Bunker and Ellis: How two men played pool and became boatbuilding icons

 

“We worked nights, Thanksgiving, New Year’s, even Christmas,” Raymond Bunker said in 1979, not long after his 32-year partnership with Ralph Ellis ended. “Often, we worked until nine o’clock or midnight, just the two of us, and we sometimes built four boats in a winter.”

Bunker and Ellis were in their 30s when they teamed up in 1946 to build boats. Before that, both men had developed reputations around the waterfront as hardworking, knowledgeable men. Ellis was a fisherman who helped run a commercial wharf. Bunker was the head foreman of a large boatyard, and ran private yachts during the summer.

Ralph Ellis, left, and Raymond Bunker. Photo courtesy Ellis Boat

Bunker wanted to build a boat for himself and had plenty of experience with design. Ellis had a workshop on his property and wanted to learn more about woodworking. They got together evenings just to pass the time on this new endeavor, so they called the first boat they built Evening Pastime.

A neighboring fisherman liked the looks of Evening Pastime. He asked them to build him a new lobsterboat. Bunker and Ellis liked to work hard and didn’t mind putting in the extra hours, so they took on the job.

They thought they’d build mainly for fishermen. But things evolved after Bunker built for his own use another boat, Sueann, in 1949. Thanks to his summer work hiring out himself and his boat for the use of Northeast Harbor residents, Sueann caught the eye of a wealthy summer resident, who wanted to charter it. Bunker persuaded the resident instead to have him design and build a yacht. This was a seminal moment for what would eventually become highly regarded as the iconic lobsteryacht, a combination of gorgeous topside and rich interior wedded to the stable and sturdy lobsterboat hull.

More yachters came, intrigued by the aesthetics, performance, and comfortable feeling of Jericho and subsequent boats. Most of the Bunker and Ellis repertoire is still turning heads throughout the eastern seaboard, beautiful lines and custom finish work in teak and mahogany like rare gems in an industry of mass production.

Over three decades, the partners turned out 59 wooden powerboats. They built in the winter, starting in October or November, shutting the shop down when spring rolled around, to fish and run yachts.

Beaujoanne II, built 1959, later called Old Flame. Photo courtesy Bunker/Newman

“They said it was too hot to build a boat in there anyway,” recalls Ralph’s son Don who, with his older brother Dennis, took over the shop after they retired and began building customized fiberglass boats.

The shop was usually quiet, no radio, just the sound of handtools. Bunker typically wore overalls, a pipe clenched between his teeth; it wriggled a bit when he got excited. They understood each other.

“They very seldom spoke,” says Don. “If they were under the boat planking, they didn’t have to say, ‘Pick your end up. Put your end down.’ If Dad was holding the end of the plank and Raymond was starting it, Dad could almost tell by the feel, when he’d slide the plank up, which way Raymond wanted it to go.”

Although Ellis didn’t know the trade, at the start, his innate knowledge of the sea was an invaluable asset.

“Because he was a fisherman, he knew what a boat had to do in all kinds of sea conditions,” says Dennis. “One of the unique things about design that my father always told me was that you want a boat that’s good in a following sea. Because if she’s not, the sea will lift her stern and put her bow in ‘up to her chocks!’ he’d say. Also, you don’t want her too deep forward, or it makes a rudder on the bow.”

“I remember the first time Raymond showed me how to get a plank out and how to mark it and how to set it up,” Don says. “It just was so hands-on. No machine did it. You did it by eye and by calculations. And God, the way they planked a boat was just amazing. You see it today, every plank lines right up, coming up the stem. They’ve all got beautiful shape to them.”

“He could look at a boat – each boat he built, he sort of tweaked it a little,” says Bunker’s daughter, Susan Newman. “Each one was a little different, a little better.”

“They’d bring oak and cedar in, and they’d machine everything from these big chunks of wood,” says Susan’s husband, Jarvis Newman, himself a fiberglass boatbuilder in Southwest Harbor.

