SOUTHWEST HARBOR – “We’d be having dinner or dessert out on the porch on a Sunday night, in the summer, and these people, sometimes the old-timers, would drive up and they wouldn’t even get out of their car, they’d converse from the porch, they’d just pull in and they’d talk. And he sold boats that way,” Kathe Newman Walton says of her father, Jarvis Newman, about his early days in the business of building fiberglass boats.
“They’d walk up and give Dad a wad of cash as a down payment. ‘Why don’t you build me one of those 36s?’ Mostly fishermen, because Dad built a lot of commercial boats. Same when Dad would mow the lawn. He’d sell a boat. These guys would just swing by and just roll out whatever they probably got from the catch of the day, and they’d give you a thousand dollars as a down payment, and a handshake. That’s it.”
Back in the 1970s, Newman was a leader in advancing the use of fiberglass for powerboat and sailboat construction, producing wildly successful lines of pleasure and work boats that, in his heyday, popped out of his Southwest Harbor shop at the rate of one every two weeks. One of his first popular lines was a 12-foot fiberglass tender, produced from a mold he pulled from a handsome wooden skiff crafted by Arthur Spurling of Islesford. His business really took off when he pulled a mold from the Irona, an elegant wooden yacht designed by his father-in-law, Raymond Bunker, and built in 1964 by Bunker and his partner Ralph Ellis at their nearby shop in Manset. Newman subsequently commissioned designs from Ralph Stanley, Royal Lowell, and Eliot Spalding, fashioned the first fiberglass Friendship sloops, and generated steady trade over the next decade for a crop of newcomer boat shops that finished his hulls.
Recently, at the brokerage firm Newman started when he retired from boatbuilding in 1978, the noise of grinding and hammering can be heard from the cavernous shop out back as a couple of Friendship sloop owners get their boats ready for the summer.
Newman strolls in, wearing a paint-spattered jacket.
“I’ve just dressed up,” he jokes.
Taking a moment to talk about his first forays with fiberglass, in the late 1960s, Newman recalls meeting Irona’s owner, Frank Cram. He convinced Cram to let him take a mold from the classy yacht, which was Bunker and Ellis’ 42nd boat, launched in 1964.
“I said, ‘Look, if I take your boat for the winter, I’ll bring it back to you in the spring and I’ll pay for the storage, and I’ll completely take all the paint off the hull and repaint it for nothing,’” recalls Newman. “It was a very big win-win for him. It was a scary thought, taking a mold off a boat like that, because if it ever stuck – oooh, that would be a disaster.”
But the idea worked. Over time, Newman produced 89 of the 36-footers.
“Dad really jumped off the map with that,” Walton says.
Another hot item was the 46-foot design he commissioned in the 1970s, a roomy craft that attracted the attention of performing artist Billy Joel; all together, 90 of the boats came out of Newman’s shop. The first 46 was snapped up by Curtis Blake, co-founder of Friendly’s Ice Cream who had a summer home in Northeast Harbor. (Blake’s boat was destroyed several years ago in a storm in the Galapagos Islands. Newman keeps a chunk of the keel in his office as a memento.)
“He wanted a 20-foot living room. And if he wants it, I think he can have it,” Newman says of Blake’s specifications. “And he would give us ice cream.”
“He brought boxloads of Harbor Bars,” Walton fondly remembers of the ice cream sandwiches Blake’s daughter produced in Trenton.
Semi-retired now, Newman still keeps his hand in, and can be found most days at the shop.
“I’m not sitting home watching TV. Got to keep going,” he says.
The Newman family is immersed in the local boatbuilding scene and rooted in the locale going back to the 18th century. A fellow named Samuel Hadlock arrived on the Cranberry Isles, and came to an ignominious end in 1790, when he was hung for murder. Hadlock’s son and grandson were also named Samuel. The son led the hard life of an offshore fisherman before settling down. The grandson was a visionary. Born in 1792, he left the Cranberries to take up sealing and whaling in the far north, then took two Eskimaux and an exhibit of native items on tour through Europe. He married a Prussian woman, Dorothea Albertina Wilhelmina Celeste Hadlock, and returned with her to Great Cranberry Island. Their story is written up in the 1934 book God’s Pocket, by Rachel Field.
