Fisherman Arnold Benner relaxing in his shop on the waterfront of Friendship.
FRIENDSHIP – Lobster boat racing has allowed me to meet a number of interesting people from one end of this coast to the other. When Wes Lash started the Friendship Lobster Boat Races in 2000 one of his key helpers was Arnold Benner a local fisherman. A number of times since then I have sat and talked with Arnold about fishing and Friendship and last month I made sure that I recorded his story.
Arnold was born on the 8th of April 1943. His father, and his father’s brother, worked with local boatbuilder Kenneth Winchenbaugh, for a while when Arnold was very young. When asked if he ever fished, Arnold explained, “Nope. Back when he was a young fella, the fellas around here were all lobstering and they weren’t making any money. He could make more money with his hands then they were making so he went into the mason business.”
“I probably don’t remember too much beyond when I started hauling in a skiff and outboard,” continued Arnold. “When I first started down around here I mowed this lady’s lawn when I was 12. I think I did that one year. I used to walk from where I live up on top of the hill with my lawn mower and I would come down and mowed her lawn for a dollar and a quarter. The next year, I had a lapstrake skiff, a used outboard and 35 traps. I think my father went with me the first year. Days we didn’t haul, he would paint buoys for me down cellar and build me new traps, until I got going. The next winter I built a few more. I went alone the following year and hauled them every day, one-nighters. When I got out of high school I had a 22-foot open boat with a spray hood on it and 400 traps.”
“Of course it is different now than what it was then,” added Arnold. “I had eight brothers and sisters, eight of us, and he didn’t want us playing in the yard when were kids. You didn’t play out in the road, you didn’t run up and down the road. When I was hauling by hand I would come down and haul traps and when you got done, you went home. You didn’t hang around the shore. If you did you got a boot in the ass. When I was a kid, I played baseball in high school and after high school you could go to Legion ball. My father did not encourage me to do that. He said, ‘you need to stick to your work.’ My brother played some, but I never did.”
The 22 footer was built by Harvey Simmons, who built a number of boats for the local fishermen. “ Actually he built mine up in where my brother’s barn is, my father’s barn,” added Arnold. “After that I got a little more courageous, and I had one built by Richard and Clifford Alley, a 33-foot Jonesporter named MOBY DICK. I think she is still over around Port Clyde. She was built in ’65 or ‘66. Used that a number of years and the next one I had, was a little bigger 34 or 35 feet built up in my father’s barn, which is Henry Thompson’s boat now. My father helped me and we had Arthur McFarland come in and get out the plank. My father would come home after work and we would go out and fastened them on. We put the engine in ourselves and put the top on.”
This was the first BECKY JEAN and he had her for 16 or 18 years and then sold her. The next boat, and the one he still fishes out of today, is BECKY JEAN II, which is a Wayne Beal 34 finished off by Wes Lash in 1994. She originally had a John Deere, but this was later switched to a 450-hp Scania, which now is 20 years old. Arnold added, “I wax her every year. Do a little maintenance to fix anything that needs to be fixed before it breaks, hopefully.
“I liked the idea that I was my own boss and I could go and come as I do,” Arnold continued. “Whatever I make is mine. I don’t have to hire somebody else. I might not make quite as much, but if I have to make another fella’s living, I have got to work harder. If I come down in the morning and it’s foggy and I don’t feel like going, I don’t go.”
When asked about the older fishermen that he remembered when he started he named Thurman Gould and his brother Vernon, some Haveners, Winnie Havener, which would be Wayne Havener’s father, Chester Havener, Wade and Mel Burns; Wilbur Murphy and Frank Conary.
Arnold fondly remembered the lobster smack MAYFLOWER (official number 239985, oil, screw, 24 tons, 46.0 x 14.7 x 6.3), which was built at Thomaston in 1940. He said, “I used to sell to a fella over here when I first got going, Ralph Simmons. He had the MAYFLOWER that had a wet well in it. She was used before they trucked lobsters and he and my father were buddies. I remember when I wasn’t very old he got his boat grounded down by the steamboat landing, had it full of lobsters. He was going to Portland with them and he came up and got my father and he wanted him to go with him and I went along. We went down below the harbor, he tied the wheel over, and he and my father went down forward to warm up a little bit. I was in the wheel house and I was supposed to be steering, but I really wasn’t. I might have been 10 years old.”
Over the years there have been a lot of changes: boats went from wood to fiberglass; the development of electronics and traps went from wood to wire. Arnold remembered, “We had wooden traps. When wire first come out my brother, Albert Simmons and I went down to Massachusetts and bought rolls of wire, brought them back, cut them off, bent them up and made our own wire traps. Probably would have been smart if we had decided to go into the trap building business, because a few years after that Friendship Trap started. We would go down and buy a couple of truckloads of wire, but it was inch by inch stuff rather than what they have got now. We fished them for a while and of course they got going. Now the young fellas they have to hire everything done. Probably most of them could not knit a pot head. They never learned. There might come a day when they wished they had learned.”
When asked about the boatbuilders he mentioned Frank Winchenbaugh and he remembered Scott Carter, but he does not remember him. He continued, “Winnie [Lash] was building. There was at one time Paul Simmons that built in the same shop my father worked in. He built a few boats around here. Bryon Burns built one up here for Richard Burns. There were a few other fellas building, nothing regular, off and on through the winter. They might build a boat for themselves. That has kind of died out now. A few fellas do a little glass work but basically now there is Gilbert Simmons and you have got Friendship Boat Works.”
When talking about Wes Lash Arnold said, “You could ask him anything and he could tell you. Also, if you have got a problem you could just go get him and he would come right down and fix it for you. I miss him terribly. I would go up to the shop a couple times a week in the afternoon. If he was busy doing something, I didn’t bother him but certain times you would go in and he’d want to talk. Then he made all of those things, little people, he made a lot of them. He was taking acorns and making people. He would paint them all up as fishermen. He made one for my wife, who was a school teacher, so he made a school teacher for her. He made me a cardinal. He loved making birds.”
There was no question when we lost Wes Lash several years ago with him went a lot of maritime history, especially from around the Friendship area. Fortunately people like Arnold can help us preserve some of this lost history.