A view of the South Bristol Co-op.
SOUTH BRISTOL – There are a lot of very interesting people on the coast of Maine and capturing the history and the stories is very important. Bruce Farrin of Farrin’s Boat Shop realizes the importance of capturing this and said you really need to talk with Bill Kelsey as he knows a lot of the history of South Bristol. My first meeting with Bill he said he would be more than happy to talk, but he wanted his brother Larry to be part of it.
Larry was born in 1939 and at that time the family lived over on the West Side Road. Their father was Wilder and he built the house they lived in, but soon after he sold the house and moved to the foot of the bridge when their father began operating the bridge. He was also caretaker, selectman, fire chief and clergy.
Their mother, Henrietta Bennett came from Boothbay and her father was the captain of the sardine carrier TRIDENT.
Larry said he got interested in the water, not just because they lived on it, but he was friends with Linwood Gamage. After high school Larry joined the military, spending five years in Germany and the remaining three years between Korea and the United States. When he returned, he worked for a sonar test facility on the island in South Bristol where he did shipping and receiving and later quality control. They had another facility at St. Croix and Larry would travel back and forth. He did this for six years and said, “Bob Woodward was getting ready to retire, he was the office manager for Harvey for 30 years and when he retired, I took his place in ‘71. I was with him until I think 1981. After I got done there, I was with Dipietro Kay Corporation with the Volvo Penta engines running their parts department and delivering engines. I did whatever was needed but was not a mechanic and I was there until 1998. I took one summer off and my two boys and I went lobstering. We had a little 19-foot Seaway and we spent the summer on the water, it wasn’t real profitable for me, but it was a very enjoyable summer.”
When Larry went to work at the Gamage yard they were just finishing the schooner HARVEY GAMAGE and the ferry BAY STATE was under construction. It was also the time that they were transitioning from wood to steel. When asked who was working there, Larry said, “Edward Gamage was there. Edward and Linwood really kind of ran the shop. When I went there Linwood was running the wood section of the shop which we built some small 40 to 50-foot wooden draggers and Edward was in charge of the steel section of the steel boats. ACT I was the first boat that was built when I was there. She was not a very big boat, just a small western rigged dragger, which I think went to New Bedford.”
Another transition at the time was from eastern to western rigged draggers, which was due to safety. It was dangerous to haul over the side, especially if the boat caught on something and tripped. Larry remembers FRAM, adding, “Hauling over the stern could be dangerous too if you had a captain that didn’t know what the hell, they was doing which is what happened to the FRAM. It was the owner’s son that was captain of the FRAM when she went down. Nobody was lost on her. Got everybody off. She never completed her first maiden voyage.”
Most of the boats built at Gamages either went to Gloucester or New Bedford. Larry added that they did build one that went to New York, saying, “We built one for a fellow on Long Island, a 50-foot wooden boat. His name was Ed Winters and maybe Fred Bates designed her. Young Fred worked for us; he was a welder at the yard. Fred was a hell of a nice fellow. He would come down at least once or twice a week and have lunch with Bob Woodward while I worked there. I worked probably six or seven months with Bob. Bob knew what he was doing. I wish I could have learned and known half what he knew. Accounting and ordering, he did everything. He kept Harvey going.”
Other workers at the yard were Don Ziegler, who did all of the carpentry, interior finish work and he was Harvey’s son-in-law; Hartwell Carter which was a Carter from the Bremen area; Earl Haley, which was a ship’s carpenter; Wes Thompson did all the caulking on the boats; Mert Staples, he steamed and cut planks and Bruce Farrin and Peter Kass came there and learned the trade.”
Larry added, “We finished off Bruce’s last boat. She had enough planks on it so we could float her across over and up into one of our shops over there. Harvey finished that off himself with Jim McFarland.”
Bruce had this boat under construction when his shop was down on the water in South Bristol. During the Blizzard of ’78, with the boat nearly complete, the storm surge lifted up the shop and moved it out into the middle of the harbor where it sunk.
Jim McFarland was Sumner’s son and worked mostly in East Boothbay for Hodgdon Brothers and Goudy & Stevens. He sailed back and forth from South Bristol, even in the winter. Bill explained that it was said that he was one of the best planers on the coast, “Planing a wooden hull, he could fair them up as good or better than anybody, supposedly.”