Raymond’s early designs were somewhat cumbersome, says Jarvis. But he experimented, tweaking here and there. By the late ‘50s, looks and performance were making the duo famous.

“When you see Raymond’s boats going through the water there’s just nothing like it,” says Jarvis. “He was a genius.”

Bellatrix, built in 1956 and first called Mainstay, then Water Rat. Photo courtesy Bunker/Newman

Bunker was born in 1906 and grew up on Great Cranberry Island, one of six children and the son of a fisherman. The family’s roots went back to the mid-1700s, with the arrival of one of the first European settlers on the island.

Rugged and smart, Bunker was a popular personality and known as something of a kidder. As a teenager, he tried going to the mainland for high school, in northern Maine, where his older sister lived.

“He didn’t last a year,” says Susan. “Hated living away from the ocean. So his formal education ended and he went back to the island.”

After leaving school in the 1920s, Bunker commuted from his home on Great Cranberry for 10 years to work for Chester Clement at the latter’s boatyard in Southwest Harbor. During the early part of the 20th century, Clement was considered one of the most influential designers and builders in the area (some information herein was kindly contributed by the Great Harbor Maritime Museum in Northeast Harbor, which conducted interviews from 1998-1999 and obtained earlier documentation for its Bunker and Ellis collection).

Hushai, built 1956. Photo courtesy Bunker/Newman

Clement began building boats on Mount Desert Island in 1915. In 1925, he bought what is now known as the Southwest Boat Corporation. The C.E. Clement Boatyard was known for building everything from yachts to fishing boats to “rumrunners.”

“Chester was one of those men that could look at a boat, get a plank, and fix it in the right place without measuring anything, and Raymond learned to do that,” said Raymond’s brother, Wilfred. (GHMM, 1998).

Bunker’s uncle, George Spurling, worked for Clement. Spurling didn’t have any way to get to the yard from Great Cranberry, so Bunker got his father’s small, open boat, powered by a 10-horse, make-or-break Bridgeport, and carried him back and forth. Clement ended up giving young Bunker a job sweeping the floors and keeping the shop clean, for two dollars a day. After a week, Bunker got to do two or three little jobs working on boats.

Maddy Sue, built by Chester Clement, at Great Cranberry Island. Photo courtesy Bunker/Newman

Interviewed in 1974, Bunker remembered his encounters with Clement: “He says, ‘Hell, you are just as good as any other fella. I’ll get you some tools, I know what you need. Monday morning you go to work same wages they’re getting, five dollars a day.’ That made me feel pretty good. Chester was quite a fellow. If he saw you were interested in your work, he was interested in you and helped you. Awfully nice man to work for. In fact, he was an awful nice man, period. He knew boatbuilding from A to Z. He built anything, from a 10-foot punt to a four-master. It didn’t make a difference, it automatically came to him.”

Everything he knew about building boats, he learned from Clement, Bunker said.

Clement died in 1937, in an automobile accident. Lennox Sargent (known as “Bink” or “Bing,” depending on whom you talk to) and Henry Hinckley bought the yard and changed the name to Southwest Boat. Bunker was appointed head foreman and would supervise more than 100 employees who were building mine yawls for the Navy during World War II. After the war, he received a citation from the Navy for his contribution, and stayed on to supervise construction of commercial fishing boats. He designed the models and supervised the private building contracts.

Bunker at Southwest Boat. Photo courtesy Susan Newman

Susan Newman vividly recalls the new draggers, built up to ninety or a hundred feet long for Gloucester fishermen.

“I was young. Dad, I think, was carrying me in the engine room,” she says. “I don’t like loud noises – scared to death. I do remember that.”

Summers, Bunker also hired himself out as a private yacht captain for wealthy residents in Northeast Harbor. A photograph shows him wearing a sweater vest, necktie and skipper’s cap; gazing away from the camera, he had the look of a man in charge. From a young age, he was known as a man who was always helpful and well-informed, an excellent wood carver and mechanic, and professional in every sense of the word.

