labor when the boat is launched on the James and they’ll have more than a week with no phones, television, social media or air-conditioning, Brightwell said. Getting back to nature and soaking in the outdoors with the camaraderie of friends on the water is worth the effort, he added.

“It’s a fun time,” Brightwell said. “We look forward to it every year.”

Brothers Anthony and Benjamin Rucker, of Amherst County, were the original inventors of the James River batteau in 1775. The festival, a celebration of the history, has been a summer tradition for decades but last year was scaled back significantly with the COVID-19 pandemic and high water, Brightwell said.

The pandemic still presents some challenges, including potentially not launching from Percival’s Island in Lynchburg like normal. Brightwell said the group is ready for whatever the experience brings this year.

“The James River is beautiful anyway,” Brightwell said. “Each stop along the way has its own character.”

Huffman said he looks forward to spending time on the river with friends, a vacation with a personal touch in craftsmanship.

“I reckon you can call it a hobby,” Huffman said of the boat-making experience.

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