HARPSWELL – No matter where you go on the coast of Maine, I guarantee that you will find someone with an interesting story. Unfortunately, these stories disappear if they are not captured and that means bits of our maritime history has disappeared too.
Over the last several years I have been stopping at Erica’s Take Out in Harpswell where I met Tom Butler who operates the wharf, while his significant other Andrea and their daughter Erica operate the takeout business. I quickly realized that Tom was a wealth of information about the commercial fishing industry in Harpswell. It was also where I met Larry Ward, who wanted to, and did, revive the lobster boat races in town. Tom and Larry were always best of friends, but unfortunately, we lost Larry a little more than a year ago.
Tom has lived on Basin Point all his life. Tom added, “It has been in the family since about 1890. My great, great grandmother, who was from New York, bought this whole point. She was a passenger on the old steamboat that used to deliver the mail to Potts. She was going over to what used to be a movie theater, bowling alley, hotel, and restaurant. When she went by the point, she said she was going to buy it and she did and it has been in the family ever since. This was just a field. There were no trees, no anything. She bought a lot more but sold that off and kept it from here down. This was all farmland basically and they built a summer house on the point. It is cypress inside and it is like going back in time when you go in. I think there are six little bedrooms upstairs and a little wash basin area, two downstairs with a wash basin, a big fireplace and of course the wrap-around porch, farmer’s porch. You can feel the nostalgia of it…you are just waiting to see a ghost.
It was Tom’s grandparents, Malcolm and Jean, that came to the Point and stayed. Tom explained, “He tried lobstering but of course they wouldn’t let him. He built the wharf in ’65, started building the restaurant in ’65 or ’66 and opened April of ’67 because I was born in May of ’67 and my crib used to be upstairs.”
This was known as the Dolphin Marina and Restaurant, and they did some boat repair and storage, sold and repaired outboards as well as fishing gear. Several years ago, the original marina and restaurant building were taken down and a new restaurant with new docks was built.
The family still owns the Point, but it has been broken up amongst different family members over the years.
Tom’s father is Thomas Cooper, and both are named for their well-known relative and Boston pilot Capt. Thomas Cooper. He was master of the pilot boat COLUMBIA and EBEN B. JORDAN. The 73-foot schooner EBEN B. JORDAN, named for the founder of Jordan Marsh, was built for Capt. Cooper by Ambrose A. Martin of East Boston in 1883. After serving in Boston she was sold to the New York Pilots and in a gale in 1892 she was struck by the steamer SAGINAW and lost of Barnegat, NJ. Capt. Cooper’s next boat COLUMBIA was also built by Ambrose A. Martin in 1894. Unfortunately, she would only last four years becoming one of the victims of the “Portland Gale” on 27 November 1898. They were 80 miles offshore and had placed pilot Capt. William Abbott on board the incoming steamer OHIO. She then headed for port and it is thought her sails were shredded by the gale’s wind and she tried to anchor. However, the force of the storm broke her chains and she driven ashore off Cedar Point, Scituate claiming all five men on board. Fortunately, Capt. Cooper was not on board for this voyage. The hull laid onshore and was used as a tearoom, summer residence and later a museum for over 30 years.
Tom’s father did some groundfishing with the fishermen over in Cundy’s Harbor, which is where he grew up. Tom added, “He mostly did outboard work. Then he got into the well pump business. He built some houses, sold some houses because he had property.
When Tom was a young boy, he said that there was not much fishing going on. He added, “Back in the late ’60s, they used to do some herring seining out here. My grandfather was a friend of a guy named Ed Shea and he did the seining. When my mother was 17, she used to swim out to the seine net and look at the fish in the net. My grandfather, did a little fishing with him.”
Tom’s grandfather had seven boats built Downeast somewhere and he would rent them. Tom said, “Dr. Kauffman used to have a little cottage on Haskell’s so he would rent one from my Grandfather every year. Well, after like five years or something he came to rent it and my Grandfather says, “I can’t rent it to you.” He says, “What do you mean you have been renting it to me for like four or five years.” He said, “I know. I feel like you’ve rented it long enough that you own it.” So, he gave him the boat. He died a few years ago and a friend was over painting a house and they saw the boat in the garage. They wanted it out of there, so my friend took it and he gave it to me. It is sitting in my shop up at the other place. She is 18-feet and it’s got the old cable steering and an old outboard. It’s all bronze on the rails. It’s a really cool little boat and it’s in really good shape still to this day.”
Tom was the only one in the family that pursued a life as a commercial fisherman. He explained, “Basically, there was a tight group of us kids. There weren’t a lot of kids around: Larry Ward and Chipper Johnson, were my best friends growing up down here. Plus, you were always hanging out down at the wharf and of course all the fishermen would stop in for breakfast or lunch and just ended up going on a boat here and there. We always did fish on summer vacations from school. I had my first license when I was 5 and I was always hanging around Larry’s father’s (Lewis Ward) shore. Oh boy, we could tell you some stories there. Copper paint fights, with paint brushes. We had more on us than the bottom of the old man’s boat. We started on the old BUCCANEER, and I believe that was built on Chebeague back in the ‘50s. He started up at Morris Moody’s wharf, which is now Interstate Lobster.”