He was a well-known presence at Clifton Dock, where there was a little captain’s shack, with six or eight bunks, for fishermen from the offshore islands to stay during the week. At the time, summer residents didn’t usually have their own boats. So fishermen cleaned up their vessels, put in new cushions and other niceties, and hired themselves out for charter work.

Bunker, perhaps on his boat Sueann. Photo courtesy Susan Newman

Brothers Henry and Thomas Reath Jr. would hang out at the dock as kids (Thomas would go on to have Bunker and Ellis build him four yachts between 1952 and 1967). There would be six or eight lobsterboats-turned-launches lined up at the dock, their captains waiting to take folks out for cruises.

“I used to go down when I was 12 or so, and got to hang out,” said Henry Reath (GHMM, 1999). “And I got to know these wonderful men as friends, and had tremendous respect for them. I learned so much from them.”

Back on Great Cranberry, in the meantime, Bunker met a farm girl from northern Maine. Gail Patterson was on the island by chance. She planned to work at L.L. Bean for the summer, but got a bad case of tonsillitis. When she recuperated, she decided to join her older sister, who was working at the fancy Hamor’s Tea House on Great Cranberry.

Susan Newman doesn’t know precisely how her parents’ meeting came about, but things moved quickly after that.

Bunker’s wife Gail on Jericho. Photo courtesy Susan Newman

“They met in the summer and were married in October,” she says. “Well, Dad was a sought-after, bachelor, I gather.”

Gail didn’t much care for the island life. She found it a little confining, and it was uncomfortable to get off, winters, in the open craft used then. The young couple moved to Southwest Harbor, making it easier for Raymond to get to Clement’s yard. They bought a house on a nice residential lane in the middle of town, which they would own for 50-some years. The town was an ideal place to grow up in the 1940s and ‘50s, Susan says.

“You had such freedom,” she says. “We could go all over town and play in the woods and do what we wanted. It was fun. It was, I think, the best time to grow up. People were fairly comfortable after World War II. There was work for everyone. It was a great place and a great time to grow up.”

When the first two children came along, the family would go for Sunday drives, but things got too hectic with the next two children. Susan describes her father as a rugged man with huge hands (whereas her mother “weighed about a hundred pounds soaking wet”). His job was his life. He was gone most of the time, working probably six and a half days a week. But he was a wonderful father.

“He was easy-going,” Susan says. “He didn’t get angry. I don’t ever remember him as being angry at anything. He was a fairly quiet man. He was a man’s man. He liked men and other men liked him. He was kind. He was great. I thought he was great. He was my dad.”

Raymond loved to play pool and was good at it. Evenings, he would head to a local hang-out called Jim’s Place, where he was known as a fun-loving fellow. It was a little store with a soda fountain, and the basement was a pool hall. A lot of men used to go there. One of those fellows was Ralph Ellis, a hard-working fisherman and a family man.

Bunker had been working for Southwest Boat for 12 years or so when he got to talking with Ellis.

Ralph Ellis in the shop. Photo courtesy Ellis Boat

Ellis would later describe the interaction: “Raymond made the statement, ‘If I had a place to build a boat, I would be doing so instead of wasting my time playing pool.’”

Ellis quotes himself: “I have a shop but I know very little about building a boat. However, if you wish, I’ll put my shop up against your ‘know-how.’

“The following morning Raymond ordered lumber for two 34s.”

Ralph Ellis was born in 1910 on the southwest coast of Nova Scotia, in a fishing village near Digby. His grandfather Charles Dennis Ellis was a Canadian boatbuilder and sea captain of a schooner from Massachusetts at the turn of the century. His father, Ralph Sr., was a fisherman. During the Depression, the family moved to Brockton, Massachusetts, a center of the shoe-making industry. Ralph Sr. didn’t like the city and moved to Mount Desert Island to resume fishing.

