Willis Spear of Yarmouth preparing traps for the upcoming season.
YARMOUTH – Up and down the coast of Maine you can find some very interesting characters. One of the best known in Casco Bay has to Willis Spear of Cousin’s Island, Yarmouth. Over the years I had met him several times and quickly learned that he knew a lot about the fishermen of the bay. Not wanting what he knew about these fishermen to disappear I sat down with him at his home as he told of where he grew up, his time at sea, and coming back to fish in the Bay.
Willis grew up at Willard Beach or Simonton Cove, which at one time was the major port in Casco Bay. Willis added, “There were two guys by the name Simonton and Chase had built a wharf in the 1600s. It looked out at House Island. They would bring boats in there when it was calm enough and unload molasses and they would make rum or whatever they did with the stuff. It’s also interesting that one of the first guys to work there was Walter Merriman. Walter was an Irish kid that was indentured to Simonton and Chase. He worked there until he paid off his indentureship and moved to Harpswell and the Merriman’s you know in Harpswell they are all from Walter Merriman.”
The Spears had a little home at Willard Beach, but Willis’ father was not a fisherman, however he did love the sea. His father attended Maine Maritime Academy at Castine and graduated in the second class, 1944. After graduation he returned to South Portland where they were building the Liberty ships for the war effort. He then went to the army depot at Gowanus Canal, Brooklyn, NY where she was loaded. “They got Plimsoll marks on the sides of ships,” explained Willis. “The lowest mark, the one that is closest to the waterline is winter North Atlantic. My father said they loaded that boat so that the Plimsoll mark was just gone. This is dead of winter, and he says they went over to Hoboken, New Jersey and they put five railroad locomotives on deck. The first night out in convoy they had the lifeboats out, they were washed away the next day because she was so deep. Sometime during the trip he said the deck crew noticed some cracks across the deck and they would come up with air powered drills, and drill where that crack stopped. The next day you would come up and another one was going off, but they made it. He said that there was no doubt that ships would just disappear because they were just so stressed.”
Welding plates in ship construction, instead of using rivets had just been developed before World War II. Willis added, “My next door neighbor worked in the shipyard and he said when they were building the hulls in the wintertime they’d plate up one side and by noontime, with the sun shining on the side with the plates, the hull had expanded so that the other side wouldn’t fit that they were trying to plate up. It was a long learning curve.
Willis’ father sailed on five Liberty ships: the first being FRANK P. REED, and they were carrying cargo for the Normandy invasion. He was an executive officer on LSTs in World War II and Korea and Willis’ was two years old before his father ever saw him.
After the war Willis’ father came home and went to work at the Portland Pipeline. “He used to live at Halfway Rock where the lighthouse keepers stayed and he always would take me with him. He had a little boat, bought it down in South Bristol from one of the McFarlands at Christmas Cove. It was open cockpit, built in the 20s. There was one that was built a plank higher than his, a little wider and a foot longer that Gene Tunney, the boxer had. The Tunneys owned that island where the lobster boat races are held off Pemaquid and the Tunney family used to entertain the Kennedy’s there. I thought that was the QUEEN MARY. It was only 24 or 25-feet long, had a 24-hp Universal motor, and two good guys could actually pick it up. He loved that boat, she just slid effortless thru the water. If you would let her go running before it, if she fell off on a sea or something she’d come back. It had a rudder on it the size of a barn door so maybe that had something to do with it. Willard Beach was where my father kept his boat and my father built his own traps. He only built like 20. He sawed his own oak, did his own heads, and made his own buoys. I was seven years old at the time and I was hooked.”
“There was a large number of punt fishermen from Long Island and the Willard area,” continued Willis. “There was one Long Island lobsterman full-time and there was Bolton brothers and they lobstered right up to Christmas, so there was like two people that fished out of that cove full-time. I thought they were the greatest thing since sliced bread. One guy that I lobstered with at Willard Beach was Donnie Rich. He and I fished together on and off for 45 years. He was born on Long Island and I lobstered with him all through high school and vocational school and even when I came back from sea. He kept his boat in Portland, LINDA J. where EIMSKIP is now. He had a little raft with a little house on it. The house came from Bethel. He used to hang around some lumbermen from Bethel. He used to go deer hunting with them and every time they would come down to go out lobstering with us they would bring something. They brought a punt one time they built and they brought six pieces of wood all nailed up and it was this fish house and that is still going over Widgery Wharf.