Newman’s grandfather, Lyle, is a descendant of the Cranberry-settling Hadlocks and was also a man of the sea. A Southwest Harbor lobster dealer and fisherman, Lyle was on the water until his late 80s; he died at age 98.
Lyle’s son Laurence tried life at a Boston prep school and then MIT. Laurence married a smart go-getter, Eleanor Jarvis, and went to work for the Southern New England Telephone Co. in Connecticut. But corporate life didn’t suit him. When he learned he had diabetes – in the 1940s a treatable disease, but still dire – Laurence decided to live “what ‘little’ life he had left the way he wanted,” as his obituary says. That meant being on the sea, at home by the waterfront where he grew up. At age 40, he returned to his roots, Eleanor and their three children in tow, and joined his father to form a lobster-buying and fishing business.
As a girl, Walton loved to fish with her grandfather Laurence.
“We used just a handline,” she says. A photograph shows the two with a boatload of cod and pollock. The line was heavy and took young Kathe a while to haul in, but her grandfather was patient.
“That’s the mid to late-‘70s,” she says. “It’s sad to see. The fish were big. Not long after that was when the Russians came in and vacuumed it all up.”
Laurence wanted to teach his granddaughter how to fillet a fish. They went to see “old Mr. Rich.”
“Honestly, you just hold it by the tail, turn your knife, and he just pulled the skin right off,” recalls Walton, still amazed by the memory. “Mr. Rich could do it very fast. Grandpa couldn’t do it as fast, but Grandpa could save more meat. But as Mr. Rich said, ‘I’m in it for business and I get that whole barrel done in an hour.’”
Walton still tries the technique.
“But I’m terrible at it,” she laughs. “We have chopped-up fish.”
A year before he died, Laurence used the last of his letterhead stationery to write the story of his life for Walton. He describes his travails when he returned to Southwest Harbor. It was difficult to break in as a lobsterman. Locals who had been fishing for a long time resented his return and cut his buoys. He once retaliated in kind, then stumbled on a point of negotiation: A local dealer wanted to return a truck his son had bought from Laurence.
“I said if you want me to do that I will but also I want you to use a little persuasion on some of your fishermen to quit bothering my traps,” Laurence writes. “I think that was the end of my problems.”
He tells how he bought a good lobsterboat from the Rich Brothers in Richtown, and how a young Jehovah’s Witness, just out of prison, inexperienced but desperate for work, was willing to take $5 per day.
“By the end of day 1 he could do everything,” he says. “He was a very good helper and we did not talk religion.”
He had a close call one night, coming in from Mount Desert Rock in thick fog with a load of pollock. He was cleaning fish at the stern with the tiller in rudder position when the fog lifted just enough to reveal Bunker’s Ledge, dead ahead, maybe 50 yards distant. He lunged forward, grabbed the wheel and spun it. By a stroke of good fortune, a large roller carried his boat past the ledge.
Laurence expected to die young because of his illness. But he inherited his father Lyle’s longevity and lived to age 96.
Walton is equally fond of her grandmother, Eleanor, who was “adorable,” as she says.
Eleanor, who grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, probably expected to live a more cosmopolitan life than Southwest Harbor could provide. But she kept busy writing about the community for local newspapers.
“I love that she made a niche for herself up here,” says Walton.
“Southwest Harbor Lobsterman and Harbormaster Has Unusual Helper,” reads one headline, for an article that tells about Stubby, a handsome feline with a glossy, long-haired, yellow-and-white coat and the stub tail that gave him his name. “But his beauty and loving disposition are not as extraordinary as his skill as a swimmer,” Eleanor writes. “Where other cats shiver and turn up their whiskers at the first touch of water, Stubby has no fears, but plunges right in.”