When Ralph Jr. was 14 or 15, his mother died. His father met another woman, on Great Cranberry. In those days, a teenager was expected to fill a man’s shoes, so Ralph Jr. took care of his two young sisters, Dorothy (called Dot) and Hilda, who were perhaps 11 and 13 and thought the world of their older brother. They lived in a one-room house on the Manset shore. (They also had an older sister, Margaret, married to Malcolm Ward.)

Young Ralph dropped out of high school to work. It was a rough existence. Ralph sawed wood, cut ice in the winter to go to the big J.L. Stanley freezer nearby, and baited trawl for 50 cents a tub to make enough money to buy a few things, milk and potatoes, to keep the family going.

Back in the day, in the small community, people took care of each other. Folks paid Ralph for his work, but they also him a little extra – a bag of potatoes or some milk. Ralph made biscuits for himself and his young sisters, getting a good, hot cookfire going from the sap of green alders. He earned a reputation as a hard worker. In the 1920s, he started working for Harvard Beal, who established a commercial fish wharf across the harbor. The two young men fished through the winter, going 20 miles offshore to Mount Desert Rock, landing the catch in Beal’s 28-foot boat. Once, Beal was at the helm when Ellis spotted a freighter coming at them. Ellis raced back to grab the wheel, and spun them out of the way – almost rolling the boat over – just in time.

Ralph Ellis. Photo courtesy Ellis Boat Co.

Ellis also did odd jobs and, summers, he sailed for two prosperous Northeast Harbor summer families, the Matthews and the McCabes.

Ellis’ older son, Dennis, recalls his father would take Thomas McCabe out on Somes Sound.

“They’d buy some lobsters and put down their anchor,” Dennis says. “Then they’d cook and eat those lobsters together. There they were, a fisherman and the president of this great, big Scott Paper Company, and they got along just fine.”

Harvard had several siblings. One of them was named Velora. Their father was Vinal Beal, a lighthouse keeper at Mount Desert Rock – the treeless, windswept island 25 miles offshore from Bar Harbor – from 1909 to 1931. Velora once recalled that he was paid about $60 a month to feed a family of six.

“And we were all hearty eaters,” she said (GHMM, 1999).

Life on the rock was “lovely,” she said. She recalled the big steamers that sailed down east from Boston, and the teacher, sent by the state to lighthouses inhabited by families, who stayed on the rock with them for about eight weeks out of the year and taught the children multiplication tables.

Velora was eight years old when her mother moved the children off the Rock to the mainland, for school. The family lived in a house not far from Ralph’s; Velora sometimes played with his little sisters. Her mother thought the world of Ralph.

“Every time he went fishing, which was every day with my brother,” Velora said, “we could see from my mother’s house where Ralph put the porch light on when he got in from fishing. So I’d go to the door, when he took his buckets down to get some water out of the well, we’d holler over to him, ‘Ralphie, Mama’s got your supper ready here for you!’ We took awful good care of him and Dorothy and Hilda.”

Velora grew up and attracted Ralph’s eye. The young couple married in 1935 and bought a small house in Manset. There was a small workshop on the adjacent property, so Ralph bought that, too, for  $500.

In front of the Bunker and Ellis shop. Photo courtesy Susan Newman

Ralph never let his wife and children worry about where the next potato or egg was coming from. He worked hard to make sure they had a good life.

Dennis remembers his father’s fishing days well: “He loved to work, he loved everything he did. I remember he was always whistling or singing. As a boy, I might wake up at one or two in the morning, and he’d be out in the kitchen. Now, what is he doing up at this time? Well, he’d be going out fishing, out to the islands to set tubs of trawl with Uncle Harvard. And he wouldn’t get back in until – well, he used to eat supper on the boat.”

Even though he was out working most of the time, he loved doing little things for his family. One night for supper, he promised Velora a treat. He’d make her something great that she’d never eaten before. So he concocted pancakes with chicken in them.