Larry added, “I know when we got the mast for the Lady, the last boat that Harvey built, the Friendship Sloop, it came in square and Jimmy was the one that turned it into a mast.”
“I left there in ’81,” stated Larry, “but then I came back and I worked a winter for Linwood. I took a couple years off and lived in Tucson. I came back that summer and Linwood wanted me to come down and work for him and I did. In fact, I was planning on going back to Tucson that fall and wound up working for the new owner for 15 years.”
The new owner was Rory Cowan and he purchased the yard from Linwood with the intention of keeping it a functioning boat yard.
Looking back again, I brought Edward Gamage again. Larry added, “We built the AMERICAN EAGLE for American Cruise Lines and he left then and went over to Boothbay. I think it was called Eastern Shipbuilding and it was down around where the old schooners used to be. Charlie Robinson, who we built the AMERICAN EAGLE for, I think he was the money behind Edward. They built maybe two or three. They were all passenger boats for American Cruise Lines. You see a lot of these advertised now, these stern wheelers and things on the Mississippi, I think that is part of the same outfit. In fact, Henry Thorpe in Christmas Cove was working for him and I think he may still work with him and he used to be Captain of his boat and when they needed a captain he’d step in and take over for them.”
When Edward closed the operation in Boothbay he moved to Thomaston and was there until he passed away. Larry added, “Ed was a nice fellow and he treated me like gold. Even though he and Linwood were at odds and I tried to not take sides. They both treated me really good. Harvey was a very generous man; a lot of people don’t realize just how generous he was to this town. He helped a lot of people,” to which Bill added, “Not only that but he employed everybody. He employed a lot of people. During the war years when they built, Daddy worked there for a little bit.”
Bill said that they had an older brother, Herbie, who was four years older than Bill. Larry said, “You are the first man I met that did not know him. I even reported to my captain, I was stationed at Fort Detrick, Maryland in my last bit in the Army and I walked in to report to my job and he says, ‘Kelsey, Kelsey, Kelsey are you any relation to Herb Kelsey?’ They built Tule Air Base in Greenland and he was up there for two summers and this guy was in charge of building up there, engineering division. He was actually operation Blue Jay that built Tule Air Force. He got his book out and started looking and found Herb’s name. Anywhere I have been…he’s been there before us.”
When he left the service, he became the bridge tender for most of his life. Before he went in the service, he did some mackerel seining with Manville and Mace Carter. He even had a nickname, Rosebud his brothers thought.
Bill has been a fisherman all his life and only retired a couple of years ago. Herb had a peapod and Bill took it down to a fellow named Clark at Christmas Cove, a wooden boatbuilder, and he rebuilt it for him. The two made it into a lobster boat and Bill continued, “Herbert had 60-70 traps and I built some myself and I went rowing. Eventually I bought an outboard and put it on the damn peapod and did a little bit of that. That had to be in the very early 50s, high school. Well, my graduation yearbook shows a picture of me in that peapod in the harbor down here but we had a fishing course in school. We had the first fishing course offered in high school in my grade year. A fellow named Earl Boomer he used to come up here from Southwest Harbor and fish, double up with Henry Jones and they would double up their outfits. Herbert was involved in that but Dad got into it with Henry for a while. They went stop seining. Boomer had a son, Jay. Jay ended up being a teacher somewhere and he started the fishing course in Maine, somewhere between here and Southwest Harbor after this one was started. I took the course went through school, but that didn’t last very long because I was in the Army in ’53.”
Bill spent two years in the Army, explaining, “I was a packing crate specialist. I would pack up the Signal Corp and dependent stuff. A lot of our people on our base lived off base and they would bring their families so they rented a house. It would be up to me to get their furniture and deliver it to them and then when they moved out take it away.”
As soon as he returned to South Bristol, he was back fishing. While he was in the Army his father was building a boat, which was 26 feet in length with a 9-foot beam, a sprayhood and was powered with a Hercules engine. Bill added, “It was a Murray Peterson design, who took her design from John Wallace, where the FRANCES came from and redesigned it into my lobster boat. My boat was supposed to have been like the FRANCES, but it was far different. It was faster, that was about as far as it went. It wasn’t as pretty. The FRANCES was a pretty little boat. I went in that boat for 10 or 12 years. Then I bought the Brackett (Doug) boat, which was named DOLPHIN.”