Eleanor tells the story of a Bernard sea captain and his wife who devoted their lives for more than 50 years to care for youngsters whose parents were in distressed circumstances. Her lead grips: “Hungry and shivering in his skimpy, spray dampened clothes, the 15-year-old English lad was a forlorn figure in the gray dawn as the captain of a Maine vessel anchored offshore rowed a small boat through the breaking surf, bent on replenishing his ship’s fresh water supply.”
“Manset’s Ike Stanley is Truly a Trader Extraordinary In Own Way,” she writes about a weir fisherman who began collecting old stuff for his second-hand shop after his business, J.L Stanley, co-owned with his father and brother, burned in the big fire of 1919, at the height of the influenza epidemic.
“The father did not bemoan what had happened,” she writes. “Instead, he said to his sons: ‘I guess we’re lucky after all to have had a fire instead of the flu.’”
Eleanor’s articles were preserved by Walton’s great-aunt, Marion Newman Hayes. Marion was Lyle’s sister. Their father and grandfather, Saunders Ward Newman and Henry Newman, worked at shipyards on Mount Desert Island and in Ellsworth. Ward used to race sulkies at the state fairs. He also built model boats.
“S.W. Newman is putting the finishing touches to a beautiful model of a two-masted craft, with every tiny block and chain and rope complete to the last detail,” a newspaper item reads. “The name, The Eagle, is painted in beautifully executed letters and the figurehead is a gilded eagle with outstretched wings. The little anchors are in place and the sails all set.” (Jarvis and Susan Newman have another Ward Newman model displayed in their home, a three-masted schooner built c. 1915.)
Marion snipped all kinds of articles about local life.
“She seemed to know everyone,” says Walton.
“Philadelphia Woman May Have Perished In Ice-Bound Island Home,” says a newspaper headline about a Gotts Island fire one winter. “West Tremont Man, Despite Age, Continues Art of Boat Calking.”
There’s an item about Mr. and Mrs. William J. Tower, happily married and enjoying the winter in Florida with their pet spaniel Teddy; about Mrs. Mattie Dolliver, who managed a dairy farm and offered “entertaining glimpses of old Maine shipbuilding and sailing days” on MDI; and about the opening in 1931 of the new Waldo-Hancock Bridge.
“I had this out because in today’s paper they have this article about dismantling the bridge, and my Aunt Marion has it when it was new,” Walton says.
There’s a vintage photo that shows an old, pipe-smoking, bearded fellow named Captain Thomas Manchester Newman. Thomas was a great-uncle somewhere in the family-tree branches, born in 1835 in Manset, where many Newmans once had their homes. Talk about family longevity. He lived in the same house all his life, and died there in 1942, at age 107. The photo shows him at 105, reading the letter he received from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the occasion of his birthday.
It must have been shortly before he died when the Lowell (Massachusetts) Sun and Citizen-Trader wrote a piece to commemorate Maine’s oldest resident, who was celebrating his 107th birthday in the same room where he was born.
“To friends who came to his home to congratulate him, he gave this recipe for longevity,” the article says. “Let rum alone and smoke sparingly. Arise with the roosters and go to bed when the hens poke their heads under their wings. Do a lot of hard work that will keep you fit for the century sprint. Avoid digging your grave with your teeth. Refuse to eat rich foods such as pies, cakes and cookies. Instead stick to rough foods like Johnny cake, baked beans and baked potatoes. Drink plenty of milk.”
Square-jawed and trim, a purposeful look in his eyes, Jarvis Newman as a young man left his childhood home in Southwest Harbor to get an associate’s degree in aircraft maintenance, spend some time in the U.S. Army, and work for General Electric Aviation in Cincinnati, Ohio, and then Lynn, Massachusetts, where he tested jet engines and wrote technical publications.
Newman came home one summer vacation to visit his family. One day, he stopped into his aunt’s apartment, which overlooked Main Street opposite the movie theater. He noticed a young woman emerging from the theater.