“He was great at making pancakes because that’s all he had when he was a kid,” she said.

Both of them were wonderful parents – and frugal. Dennis recalls his mother picking up lobster bodies from a nearby restaurant and extracting every tiny bit of meat for the family’s meal.

“We could afford to buy lobsters, but she was brought up not to waste,” he says. (She was also incapable of resisting any charitable cause, he says. “She said she felt it was an obligation to help out if she possibly could – and she would. She would give to the end.”)

It was years before the family got a car, and when they did, it was barely used.

“I remember when I got my driver’s license,” says Don, “and I said, ‘Well, can I take the car and go uptown?’”

“Uptown” meant Southwest Harbor, a mile away.

“And he looked at me like I was nuts. ‘Well, what are you going to do uptown?’ And I said, ‘I just want to take a ride uptown.’ ‘No, why would you want to do that? It’d just waste gas.’ They thought a trip uptown was a big trip. A trip to Ellsworth was maybe a monthly event. And a trip to Bangor was an annual thing, and actually you didn’t even go to Bangor unless it was something you couldn’t get in Ellsworth.”

From the first winter that Ralph and Raymond got the boatbuilding shop set up, Ralph only had to step out the door to go to work. Both sons recall those childhood days as being pretty good. Raymond found his new partner a pleasure to be with, too. Velora recalled Raymond once saying, “If anyone can’t get along with Ralph Ellis, there’s something wrong with them.”

They probably earned about $2 an hour, and they never put down their hammer or screwdriver until the job was done, if it took them until midnight to finish it, she said.

“Ralph was always a workaholic,” she said. “He wasn’t home much. He was out there in that shop working.”

Photo courtesy Susan Newman

But he did have other interests. He liked to play pool. And he loved to sing.

“He could sing like you wouldn’t believe,” Don says. “He sounded like Perry Como with the singing. Perry Como’s son bought a boat off of us and, when I found out, I asked him to get an autographed picture for Dad, so he did. Dad thought that was something else.”

Ralph liked his customers, but mostly he left the talking to Raymond. He had a reputation for being soft-spoken.

“Soft-spoken?!” Don exclaims, then jokes, “I didn’t think he could talk until I was about 15 years old. Amazingly quiet, never said two words, never complained about anything.”

But Ralph had a sly sense of humor. Dennis recalls his mother serving his father a slice of angel food cake.

“It’s quite poufy, you know,” he says. “He looked at it for a while. Then he crushed it up into a ball and said, ‘There! Now I’ve got something to eat!’”

Don remembers their dad built a doghouse for their childhood beagle, Snookie.

“This was the Taj Mahal of doghouses,” he says. “We put a little canvas cover over the door. And that dog would run across the lawn wide-open and just whoosh right under that canvas.”

One night, Don got home from school and found there was a light on in the doghouse. “So I said, ‘Dad, what’s the light in the doghouse for?’ He said, ‘Well, she likes to read at night.”

At one time, Manset was a hub of the island, a center of maritime activity. In the early 20thcentury, J.L. Stanley and Sons was a big player in the liveliness of the neighborhood. The firm had wharfs and buildings that covered a large area of the waterfront and employed many people to run a wholesale and retail fish business, and a large cold storage plant and icehouse. The wharf was also used as a steamboat landing by the Eastern Steamship Co.

Launching. Photos courtesy Susan Newman

As the decades marched on, the village still had the flavor of an autonomous community. Neighbors visited, helped each other out, and bought each other’s goods. Boat shops were an important part of the overall picture. Velora’s sister Robena – “Aunt Beanie” – and Robena’s husband Clarence had a small grocery store in the middle of the community. The Henry R. Hinckley Company was a major employer during World War II, and an early and soon-to-be prosperous entry in the fiberglass market. Folks could live their lives working, shopping, and visiting within this neighborly world.

