In the spring of 1946, Eugene “Gene” Walls went down to Robert “Bobby” Rich’s boatbuilding operation, Bass Harbor Boat, in the seaside village of Bernard. Walls was recently returned from the war, during which he served in the Navy, operating landing crafts in the Pacific Theater. In the way of close communities, Walls and Rich were cousins-in-law to one degree or another, and anyway just knew each other by being around. Walls only meant to swing by for a visit.
“He said, ‘You know how to paint?’” Walls recently recalls, with a chuckle, at his home in Seawall. “I said, ‘Yeah, I know how to paint.’ He said, ‘We need a painter.’”
Walls, who is 88, spent the next 21 years working for Rich, starting on hull 13 and finishing up with hull 127, out of the 367 boats that Bobby and his son Chummy produced since the shop opened in 1939. Walls recalls that Rich’s crew of three or four, or sometimes as high as eight or ten, turned out vessels one after another. There was always a boat under construction in the main shop. The second shop was mainly for repair work.
Walls started with zero boatbuilding experience. But he knew how to take on most any job. His father died when he was six. His mother moved the kids to her parents’ two-family house in Seal Cove and went to work, doing everything from cleaning houses to waiting tables to working in factories. She soon came to depend on her son to pitch in around the house.
World War II gave him plenty of life experience. Rich (along with his brothers, Ronald and Roger, and his father, Cliff) participated in the war effort back home, building vessels for the armed services at the Southwest Boat Corporation. By war’s end, Rich was poised for what would become a lifetime production of work boats, recreational boats, and specialty craft. Ronald Rich was foreman when Walls joined the crew. Roger came on sometime later and stayed for a year or so.
“Roger, he was quite a character,” says Walls, an affable man. “He could do anything and he could do a real good job. But he didn’t work like Ronald did.”
Under Ronald – “a heck of a worker” who “could do two men’s work” – Walls started on the lower rungs of the trade, sanding, painting, and varnishing.
Ronald eventually departed to start his own shop in Southwest Harbor and build fishing boats and pleasure craft. Bob Rich made Walls his new foreman.
“I said, ‘I don’t know as I want to do this’” Walls recalls. “There were guys older than me there.”
Walls recalls, in the early 1950s, heading up a crew that built a boat for fisherman Orville Trask, after his previous one, built by Sim Davis across the harbor, caught fire.
“They used copper tubing going in there, going right to the carburetor,” Walls says, explaining the origin of the fire. “It isn’t very flexible, and that engine running, it loosened up all the time. I used to keep a nine-sixteenths wrench in my pocket all the time. I’d go down there, it’d be leaking. You gotta keep it tight. But they didn’t pay attention. That wasn’t the first one that caught fire that way. I think what happened, the exhaust is right there. Stuff drops off the exhaust pipe and caused the fire. Now it doesn’t happen so often. That used to be a real trouble spot.”
He continues: “So we go down, two days later, and the only thing left was the keel and the stem and stuff. Everything else burned. So we went down and he wanted to save that backbone. We said, ‘What do you want that thing for?’ We had half a dozen of us drag the thing ashore. We headed up to the shop, and he was going to build a boat off it. Well, Bobby said, ‘You can’t use this. It’s partly burned, so you can’t save that.’” Trask didn’t have drawings of his boat, but Sim Davis still had the molds. Rich started with the original molds and modified them to his own tastes.
“It worked out all right,” says Walls.
Chummy Rich credits Walls as his mentor. The two got along great.
“He was the boss’s son and I was his boss. We never had any problems,” Walls recalls. “And I was around there all the time. His father would depend on us.”
“I learned a lot from my grandfather,” Chummy says, recalling Clifton Rich. “Of course, I wasn’t really old enough to put it all together, but just hanging around here and watching him, I learned quite a lot. I learned a lot from my father. But the actual person who was right by my side, who taught me all the little tricks, was Gene Walls. I started in ’58 and worked elbow-to-elbow with him. He was the one who told me all the fine points. And he was a perfectionist. He was good. I’m not a perfectionist, so I didn’t quite follow in his footsteps.”
Walls got done working for Rich in 1967, to go into business for himself.
“Bobby was kind of upset when I left, but he got over it,” he says.
He went into residential construction, first getting odd jobs to put in bathrooms, kitchens, and the like, and soon winning quite a few contracts to build houses. At one point, he had a dozen men working for him. That was a bit much: he went just about crazy managing too many projects and personnel at a time. So he aimed to keep his crew to two or three guys.
But in the winters, he still liked to build boats. First he helped his uncle, John Leonard, build a 32-foot fishing boat based on traditional modeling from the hands of Raymond Bunker and Ralph Stanley. Then he built subsequent boats on the same model, using different offsets. A 26-footer named Prim, built from a James Rich model, went to Don Chambers of Hall Quarry and Florida; Walls later also built two houses for Chambers.
Kingpin (later named Stella Marie) followed, a 34-footer for lobster fisherman Gerland Robinson of Northeast Harbor. There was a 35-foot lobsterboat for Michael Tate; and a 32-footer named Mother Ann for Warren Fernald of Islesford. He built a 24-footer with his friend Clayton Holt; the boat was launched in 1950 on the beach behind what would become the James H. Rich Boat Yard. Walls also did repair work in his sizeable shop on his Seawall Road property.
In 1958, he launched a handsome 16-foot runabout with a varnished mahogany deck for his family. The light but strong hull is constructed of five-eighth-square cedar strips with no frames. Walls and his wife Peggy later gave the boat to their daughter.
Over the decades, he also built 25 to 30 lapstrake punts, some of those with Holt; many years ago, the punts went for $45 each. The last two punts to come out were for his grandsons, Kegan of Deer Isle and Alston of Bar Harbor, who are fishermen.
As it happens, Walls has the 26-footer back in his shop now, undergoing rehab. His son Allan is in charge, but Walls helps out.
Chambers had Prim fixed up like a yacht down below, with varnished trim and a top bunk that folded down to make a seat.
“He did a little fishing, but he had it for pleasure, too, so he kept it pretty good,” Walls says. “And other people did, too, until somebody bought it to go fishing in, and they didn’t take very good care of it.”
The multi-year rehab project means fixing a frame and the interior sheathing that cracked in one spot, after going adrift and banging around. Allan has recaulked and refastened the hull, replaced the transom and platform beams, replaced a few planks, installed a new engine, and replaced the side decks. He will replace the cabintop and wheelhouse. Overall, though, the hull’s frames and planks are solid.
On one side of Wall’s shop sits a rowboat he built just three or four years ago for his grandson Alston. “I got a little work I do,” he says. “Not too much.”
Walls is still a regular visitor to Bass Harbor Boat, which is now run by Chummy Rich and Rich Helmke.
“He comes once every week or two” says Helmke. “He was telling me one day how Raymond Bunker would come over to the shop – let’s say he needed something – and the first thing they would do is poke fun at each other’s boats. Raymond would say about Bobby’s boats, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s an ugly boat!’ or, ‘You guys don’t know what the hell you’re doing!’ And Bobby would go over and do the same thing with them.”
Joking aside, Walls recalls the business as hard but rewarding, the latter perhaps more so nowadays, when he can see firsthand the boats he and his crew put their talents into 50 or 60 years ago, still running and still cherished.
He says he and Chummy used to talk with trade school instructors who came around to discuss the best way to teach boatbuilding.
“We’d say, ‘Teach them how to use the tools and how to sharpen them. That’s the main thing. We’ll show them the rest of it.’”
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