Susan Bunker was one of Raymond and Gail Bunker’s four children. The Bunker family lived in town and Susan had taken her younger brothers to the show. She was 16 at the time.
Susan recounts, “He said to his aunt, ‘Who is that?’ And she told him. So he zipped down the stairs and sort of walked up as far as St. John’s church, and he said, ‘Where are you going to college this fall?’ I said, ‘I’ll be a junior in high school.’ He sort of made a U-turn.”
Several years later, when he moved to Lynn, he learned Susan was in Boston at the Katharine Gibbs school. He called.
“We started dating in January, we married at the end of October,” Susan says.
Susan went to work for the Sylvania Electric Co. in Salem. In Lynn, Jarvis decided he probably wasn’t going to go any higher at GE. The couple moved to Nashua, New Hampshire, where Jarvis worked for the Stanley Elevator Company, founded by a man “who had been kind of related from the Stanley family from the Bass Harbor area,” says Susan.
“They needed somebody in the state of Maine to install and service elevators,” says Jarvis. “Stanley elevators are very different. They’re not cable. They’re hydraulic with a pump. They pump up and they go gravity down. It was the latest thing on an elevator. I installed a lot of them in Maine.”
After a while, the couple decided to move back to Southwest Harbor with their two small children, to be near family.
One summer, they were at a party and ran into Bob Hinckley, the eldest son of Henry Hinckley, founder of the prestigious Henry R. Hinckley Boat Company. Bob needed someone in the fiberglass department. Newman went to work for him for the next couple of years.
“Bob and I grew up together; we’re the same age,” says Newman. “I ran the glass department – as though I knew anything about glass. We built one boat a week.”
It was about the time fiberglass was entering the market, in the mid-1960s. Newman earned $1.95 an hour.
“It was fun,” he recalls. “And women were the most delicate – not delicate – but very good fiberglassers, because they have the patience, they see more than men do. The hull – piece of cake, anybody could do that. That’s just straight going. But the deck, all the corners and crevices, and you’ve got to make sure you get all the air out of the glass.”
He got an idea to try a fiberglass project on his own. He pulled a mold from an 11-foot skiff and produced a fiberglass version. He set one on display at his grandparents’ house in Manset, asking for $375.
“His father and grandfather laughed at him, saying no one would pay that kind of money for a newfangled fiberglass boat,” Walton says. His first customer bought two, and Newman sold a couple of dozen all together.
Still, he wasn’t entirely happy with the boat. That’s when his father-in-law, the wooden boatbuilder Raymond Bunker, saw what he was aiming at and offered key advice.
“Raymond said, ‘If you’re going to build a boat, build a good one,’” he recalls.
Bunker was the long-time summer boat captain for a wealthy Northeast Harbor family. The family had a nice tender designed and built by Bunker’s uncle, Arthur Spurling (who lived on Islesford to age 102, passing away on his birthday after mowing his lawn). With Bunker providing the introduction, Newman received permission to take a mold off the tender, and built his first 12-foot fiberglass version, although not an exact replica.
“It really took off,” Newman says. “The 11-footer did all right, but nothing like the 12-footer.”
Next, Newman had his eye on the wooden Friendship sloops that could be seen in many Maine harbors. He was particularly taken by a sloop named Old Baldy, which had been built just a few years earlier by James Rockefeller Jr. in Camden. Newman decided to try a fiberglass version. He got permission from the boat’s owner to pull a mold, and built the first fiberglass Friendship.
Given his success so far, Newman realized there might be an untapped market for fiberglass workboats, which could be quickly produced to a uniform standard. He stepped things up when he used the Bunker and Ellis yacht Irona to make a 36-foot mold. By around 1970, he was ready to quit Hinckley and strike out on his own. His 36 debuted in 1971. The boat was an immediate success, among both pleasure and commercial boat buyers.