The Bunker and Ellis shop was a simple, framed, wooden building, an unimpressive structure. A sign hung outside that said Bunker and Ellis Custom Boatbuilders. As the age of fiberglass rumbled in, Raymond put up another plaque: “If God wanted fiberglass boats, he would have planted fiberglass trees.” Inside, it hardly seemed the builders could stand back far enough to see how the lines of a new hull were shaping up.

“They would build one boat at a time. That’s the only room they had,” says Jarvis Newman. “They only had, I think, three power tools – a Delta 14-inch bandsaw, a tablesaw, and I don’t even think he had an electric plane. He had his adze. He did have an electric screwdriver – a great, big, heavy thing.”

The air was damp when the steam box was running; in fact, the close humidity sent Bunker to the hospital with pneumonia a number of times. Winter mornings started out frigid. Every morning, Ralph went out to the shop first thing, got the fire going if need be, then went to the house to get something to eat. When Raymond drove in, Raph headed back out. Sometimes, the two men went back to work after supper, especially if they were finishing up a boat and getting it ready to launch. Not that there was any particular schedule; they worked when they had the opportunity to do so.  When they left, they’d pull a string at the door which disconnected the electrical supply so nothing would be electrified that might cause a fire.

Dennis recalls his father and Bunker began the lofting process around August. Bunker carved the half-models (later, Ellis also designed boats). Ellis painted the floor white and marked a grid with six-inch spacing. Together, they lifted the lines from the model and transferred them to scale.

“One time, I remember, they drafted a hull and the only piece of paper Raymond could find was a piece of building paper” – moisture-resistant sheathing – “and the thickness of the pencil was probably two inches,” Dennis recalls. “But the boats always came out perfect.”

New boats were dragged on a cradle out the front doors and down the hill to the shore, where they were “rocked down” with beach rocks. The rising tide floated them free.

“They’d turn the key, the engine would go, and they’d take off. Everything worked,” Dennis says. “That’s the way it was.”

Boats were narrower in those days, not having to carry today’s big engines or the mass of traps that is customary today. Based on the lines of Maine’s working vessels, with a semi-displacement, built-down hull, the Bunker and Ellis style was known for the “rightness” of its proportions, the sweep of the sheer, the sweet curves of the tumblehome. Each boat was a custom work of art. Varnished mahogany cabinsides, shelters, and coamings sparkled in the sun, catching the eye. Open cockpits and cabins were spacious and inviting. The boats were a distinctive breed, attracting faithful followers.

Their best-known yacht, Jericho, was commissioned by a wealthy summer resident of Northeast Harbor. The resident was looking for a boat to charter. Bunker was doing his usual summer routine at Clifton Dock, chartering out the new boat he and Ellis had just built, the SueAnn. The customer commissioned the duo to build a boat for him.

Bunker and Ellis launched Jericho, a 35-foot boat, in 1950.

The first Jericho, built in 1950, now named Adequate. Photo courtesy Bunker/Newman

The customer liked Jericho well enough. But he was a tall man and the shelter was too low. Bunker refused to raise the roof because it would throw the proportions off. So a few years later, he and Ellis built him a longer and beamier boat that would look right with a taller shelter. The 42-foot boat, launched in 1956, became the second Jericho. The smaller boat was sold.

The second Jericho, built 1956. Photo courtesy Bunker/Newman

The second Jericho – its long, low mahogany cabin, the sweep of its sheerline, its gleaming brightwork, and the way it slips through the water – is considered the queen of the Bunker and Ellis fleet.

The first Jericho ended up in the hands of a fellow named Rod Lucas, who was very happy about the transaction (and renamed the boat Adequate). Lucas worked for Electric Boat in Connecticut but had summered on MDI since he was born, and was fond of being on the water and poking around the islands. The boat went on the market in 1972. The economy was in a slump and the price was slow. He hadn’t particularly been in the market for a powerboat, but if a Bunker and Ellis were available at an affordable price, that was his dream boat. There was a waiting list, and he was number twelve. A few weeks later, he reached the top of the list and immediately mailed a check.