During high school Tom lobstered with Charlie Howard one summer and Buddy Moddy once. He added, “My senior year I probably walked into the school every day for about two weeks and finally said, ‘I am done. I ain’t going to school.’ I wanted to be on the boat so that is when I started with Andy Johnson in the fall of ’84 and fished with him till ’86.”
At the time Andy was fishing in the REBECCA JEAN, Jarvis Newman 36. Just after Tom left, he sold that boat and bought the 40-foot Young Brothers MISS REBECCA. After that he had a big Dixon, which was named GAMBLER. This was followed by the Holland 40 WHISTLIN’ DIXIE in 2006.
During the winter Tom did some dragging. He said, “A friend of mine worked for Aldie Leaman. Not old man Aldie, but his son, Aldie, Jr. He had the 48-foot BETHANY JEAN in Portland and I just did some groundfishing in the wintertime with Marty here and there.”
He also has done some swordfishing. His very first time he went out was with Levi Gillum. Then Chip Johnson talked him into going to the Grand Banks with his father Charlie Johnson of Harpswell, who owned the 93-foot POWHATAN built by Washburn & Doughty in 1980. “Also swordfished on the SEA LION 8,” continued Tom. “I did a trip when Dana McIntyre was running it. We took the boat out at Cape Canaveral. We fished the Bahamas. I have been offshore lobstering with one of David Russell’s boats. Groundfished with Sammy Viola and with Wendall Alexander on the JULIE D. out of Cundy’s Harbor.”
Swordfishing was an experience. “I’d say it was a good experience,” said Tom, “but I would not want to do it for a living. I did three trips, back to back and I was done. The first trip was halibut trolling and then I think the second trip we halibut trolled and swordfished and the third trip was straight swordfish. We got stuck up there, it was 42 days dock to dock from Portland. Something happened, I think we lost something for the generators. Ventured into St. John, that was interesting.”
After finishing with Andy, Tom went out on his own and even before he had been fishing out of a 16 or 18-foot skiff, which was built by Wes Murphy. He said, “Me and Roger Graves would go out and haul together. Then I bought an old green hull, it was like a 32-foot Hampton with a 292 in it. I wanted to put the 350 in it but I couldn’t kill that 292, I even drained the oil and drove it in circles around the cove, right in the corner trying to blow the engine up. Couldn’t blow it, had to take it out running. Me and Larry put that 350 Chevy in there and fished that for a while. Then I ended up going down to Corea harbor with my stepfather. We had found a slippery 38 FRANCIS M. was the name of it. Bought everything, got the whole business. Me and Chip were bringing it home and we ended up blowing the engine outside of Seguin. The former owner had the engine wrapped in tin foil to keep the heat down forward, well of course he ran it at a certain speed. There must have been a ridge line in the cylinder where the rings would go to and of course we have to see what it would do. We cooked it. I think between overheating it and going past the ridge line it chewed the rings and we ended up blowing the engine. Andy had to steam down there, tow me home. We ripped it out and put a 455 Oldsmobile and I blew it up. We ripped that out and I had bought a 61A Volvo from a guy down in Massachusetts. That turned out to be a really good engine.”
In 2002 Tom was given permission to build the dock he now operates by his grandmother. He and Larry finished planking it in 2003. He lobster fished off of it for several years and then purchased a Mid-Atlantic scallop Permit. Tom added, “Went to Chatham one year, came home and pretty much headed back down to Jersey, Long Beach Island, and scalloped out of there for nine months. We lost our permits in 2008, because we weren’t grandfathered. If you didn’t hold it in ’04 you weren’t grandfathered. We figured with the Government being slow we would get a few years, but of course Eastern Fisheries got the lobbyists right on it and us guys went. I had the dock leased, one of the lobster buyers was using it. When I got home, there was like 6 guys fishing off the dock. I just took the dock back over and we still have 5 or 6 guys fishing off the dock.”
Just after building his dock Tom decided to have a 46 Newman finished off by Benny Wallace. He explained, “I just wanted to be more comfortable and go farther and feel better and safer and lug more the traps. I hated fishing in the bay. It wasn’t fishing, that was fishing out there. It was fun out there, you were by yourself, well you used to be, not anymore.”
In 2009 Tom and Andrea decided to open for retail sales of lobster. Andrea was still working at the old restaurant left there in 2010 decided to open a takeout specializing in seafood, named for their daughter Erica, the following year. They are now in their 11th year and the business continues to grow. It is open from early May until Columbus Day weekend, seven days a week, and serves over 35,000 customers a year. This year they made the change to close on Wednesday to give themselves a little breather.
Tom still loves to scallop drag saying it is a treasure hunt. Over the years he has dragged up some very interesting items from bottles to pieces of crockery. “I am still buying lobsters from the boats, dealing with bait trucks, still doing lobster retail right up until New Year’s Eve. I am done because I am scalloping.”