A History of Wooden Boatbuilding In Beals:
An Island Tradition Fading Fast
By Nancy Beal
Willis Beal built four Leta Fayes for Earlon Beal, the first in 1973. This, the last, slides down the ways at his shop near the bridge on Beals.
The Torpedo stern Redwing designed and built by Will Frost in the 1920's, in a 1930 photo. The boat is considered the origin of the modern Maine lobster boat. It was the boat to beat and ahead of it's time below the waterline.
"If you want a lobster boat, go to Beals Island, ‘cuz you can kick over a stump and find a boatbuilder there." That's what Beals boatbuilder of 40-plus years Ernest Libby says he always heard at the heyday of wooden boatbuilding on his home island where, up until about 1980, there were a dozen boat shops and dozens of other individuals who were capable of building a seaworthy lobster boat. That proud history, highlighted by the launching down-ways from the shop to the water or overland to a cove, guided by manpower on each guardrail, is fast becoming history; all of those shops have ceased to put out wooden boats, and most have ceased to function at all.
The Beals Island model lobster boat was created by a Nova Scotian, Will Frost, who settled in Beals after World War I. At first, he built "torpedo-stern" boats ("Redwing" is the most famous); in the 1930s, as fishermen moved further from home ports into more treacherous waters, he fashioned boats with skeg-built hulls and "cut-off" sterns that were stable under a large load of traps.
His influence was felt by everyone who was building or would build lobster boats from then on. Some, such as Harold Gower, with a shop on Barney's Cove inherited by his nephew, Dougie Dodge, adhered to a deeper, "built-down" style that cut through the water but tended to roll under a load.
Four of the eight sons of Charles Roscoe and Calista Della Beal, born in the early 1900s, were boatbuilders: Alvin, Floyd, Mariner ("Lovie"), and Vinal. They hailed from Beals' Alley's Bay area, as did the Backman family, which also established a shop there (and favored the built-down model). Around the bay at the head of the island, Riley, Adrian, Elihu, and Clinton Beal were active. Clinton shop in Cranberry Cove, where a lot of young men who later went out on their own learned the trade, reportedly turned out a finished lobster boat every five weeks when at its most active point.
Then came another generation: Osmond Beal (son of Vinal), Isaac Beal (son of Mariner), Willis Beal (pupil of Alvin), Richard and Clifford Alley. All fashioned versions of what has become know up and down the coast as the Beals Island (some call it Jonesport) style lobster boat but, to the practiced eye, each builder's models had a distinction that, in modern times, has led to the incorporation of its designer's name into the style name of the boat.
Osmond And Isaac Beal
At 74, Osmond Beal is the oldest of the last generation of wooden boatbuilders. His boatbuilding career started with that of his father, in 1950, when Osmond was still in high school. He jokes about selling his father's first boat out from under him, but while he was away in the service, his father built one he kept, the Buddy and Sylvia and, upon returning home, Osmond worked with Vinal and with his uncle, Mariner. In 1964, he moved part of his father's shop to the Kelley Farm area, where his wife Barbara Alley's family lived, and added on to make the shop he has today. Vinal worked with him there for five or six years, and his brother-in-law, Harry "Twink" Alley, has been with him ever since. Between his father's shop and his own, Osmond says he has turned out about 85 wooden boats.
Several years ago, he allied himself with H & H Marine in Steuben, building wooden plugs from which that fiberglass shop took molds and built their product line to what today is nine models, ranging from the Osmond 25 to the Osmond 38. For a few years, he took hulls on delivery from H & H for finishing up. The last such hull he completed two summers ago, with his grandson, Erick Blackwood. Osmond has done none since, and Erick works at H & H.
Another grandson of Charles and Calista Beal is Isaac Beal. Isaac worked with his father, Mariner, from roughly 1960 to 1970, sending many boats out of state, where Mariner's brother lived, before "going on the water" fishing. (Today, nearly all builders leave their shops to go fall fishing, but the generations before them tended to be strictly boatbuilders.) Isaac continued to build boats in the cellar of the modern house he built next to his family homestead and in a nearby barn, for himself and for other fishermen. With help from his wife Eva, they have preserved an impressive catalogue of photos of his family's boatbuilding heritage.