Another customer was so enticed by the two men’s artistry that he commissioned four yachts, starting with a 30-footer and progressing to a 44.

Thomas Reath Jr. (GHMM, 1999) remembered going to the shop to check on the progress of each.

“All the local people used to stop and he’d keep right on working,” he said of Raymond. “I’d of kicked them out, but it didn’t bother him at all.”

Reath lived in Pennsylvania but grew up spending summers on MDI. He recalled when he took the first boat, Roundalay, to the Chesapeake. The weather got pretty rough and it started leaking. He took it to a yard in New Jersey, but they couldn’t figure out what was wrong. So he called Bunker and said, “You sold me a boat that leaks. What am I going to do with it?”

Bunker said, “’Ah, stick something in it’ – joking-like.”

Reath asked Bunker to come down, offering to pay for his plane ticket. Bunker took a taxi for the 12-hour drive instead.

While the taxi-driver lay down for a snooze, yard workers hauled the boat out.

“If I were trying to find a hole, I think I’d fill it with water and see where it came out,” Reath said. “He just walked around and saw one place, maybe half an inch – he might have finished one row of caulking and started another line. He immediately saw it, and he had it fixed in ten minutes. It was amazing. They were kind of nonplussed they couldn’t find this and he found it in 20 seconds. It was the hottest day in the summer. He came down with his sweater on and never took his sweater off. He used to say, ‘A sweater keeps you warm in the winter and keeps you cool in the summer.’”

Once the job was done, Bunker and the driver hopped into the taxi and drove home.

“They left one afternoon, drove all night, worked the next day for a few minutes, and drove right back. I don’t think he missed but one day of work,” Reath said.

Bunker with his ever-present pipe. Photo courtesy Susan Newman

(Like the pipe permanently clenched between his teeth, Bunker’s sweater had a storied life of its own. Dennis recalls that, although the shop could be hot enough in the fall to drive his father to take out he windows and wear bathing trunks, Raymond still wore his long underwear, his regular shirt and pants, his pullover sweater, and his overalls. “One day, Father came in for supper, and he said, ‘Well, it must have got hot today – Raymond took off his sweater!’”)

As both the producer and captain of the two Jerichos, and a gregarious and knowledgeable fellow to boot, Bunker attracted a lot of attention around the waterfront. Jericho itself was effective advertising; often, orders for new boats came in at the dock, with nothing more than a verbal okay. Launching three or four new vessels a year during the 1950s, the partners produced a string of pleasure boats for the likes of David Rockefeller and textile magnate Roger Milliken Sr. In 1964, they produced Irona II; seven years later, Jarvis Newman – the up-and-coming fiberglass boatbuilder who was Bunker’s son-in-law – would pull a mold from Irona II and begin producing what would become his popular line of 36-foot fiberglass powerboats. In 1973, one of the Newman hulls would end up at the Bunker and Ellis shop to be finished in wood; dubbed Foggy Dew III, it was the only fiberglass hull the partners ever took on.

Tartan, built 1953. Photo courtesy Bunker/Newman

By 1965, they slowed down, launching mostly one boat per year. In the 1970s, the duo began building wide-bodied lobsterboats, some of which were later turned by other boatbuilders into lobsteryachts. Their last five boats were commissioned by fishermen, including a coterie on Vinalhaven that had become fans. In the 1950s, Wilfred “Mouse” Lloyd stopped into the shop during a visit to Bass Harbor (GHMM, 1999). He was a long-time herring fisherman, setting stop-seines from a dory. He also trapped lobsters and he needed a new boat. Bunker and Ellis launched his boat, which he named Mouse, in 1955. He liked it quite a lot, but 15 years later, he decided it was time for a new boat. So the partners built him a wider vessel of the same length and launched that one, named Star Fisher, in 1972. He was 59 and fished another 23 years, until he was 82.