Remembering some of the fisherman, Willis said, “Donald and Arthur Lunt were on the aircraft carrier WASP out of Boston. There was Keith Lane and he and I have been partners in a number of enterprises from gill netters to wharves to fish companies. The Lunt brother’s father was a boat builder and a fisherman. He was fussy, fussy, fussy. There was another Lunt brother, Bobby and he is still alive. Gene Swanson was my next door neighbor at Willard Beach and he lobstered. I was always surrounded by these guys. They were kind enough to take me lobstering with them. They taught me small boat fishing. I remember, I am left handed, I was coiling a line, their old man, they called him Squid, says ‘boy, you are coiling it against the sun’ and I thought well, what the hell does that mean? ‘The sun travels clockwise across the sky so, you know…east to west’ and I was going west to east, I was going counter clockwise and I never forgot that. Larry Doyle, he lobstered with Jimmy [Darling], who came from Malaga. Jimmy’s family fished out of Ferry Village, which is where Sunset Marina is now. Ferry Village was called Ferry Village because my family ran a ferry boat from South Portland to Portland before the bridge. They moved from Sebasco to Chebeague and some stayed in Cundy’s Harbor. They moved to Ferry Village because they had a shipyard there in World War I and they were building wooden barges and some sort of wooden ships. Larry went to Maine Maritime became a captain in the Coast Guard, Captain of the Port of Miami and Puerto Rico. Jimmy knew a lot about fishing, but he didn’t lobster too hard. I went with him after Larry got done with me. He always had a Thermos on his dash, if that Thermos fell over, we came home. Didn’t matter if it was an outboard or what it was that made the wake. He was different. I knew he was in the Army, he was in Pershing’s Army in Panama in 1937. My father-in-law knew him, they gill netted together on boat they called the BOX, it belonged to Trigger Jensen, tied up at Widgery Wharf. He talked constantly but he never mentioned much about World War II. He went back in as a sergeant. We do know he made it to the Rhine and he was at Normandy. His brother told me he was either on the first or second wave at Normandy so you know what he was exposed to. His nose was cut off when his helmet came down over his face and they sewed that on. We know that his thumb was shot off when a bullet went into his elbow and traveled down. He hated the 88s, machine guns and hedge rows. He said if you put a magnet to his back that it would stick. Donnie Rich of the LINDA J. had seen a tremendous amount of combat in the Pacific. At 17 years old, he left Long Island and signed up in the Navy in ’44. He told me that he remembers being bombed by Japanese zeros and zekes and watching bombs just miss the ship and machine gun fire hitting his battle station. He was in the mast, a lookout, and the mast use to shake as they tried to shoot the zekes down. All during the War, they carried Marines and Army soldiers and ducks (dkw). The ship was a Landing Ship Dock, the stern would sink and they would have these Army ducks come out and they carried a division of Marines into the Philippines. They got like five battle stars in the Philippines and Luzon. They would make runs carrying the wounded to Hawaii and bring soldiers back. They were the first ship into Tokyo Bay at the surrender and he said where he was at the top of the masts he was looking down at the battleship MISSOURI and watching McArthur sign his name on the peace treaty. From the end of the War to ’47 he was on that ship just carrying the troop and prisoners of war back to the states. They were veterans and the combat that they had seen is why they hung around together.
“Keith Lane, Jimmy Darling and Willis went gill netting,” added Willis. “We bought a Novi boat, which had been sunk in the Saco River. She was an Atkinson Novi boat, which had been owned by Norm Solak, who had it built, Willie Moulton owned it for a while and he sold it to Jackson. At the time she was about 8 years old. Stainless fastened to the waterline and galvanized above, straight sheer Cape Island boat, about 40 foot long, 471. It was in the parking lot and looked pretty sad, but we got the motor out of it and I re-built the motor, with the help of a mechanic by the name Clare Hicks. Clare was famous from Eastport to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He was another veteran, having been in the Army’s Air Force, used to fly over the Himalayas in Burma. He lived and breathed Detroits. He was a crackerjack and he helped me rebuild it. This one had been bored out so many times that it had oversized liners that only Greyhound Bus could get but he had worked for Detroit and was able to get me these oversized liners so we rebuilt it down at Camp Ellis. We went gill netting that fall of 1976 and we did really well, enough so that we bought another boat. We bought a boat from Stevie Johnson, a gill netter that had been built by Fletcher down at Campobello. Dick Walker, from Vinalhaven, had it built. So we had two gill netters. Keith did not like gill netting and he left and went back lobstering. Billy Train from Long Island took the boat and did real well. He laid her up in the fall and we did enough gill netting with the LADY JANE that we bought from Stevie that we sold both boats the fall of ’77.
“I took SANDPIPER that belonged to George Doody’s son, Ronnie, who had bought the boat in Montauk, which had been built by Blunt. She was steel, narrow but she had an 871 with a 5:1 gear and she swung over a 4-foot wheel. I did not know anything about dragging and we went dragging that winter of ’77 into ’78. We went scalloping and we went towing drags on Jefferies, Caches and New Ledge. I had made enough money, along with selling those two gill netters that I ordered a Newman the winter of ’77.”
This is the first part of a two or three part article on an interview I did with Willis Spear of Portland discussing his career on the water. In the next issue we will step back a little and talk about his time going to sea and then more of the people and events that shaped Willis’ life.