Osmond Beal's first boat built in the Back Field shop in 1968. This Jonesporter has the diamond shaped cabin trunk ports still characteristic at the time. Osmond built about 85 wood boats.
The Jannell and Calvin (1980) and Little Girl (1981), built by Calvin Beal in his old shop at Barney's cove. Little Girl was a fast boat and remembered, by some, for the collision with a bridge in her maiden race.
Ernest Libby Jr. And The Plunge Into Fiberglass
Ernest Libby Jr., or "Nernie," as he is known locally, was one of the many aspiring boatbuilders who used their tools to cut their teeth in Clinton Beal's shop. Nernie spent seven years turning out about 30 boats, with his uncle Clinton, and another, with Riley Beal. In 1963, he built the shop he has now, at Hixey Head, in Alley's Bay. It started out 35-by-50 feet, big enough for one boat, and Curtis Robinson Sr. was his helper for the first five years. After that, his four sons Norman, Ivan, Glenn and LeBaron grew up and entered the business one-by-one, and they are still part of the operation today.
At first, Nernie built 32s and 34s, then graduated to a 38-footer. One of the more famous was the Marguerite G., built in 1968 for Jimmy Preston, of Roque Bluffs, which was the boat to beat for years of July 4th racing. By 1977, Libby had built upward of 50 wooden boats, when the Young Brothers, of Corea Colby and twins Arvin and Arvid got him into the fiberglass business.
While other boatbuilders scorned the introduction of plastic as a boatbuilding material and refused to enable what was inevitable, Nernie saw the future and capitalized on it. He agreed to build the Youngs a 33-foot "plug": a wooden hull they would use to make a mold from which they could mass-produce fiberglass hulls. It was the death knell for wooden boatbuilding on Beals Islandand elsewhereand pioneered the path down which even the most stubborn and dedicated workers in wood eventually would go.
During the next 12 years, Nernie crafted seven plugs for the Youngs, which ranged in length from 30 to 45 feet. Some of the earliest still ply the waters of Moosabec Reach: 45-foot Queen D'Anna (1979), 40-footers Nancy Anne (1980) and Doris Margaret (1981).
By 1989, he foresaw that plastic would replace wood altogether, enlarged his Hixey Head shop, and went into fiberglass. Using his own (new) designs, he and his boys built plugs to create their own molds to fashion their own hulls. Starting with the Libby 38 in 1989, they added a 34 in 1996 and have since turned out 31 of the former and 10 of the latter, either kits or custom-finished. Son Norman built a shop near his home in Jonesport's Snare Creek District recently, and now many hulls laid up in Alley's Bay get finished across the Reach.
Asked if he misses wooden boatbuilding and would like to build one more, Nernie says, "I still have the tools and wouldn't mind it, but not for a living."
Calvin Beal Jr.
At 60, Calvin Beal Jr. is the youngest of the current generation, and has followed a similar path to that of his cousin Nernie, from wood to fiberglass. Like Nernie, Calvin Jr. hung around Clinton Beal's shop, stopping on his way home from school. While in high school, he planked-up and finished an outboard boat for Reach fishing. When he was 21, he helped Nernie build his first inboard boat, a 30-footer he named for his wife, Jeannine Marie, which, after trading labor with Nernie on the boat he was building for Hiram Alley (speedy racer Kathleen A.), cost him $1,300. Between worm tides, he helped Nernie rush to ready Jimmy Preston's Marguerite G. for the July 4, 1968 races, where she would set a benchmark for other boats and be the first boat that Calvin says "got up and planed on the water."
Calvin says he didn't set out consciously to be a boatbuilder. "It was necessity; everytime I needed a boat, I built it, then someone bought it." Around 1971, he began building on his own in what had been his in-laws' grocery store, near his home at Barney's Cove. He started with small boats, then built Clifton Alley (his father-in-law) a 35, in the winter of 1973-74. In the mid-1980s, he built a new shop across the road behind his house, and eventually turned out nearly 30 boats for himself and others. Among the better-known was the Jannell and Calvin (1980), now the Irene Renee II, owned by Robert Alley, and, in 1981, the Little Girl, a successful racer that made a splash in a collision with the bridge to the mainland at the conclusion of her maiden race, that July 4th.