Over the years Bill estimated that he has had a half dozen boats saying, “I eventually went fishing with other guys. I went fishing with Roland McFarland. I went fishing with Corliss; Staples, herring fishing; and Irving Foster herring fishing. Clifton Poole built one for me, Sumner built one for me. Bill Legg built the Pointers; Carbone built one for me, a small one. Then I had Bruce build a BHM which was probably the best of all of the boats I had.”
He sold that boat to one of the Noonan’s of Cape Porpoise thinking that he was not going to fish any more as his wife was not well. It was not long before he head to Jeff’s Marine in Thomaston asking for a small boat that he could fish out of. Jeff found him a General Marine and they spent the day arguing about the price. Finally, they had a deal.
Bill fished for anything, he said, “I groundfished for a couple of months with Corliss in John’s and Muscongus Bay. Then I skippered the little KELSEY D., the Boothby boat with Irving and Dr. Boothby, shrimping. That didn’t last long. Dragged scallops all winter here in the River with the Brackett boat and the wooden Sumner boat. Scalloping was a big thing in the winter for me and sea cucumbers, sea urchins, sea squirts.
“I got involved with the science, Don Stewart, the scientist,” continued Bill. “He was a Marine Biologist who gathered specimens for pre-med students, colleges and biology students everywhere. I dragged thousands of sea cucumbers for him. I made money doing that through the winter months, cold weather stuff, which was fun. Urchins, if I got urchins, I could actually sell those through the winter too.”
Bill remembered a story about the SYLVINA BEAL, saying, “I can remember Clarence Drew, when he skippered that boat. He was down here fishing for Peacock, so we all knew the boat. We knew the CONQUEROR and SEAWANAKA, all three of them. They were all Peacock boats. Clarence came into the harbor one day with the BEAL, full bore and drunk, just all he did was make a circle and out. I can remember the guys running from Farrin’s to Henry’s wharf to hold off the SANDRA LEE with the roll coming into the harbor and the ranting and raving and cursing. Poor old Clarence he left and he clipped the boat on the way out ripped a piece of guardrail off of Corliss’s boat.”
The discussion then to Harv Barlow, who was seiner. We were not sure of the relationship to Everett Barlow, who fished and built boats or Everett’s son, Earl, well-known for his paintings.
Have you ever heard the term cheese and cracker boat? Well, if you are on a boat called that you had to sleep with one foot on the floor. Bill remembered the old WHILEAWAY, which was an old converted sailboat. Her bow had been chopped off and the pilothouse was aft, Chrysler engine, no reduction gear, a propeller about like that on a 100-ton boat. They had to put her in reverse out by Gem Island to stop her in the gut. They finally took that boat around to Lucia’s Head, to that little hole and they tied her to a cable to a couple of oaks up there in the woods and within two days there wasn’t a trace of her. Within two days she was gone.”
We went back talking about the old fishermen. Bill said, “They came at a time when there were seiners, like Earl Boomer would come up here from Downeast and Henry would double up with him. Gerald Fossy moved around. He was killed in the water, washed ashore on Old Orchard Beach. I went with him a couple of summers trawling. Bobby had a little boat called the BOBBY, I have a picture of it somewhere and it was just a little cuddy cabin with a spray hood over it. I went with him on couple of trips in the summer with 8 or 10 tubs of hake trawl. That was fun. We would actually be outsight of land in that little boat. We might see a blink of a lighthouse but that was it. There was no money in it, not for me, I was just a kid and with Knocky I might have got a few bucks out of him. Knocky eventually took the PEMAQUID, Rick Gilbert’s boat out, of New Harbor with a kid from Saco, it was November night he was off the lee side of a tanker coming into Portland. He refused to follow her in because he had one or two more tubs to pick up. He ended up on Old Orchard Beach the next morning, what was left of him. The boat was scattered all over the place. The kid came ashore down the coast a ways. Remember the SEA BOOTS, Captain Whiting Stretch? They’d come in here every summer tuna fishing. The PEARL, that was Corliss’ boat. She blew up in New Harbor with Drummy and Corliss aboard. Drummy got squashed up a little bit, and Corliss I think lost his eyebrows. I don’t know whatever happened to the PEARL but they were seining at the time. Roy Rice had a boat called the BETTY NELL, it belonged to some fish meal company or something.
Larry and Bill are enjoying retirement in South Bristol, which has to be one of the best places on the coast to retire.