Dan Backman of Winter Harbor in his trap shop.
WINTER HARBOR – For many there is nothing more enjoyable than reading about people and how they made their way through life. Some had it easy, others not, and some of those that had it difficult would overcome the obstacles and some would not. It seems that many from generations ago were better at overcoming the obstacles. Many times it was how you survived and if you did not overcome the issue you suffered. Some would learn the lesson others would not. I do not care what town you visit anywhere in the world, there are always people that have a story to tell especially here on the coast of Maine and one such person is Dan Backman of Winter Harbor.
Dan was born in December 1948 and was raised by his grandfather Otto and grandmother Alberna Backman, who at the time were living in Prospect Harbor. Otto and Alberna grew up on Beals Island. Alberna was a Beal and sister to Ossie Beal. Dan added, “Otto had two girls, Lila, and Alice, both born on Beals and Alice was my mother. In the late ‘30s they moved to Manset and Otto worked at The Hinckley Company. I guess when the war came on he went to Kittery Point and he worked as a carpenter in the Navy Yard there during World War II.”
While Otto was at Kittery Point, he built a half model for a lobster boat and then built it: 33 feet by 8½ feet. This boat is in Dan shop next to his house and Dan has rebuilt the hull, got the engine in place, but has been slowed up by some medical issues. He hopes to get her finished up and into the water as soon as he can find some spare time.
When World War II concluded in 1945, Otto and his wife head back and settled in Prospect Harbor. Not long after they moved to Winter Harbor. Dan thought that they moved into the house in the center of town in 1953 and this is where he grew up. Dan said that there were a lot of families whose names have disappeared from the town. He added, “There were the Coombs and there were quite a few Sargent’s, I think there is only one or two left now. There was a bunch of Harrington’s, two left, Gerrish’s, I think there is two and Pendleton’s, they are gone. There was a lot of Torrey’s and there is not many left in town now.”
When asked if they were all fishermen, Dan said the Harringtons were not. He said, “One brother, Frank, he worked on boats and his brother Walter, did carpentry work on houses.
Dan remembers when he lived in town walking by the grammar school, now the historical society, to the shore with his grandfather. He explained, “I can remember walking down through there before I went to school. Grandfather and his brother-in-law, Herman Faulkingham, had a fish weir off Flat Island. I can remember going over there. As far as boats, everything was wood and a big boat was 33 feet, all gasoline engines. Almost every one of them had a riding sail, which there is only two down here now, me and Slugger. As far as diesel engines in lobster boats, the first one I can remember. Sorrento used to get froze up and they used to come down here in the winter. Buddy Trundy had a wooden boat, say 35-36 foot, and that had a diesel engine in it. Then in ’66 or ’67, Doug Torrey bought a Canadian boat, it was 38′ x 12′ I believe. It was brand new, a guy on Campobello built it. Somebody said, ‘What the hell do you want a boat that big for? Now, look at them today.”
Dan added, “When they moved uptown in ’53 he built a boat for himself, it was 34 x 9-feet, with a six-cylinder Chevrolet in it. That boat is still afloat in Massachusetts. SUE PAM, that was after his two granddaughters. Then he built one for a guy in Norfolk, Virginia a 36-foot cabin cruiser. Built that in ’56 and built a 32-foot one in ’62 for Walter Bunker. That was the last one. They were all taken off the molds of the first one in ’43. He ended up taking the molds down to his youngest brother, Herman, Jr. and they widened them, lengthened them and that is what Jr. built his boats off of. I couldn’t tell you how many boats Jr. built. His brother Benny built the most. In fact, he built boats right downtown right across from the store, in the building they call the Boat House. He built one for his brother, Donald in there, that was ’59. When my uncle Donald died, my son Freddy bought that. He fished that for a while, as far as I know, that boat is still afloat, down around St. George someplace. The name of that one was the PLUMA ESTELLA. I believe that was after his wife and his mother.”
Dan began fishing with his grandfather, who was lobstering and when the shrimp came in in 1966 they rigged up for that. “He bought a boat and rigged her up for shrimping,” said Dan. “She was the ALBERNA. Ronald Rich built that one, it was a new boat, 38 x 12-feet and he put a V8 Cummins diesel in it.”
When Dan was 14, he got a small outboard boat and went fishing by himself. Dan said, “Everything back then was wooden traps, wooden buoys, glass bottles. I bought 14-footer which had a 5-½ hp outboard on it. I fished that and then I went to an 18-footer with a 25 hp. I was like a sophomore then. I would still go with him weekends and school vacations.”
When Dan graduated from high school in 1968 he joined the Coast Guard. He added, “I had papers for the Army for the 16th of May, but I’d seen the Coast Guard recruiter before that and then I got these papers for the Army. I said, ‘I don’t want no Army,’ so I called the Coast Guard recruiter up and I said, ‘I have got papers for the Army, what can you do for me?’ He said, ‘Give me an hour.’ He called me back in an hour and he said, ‘Somebody flunked the physical, do you want that spot?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ I went to Cape May for boot camp, that was in May of ’68. Then I flew home for leave, and after that I went back to Boston overnight, went to Southwest Harbor for a weekend and then I went to the cutter WHITE LUPINE in Rockland. I was on that for 28 months. Then I went to Jonesport station. In between, on September 25, 1970, Ramona and I got married and five kids later…”
Dan enjoyed his time in the Coast Guard. While on the buoy tenders they would take fuel and water out to the lighthouses. He said, “As far as lighthouses, I went ashore on Petit Manan to help with the hose once. I went up the tower and walked around that big Fresnel lens. I didn’t think anything of it, but then I heard that that Fresnel lens was down to Rockland, down at that museum and I made a special trip to look at that. I am going to say 25 years ago I picked up a lighthouse book and I have been hooked ever since. I don’t know how many I have got, probably 70 or 80.