The last boat was Sister’s Pride, launched in 1978. Rigged for scallop fishing, it sank several years later, possibly holed by one of the steel doors on the drag, or swamped over the stern. The three-man crew escaped in a life raft and were picked up by another fishing boat.

Sister’s Pride, the last Bunker and Ellis boat, built 1978. Photo courtesy Bunker/Newman

With the completion of Sister’s Pride, Bunker was ready to retire. Ellis, not so much. As it turned out, the latter was a force to reckon with. And he wasn’t at all averse to fiberglass. Ellis designed a 34-foot and 38-foot lobsteryacht for fiberglass production at the nearby yard of his good friend, Lee S. Wilbur. He and his son Dennis designed a 19-foot wooden boat to go punt-fishing and, at the behest of a friend, decided to lengthen the hull to make a 20-foot plug for fiberglass production.This occurred at the former Bunker and Ellis shop, which operated under the name of R. Dennis Ellis. Father and son designed a 28-footer, and Wilbur came into the project to make the top mold; with that they formed the Ellis Boat Company.

When Don also expressed an interest in boatbuilding, Ralph urged Dennis to take him on. Wilbur sold his share to Don and continued the work at his own shop. Dennis would eventually leave Ellis Boat to continue his career as a pharmacist, which he had also trained for.

“My brother has done an excellent job of maintaining the Ellis name,” Dennis says.

Ralph stayed on with Don until his death in 1994, at age 83 (his sister Margaret’s son, Charles, gave the eulogy at his funeral). Bunker had died just two months previously, at age 87.

“My father was out in the shop two weeks before he died,” Don recalls. “I think he knew it was the last time. He told my mother to call me and tell me he was coming out. And he made it – and he made sure everyone knew he was out there, looking around.”

Kittiwake II at the shop. Photo courtesy Bunker/Newman

“[W]e will not again see shops such as Bunker and Ellis,” Joel White, another fine wooden boatbuilder, wrote to Bunker’s family in 1994. “What we do have left are some of the marvelous boats – the Jerichos and Kittiwakes and all the others – which will still give us joy and lift our hearts as we see them pass. I can’t think of a monument that I would rather have.”

In 1975, Bunker had something to say about those “fellas” who design yachts but don’t seem to think too particularly much about how they’re used. They just “make a smooth-looking job, and they do nice work, but it makes an awful poor model.”

Educated by talented mentors, endowed with keen sensibilities matched by love for their work and admiration for each other, Bunker and Ellis found a partnership of like minds. Working side-by-side in the quiet of their shop, they captured the beauty that comes from crafting for human endeavor upon the sea. In that, Bunker heeded the advice of his mentor, Chester Clement, who told him to “make just as good a model as you can.”

“I ran off with it,” Bunker said. “It is like everything else: If you are interested, it’ll come to ya.”

(For more related to people mentioned in this profile, visit: profilesmaine.com/marine/jarvis-newman-early-fiberglass-trend-setter and profilesmaine.com/marine/steve-spurling-92-and-still-building-boats.

Fairlee, later called Bagpiper, built 1955. Photo courtesy Bunker/Newman

Grayling II, later called Hiawatha, then Star Dust, built 1954 and seen here in 1984. Photo courtesy Bunker/Newman

Irona, built 1964, seen here in 1970. Photo courtesy Bunker/Newman

Morgan, built as a workboat in 1959 and first called Eva Anita, converted to pleasure in 1999-2000 by Newman and Gray. Photo courtesy Bunker/Newman

Shangri-La, built in 1960. Photo courtesy Bunker/Newman

Le Pique Nique, built 1970. Photo courtesy Bunker/Newman

Bunker and Ellis boats raft up off Southwest Harbor during a celebration of their work, in 2001. Photo courtesy Bunker/Newman

Laurie Schreiber

About Laurie Schreiber

Laurie Schreiber has been writing for award-winning newspapers and magazines on the coast of Maine for more than 20 years.