Calvin's last wooden boat was a 28, for Donald Crowley, which ended up in Massachusetts. Since then, he has built several plugs for his brother, Wayne, who has a busy fiberglass shop in Jonesport, for South Shore Boat, for Mitchell Cove and for the partnership of Donald Crowley and Jimmy Beal, in Milbridge.
Most recently, he has contracted for the construction of his own molds and had hulls laid up for a 34, 36, 38, and 44, most of which come back to his shop for finishing. He is beginning to chafe under the pressure of supplying work for others, however, and says he looks forward to reducing his workload to one boat a winter. Calvin says he intends to build one more wooden boat a 28 that is all oak and cedar, like the boats of the 1960s and 1970s and enjoy it as a keepsake.
Launching the Marguerite G from Earnest Libby's shop in 1968. Rarely seen these days, the crowd of friends and neighbors who watched the launch, also made it happen. From both sides they pushed the boat over greased logs or boards, into the water. Built for Jimmy Preston of Rogue Bluffs, it was the boat to beat and considered the first to get up and plane.
Willis Beal: Beals' Last Wooden BoatBuilder
Willis Beal began his career working part-time for Freddy Lenfestey, a Beals Islander who established a shop in Jonesport, during the winter of 1962-63. During the following two winters he worked with who else Clinton Beal. He had already started by building a 23-footer for his brother Robert in his basement and, in the fall of 1965, with his father-in-law, Millard Alley, he built the shop near the bridge in which today he and Robert repair lobster gear.
According to a list he keeps in his billfold, Willis spent the winters of 1966 and 1967 building a 36-foot pleasure boat on the style of a lobster boat for a Rockefeller cousin, but most of his subsequent work was for local fishermen. In 1968, the first of two he built for Paul Mutty of Pigeon Hill slid down the ways, in 1969 came the Three G's for himself, and, in 1970, Merle Beal's legendary Silver Dollar, Willis' first 38, struck the water. The Dollar is one of several of Willis' wooden boats that are still working in the Moosabec area: Stanley Beal's Verda Mae (1971), the Glenda & Glenace (built in 1972 for Millard Alley and now owned by Wade Faulkingham), Thurman Alley's Melanie Jean (built in 1973 and the first of four Leta Fayes that Willis would build for Earlon Beal), his brother's 31-foot Miss Rachel (now owned by Leland Faulkingham), and Willis' first 40-footer, Lynn and Stephanie, built for William Smith and now the Lil Bruv owned by Michale Beal.
Willis was always intrigued with the torpedo-stern boats of earlier years (Alvin Beal had built him one of the many models he fashioned after retiring from big boatbuilding), so included in the 26 wooden boats that slid out the back door of Willis' shop into Moosabec Reach were two replicas of those early Will Frost boats. The first, built in 1988 for Bradford Bernardo, is used as a launch to Jonesport's Hardwood Island. The second, Tatiana, built in 1991, is used for lobster fishing by the Port Clyde fisherman named Fisher for whom she was built. She would be Willis' last finished wooden boat, and the last wooden lobster boat built on Beals Island, bringing the industry back full-circle to Will Frost.
Following that, Willis linked up with RP Boat in Steuben and built a 31- and 35-foot plug newer, higher-sided models than his traditional lean models then adapted the 35 into a 40. Mark Carver's Butterfly Kisses and Travis Beal's Designer's Daughter (Travis is Willis' son-in-law) are products of that transition.
A Proud Tradition
None of the builders who contributed to what we today think of as the "Beals Island-style" lobster boat learned their trade in school. The profession developed over the years, a combination of innate skill, artistry, and practical knowledge of what made a good working lobster boat. The boat shops were the schools for those early builders, and the few who still ply the trade teach it to their sons and sons-in-law. Then as now, boat shops are social gathering places, where men who rely on the products of those shops hover over their creation, and are present at the launchings if no longer by seeing a newly-finished wooden boat into the water, at least by participating at the launch into life of their successors.