When Dan got out of the Coast Guard, he returned to Winter Harbor and began fishing. Unfortunately, Otto died in September 1974. Dan purchased his boat from his grandmother, which was the Rich built boat. Dan added, “My uncle Jr. called me up one time and he had filed bankruptcy. He said, ‘Do you want these molds and battens? Come get them.’ So, I went and got them. I am going to say that was maybe ’79-80 and I built this boat here. She is 39 x 13-feet and was just like my uncle, which was 38 x 13-feet. It took me three years to build that. I put a 471 Detroit in it and when it went down the road, I had a $5,000 engine payment. I fished that until ’08, but in the meantime, I built another one. I blew it up, lengthened it out, 43½ x 15, made it higher, put a used 892 in and when that went down the road, I had $87,000 in it. I have been fishing that since. This boat is ELAINE SUE, my two daughter’s middle names. My son, Freddy bought this off me.
Back then Dan remembered Doug and Dale Torrey and Reggie Knowles. “Dale fished the AGITATOR. He had a Clayton Fletcher boat, come from Campobello. There was a few of them around, there were three in this harbor. Vick Smalley had one, Dale had one, Chick Arnold had one. There was two over to Corea, there was one up to Sorrento and one Bar Harbor. They was a cheap built boat. They didn’t have the raised deck in them and they were low-sided. The one that Douglas had, was built by a different guy on Campobello and that bigger and higher, probably 38 x 12½-feet regular shear.”
Dan is related to the Young Brothers (Colby, Arvid and Arvin) He said, “The Young Brothers are cousins. My grandfather, Otto and their grandmother, Ulrica, were brother and sister. Ulrica lived right across the street. We would go over there, two or three times a week in the evening. Colby and the twins, their mother Sarah, they would be there once in a while.”
The town was a little different back when Dan was young. The summer people came to Grindstone Neck, but now “They are buying everything up. A young person would have to pay a lot of money for a piece of land to live here now. The town had several stores: Tracy’s, there was a store across from Chase’s Restaurant but I can’t remember what it was, and there was one across from the Hammond Hall. There was the grocery store and a hardware store. I remember the drug store across the road which had fountain service, that was good. There were three gas stations. Two of them had a garage, one of them didn’t. One of them was Bickford up on the hill. One down on the corner was Leo Roy and the one across from the church, was Morrison’s. He was a relative of Morrison Chevrolet.”
I asked if they repaired the engines in the boats. Dan said, “I can’t really remember. Mainly back then, you own it, you fix it. My grandfather rebuilt engines. One, he bought a Cadillac engine and he rebuilt it. He honed the cylinders out, put new rings in it, had the valves ground and put the heads on it. I was in high school at the time and he had one of those breaker bars to tighten the head down. I said, ‘You sure they are all the same?’ He said, ‘Oh yeah, they are within 5 pounds of each other. I borrowed the torque wrench at Sumner brought it home and he was correct.”
One aspect of fishing Dan loves is scalloping. He started dragging for scallops in the early ‘80s. The only reason that he has not scalloped the last few seasons was due to health issues. When asked what the strangest thing was, he dragged up, he said, “I’ve got a lot of bottles, but the strangest thing was a porcelain pot with a handle on it. I don’t know what it was. I got that over by Bald Porcupine. There is a lot of stuff over by Bald Porcupine. This one came up and I see in the center of the drag. I got my son Danny there to open the drag real slow and I reached in through the ring and held it, it was right at the top. I held it until he dumped the drag then reached up and grabbed it. It is whole. It has got some fine line cracks in it, but it ain’t broke. That is about the most valuable thing that I can think of.”
“I just like doing it,” said Dan. “Some people like gardening, I don’t. I like fishing. It was open everywhere. These areas they have now have only been in effect for 11 years. Frenchman’s Bay is right in my dooryard. The last year I went, I went over between Petit Menan and Schoodic Point, but I quit because I had to have a hip done in February. Now there are too many rules. Some of the meetings they have had lately, they want to divide in thirds all the way up the coast. I think this would be better because the way it is now you have got a third, like Frenchman’s Bay, when it opens up you will get western boats and eastern boats and it is just a cluster. I think if you opened these zones up bigger, people will more or less stay in their own territory.
Then we talked about Dan’s cousin David Pettigrew, Jr., which is who he sold the boat that his grandfather built in ’55. Dan added, “I took it over in ’74 and sold it to my cousin in ’83. His legs bothered him so he started building models. I am pretty sure he started with wooden ones and then started making fiberglass ones. I gave him the half-hull of the one that my grandfather built. He made a model of the one my Grandfather built in ’43 then he made a model of mine. He made all kinds, tugboats and lobster boats, he must have had 50 of them down there when I went to his funeral.
David was born in 1944 and died five years ago. He lived in Eliot and just played fished. His father, David, Sr., was on a sub during the war out of Portsmouth.
Commercial fishermen love to fish, even when it was not as easy and Dan is a perfect example of this.