That same year, he bought another Friendship sloop, a 31-footer named Dictator, badly in need of repair. Newman filled Dictator with Styrofoam so he could float it to his shop from Stonington. His wooden boatbuilding neighbor Ralph Stanley helped rebuild it (Stanley had coveted the boat himself. “Every time I went up to Stonington where she was stored, I’d go look at her. She was setting there with a big hole in the bow, just dying,” he says in the book Ralph Stanley: Tales of a Maine Boatbuilder, written with Craig Milner. But for a long time, the owners wouldn’t sell, and anyway he didn’t have the money.)
Newman began to produce 31-foot fiberglass sailboats. Both the “Dictator” model and the 25, the “Pemaquid” model, have been popular among Friendship sloop enthusiasts, who bought nearly 40 over the next decade.
Newman also built a 32-foot powerboat designed in collaboration with Stanley; a 46 and 38 designed by Maine naval architects Royal Lowell and Eliot Spaulding; and a 30.
Newman did the interiors on the first few boats, but was soon farming out the finish work. Through the 1970s, Newman’s boats, basically, gave other shops a start. “Lee Wilbur sprang up. Tom Morris took the Friendships,” says Walton, citing prominent local builders. “Crozier Fox worked for Dad for a while. And Mac Pettegrow. They did the finish work for primarily Newman hulls. They’ve branched out and they do different things now. But back then, Dad supplied the hulls and those men finished them off.”
But Newman installed the engines himself.
“The hull was done with the engine, drive train, transmission, and propeller shaft, because I didn’t want someone else putting an engine in crooked and saying, ‘Oh, that Newman, that’s a terrible boat,’” he says. “I didn’t want vibration. They could say, if it shook, ‘Oh, that’s a damn Newman boat. That’s no good.’ So I made sure the engines were put in. It’s so easy to do it right. You just lower it and glass it. It’s perfect and simple.”
“Dad kept one of the neatest boat shops in Maine,” says Walton who, with her sister Kim, used to wash windows and sweep for him. “I’ve heard that from boat school people. The guys would take trips to different boatyards while they were going to school in Eastport. I’ve met up with them over the years, and they say, ‘I remember the Jarvis Newman yard. That was the neatest boat shop I ever saw.’”
“I just can’t make a mess,” says Newman.
Why did he sell the business?
“I don’t know. Got tired, I guess,” Newman says.
“He worked all the time,” says Walton.
Newman had an interested buyer for the business who had learned fiberglass production from him.
“It’s a bucket and a roller. You roll it on the material,” he says. “Nowadays, it’s all push-button and big spray-guns.”
Eventually, CW Hood Yachts in Marblehead, Massachusetts, acquired the powerboat molds, “in an effort to keep alive an icon of the Maine boatbuilding industry,” as the Hood website says. Newman retains his Friendship sloop molds, and Newman & Gray, on Great Cranberry Island, owns the molds for Newman’s tender.
For the brokerage, Newman and Walton try to keep track of the whereabouts of his boats, as well as those of Bunker and Ellis and other local builders.
“Sometimes we see them back again,” Walton says. “I can’t tell you how many questions we get about repowering. They want to ask Dad, if I get a new engine, do I have to change the shaft, do I have to change the propeller?”
By the time he sold his business, Newman had built several hundred powerboats and sloops, and several hundred dinghies. Subsequent owners of the powerboat molds continued to produce Newman hulls. Walton reckons the most recent were a 46 and a 38, built in 2005. (The last Pemaquid sloop came out in 1982, and the last Dictator in 1983.)
“But they’re there. They’re available. We got a call the other day, someone looking for a new powerboat,” she says. “And the dinghies are still being built. We have a deposit on a new one for pick-up in July.”
In the 1950s, Henry Hinckley, down the road from Newman, was a pioneer in the production of fiberglass boats; in 1959, the company hit that stride with the debut of the popular Bermuda 40 yacht. But by the early 1970s, there were still few fiberglass builders on the Maine coast. Newman tapped into a market waiting to happen.
“I just wanted to do something different that was modern and easy,” he says.
“That’s the beginning of the industry,” says Walton. She turns to her dad. “I would say you were very much progressive, with the fiberglass. You had a vision where it was going.”