Welcome to the boatbuilding capital of the world, so to speak.
“Waking or sleeping, I dream of boats.” E.B. White
The sign on Route 175 south of Blue Hill could be taken as an example of overzealous civic pride: “Welcome to Brooklin,” it proclaims, “the boatbuilding capital of the world.” But anyone looking for proof that it’s more than hyperbole can stop at eighth grade.
The Brooklin School has a unique graduation requirement. Each year its entire class of eighth-graders troops into the nearby forest to claim a tree that had been cut down for them several years before — by a previous eighth-grade class. They follow the log from woodlot to sawmill to the boatshop at WoodenBoat magazine. And then they build a boat. They loft it, they shape the wood, they hammer the nails, and spread the glue. [For the rest of this story, see the September 2008 issue of Down East.]
Those would be an unusual set of skills for eighth-graders anywhere but here. Brooklin, with only 850 residents, has nine boatbuilding facilities, ranging from one-man shops to factories with fifty or sixty employees. At least a hundred people work here building boats. It’s only natural that the children express with their hands the skills they absorb through their pores from the community around them.
Brooklin is that kind of town. That sign has no official standing — local resident Jimmy Steele posted it at the end of his driveway some years ago in a burst of community pride. With characteristic humility, he never erected a business sign identifying himself as one of Brooklin’s boatbuilders. Steele, who died last year at the age of seventy, crafted Down East peapods, elegant little wooden rowboats that made him a legend in boatbuilding circles.
“Of course [the sign] isn’t true,” says Steve White, son of the famous boat designer Joel White and grandson of legendary essayist and author E.B. White. He owns the renowned Brooklin Boat Yard. “But in some ways it is.” Not only is the town home to a raft of master craftsman and boat designers, it also hosts WoodenBoat magazine, the bible of wooden-boat enthusiasts anywhere there’s enough saltwater to float a dinghy. “WoodenBoat has got Brooklin’s name out around the world,” White says. “Brooklin has become a mecca for wooden-boat enthusiasts.”
Anyone who spends a little time here, however, understands that Steele’s sign has a subtext, a testament to the town’s values that goes beyond the obvious one about boats. Brooklin is the place that E.B. White called home. So, too, did journalist and statesman James Russell Wiggins. “In this community, we value independence and we value creativity,” observes Halina Nawrot, principal of the Brooklin School. “The inventiveness of the people to make a living out of something very specialized demonstrates an ability to be wonderful problem solvers and to commit to something that is a little off the beaten track.
“There’s this whole idea that the people here didn’t sell out,” Nawrot continues. “They didn’t go for the mainstream. They didn’t go for the easy route. They took what they loved and what they could do well. That spirit of excellence permeates the whole community.”
Sitting at the tip of the Blue Hill peninsula, the town of Brooklin occupies just eighteen square miles, but it boasts thirty miles of shoreline on Eggemoggin Reach and Blue Hill Bay. Despite its natural beauty, Brooklin goes largely unnoticed by the hundreds of thousands of tourists streaming to Acadia National Park on Route 1 thirty miles north. Even those travelers who do venture south of Blue Hill rarely come this way, opting instead to follow Route 15 to Deer Isle and the fishing town of Stonington beyond.
The village at the intersection of Route 175 and Naskeag Point Road is composed of the small but airy Friends Memorial Public Library, two inns, a seasonal café, and the 142-year-old Brooklin General Store, which opens at 4:30 a.m. so lobstermen can fuel up on coffee and small talk before a day of hauling traps. Touristy it’s not, but Brooklin does have a distinct seasonal rhythm. From June to October, the Brooklin Inn dining room, the town’s only year-round restaurant, opens seven days a week to serve a population that triples to 2,400, as well as the 700 students who come to learn boatbuilding and sailing at WoodenBoat.
Summer people have been integral to the town’s identity since the late 1860s, when rusticators began retreating to the Lookout Inn, still in business on spectacular Flye Point. Several years later, Noah Tibbets, a native of nearby Brooksville who worked at the Pension Bureau in Washington, D.C., founded Haven, a fifty-cottage colony at Center Harbor. D.C. bigwigs came to sail, fish, and hunt seals, arriving aboard the steamboats that stopped two to three times daily at Steamboat Wharf.
Brooklin was a busier, more populous place. The Odd Fellows Hall near Center Harbor, its storefronts now vacant, marks what was once the town center. Grocers, barbers, milliners, and cobblers served nearly three thousand residents, many of whom worked at canneries that processed baked beans, brown bread, blueberries, lobsters, clams, and sardines.
A quieter Brooklin attracted The New Yorker writers E.B. and Katharine White in the late 1930s. The steamboats were no longer sailing, the factories had moved out of town, and the population had dipped to about 650 year-round residents. The Whites embraced rural, small-town life. They raised chickens and sheep on a seaside farm, where Katharine, known for her garden articles, indulged her green thumb. E.B. — he preferred his initials to Elwyn Brooks — wrote Charlotte’s Web and other children’s classics in the boathouse, typing in front of a big window he designed himself. People still talk of him riding his ten-speed bike around town, recalling with amusement the afternoon E.B., age seventy-three, pedaled two miles in eighteen-degree weather to deliver a letter to show he could do it faster than the U.S. Post Office, which had begun sorting the town’s mail in Bangor sixty miles north. The letter, written with White’s characteristic puckish humor, was published in the Ellsworth American, the weekly newspaper operated by his friend, James Russell Wiggins.
The Whites’ influence on Brooklin was subtle but enduring. “They played a big role in revitalizing the library,” town historian June Eaton says. “The library is the center of the town, and we have the greatest circulation of any small library in Maine. Katharine served on the board and donated many of the books that she reviewed for The New Yorker. And, of course, because of E.B.’s literary background, people come to town to learn more about him.”
E.B. might not have liked that last part. He was notoriously publicity shy, and locals protected his privacy, denying knowledge of his farmhouse’s location when asked by passersby. After his death in 1985, the family sold the farm with the stipulation that it not be turned into an attraction. Nothing, not even a plaque, marks the homestead today.
The Whites’ son, Joel, and grandson, Steve, have had a more visible impact on the town. This summer, inside a cavernous workshop at Brooklin Boat Yard, a team of boatbuilders is swarming over Bequia, a ninety-foot pilothouse yawl under construction for a client from the Hamptons. The largest vessel to be built by the yard in its nearly fifty-year history, the Bequia will no doubt make a splash in boating circles when it is launched next summer. But newsmakers are nothing new for Brooklin Boat Yard; it is has a worldwide reputation for fine custom-built wooden boats.
An MIT-educated naval architect, Joel returned to Brooklin in the late 1950s after a stint designing boats in Newport News, Virginia. He entered a partnership with lobsterboat builder Arno Day, eventually buying out Day, who had complained, “There are too many damn people working here.”
“There were four employees, my dad and Arno included,” Steve White says with a chuckle. An imposing figure with a thick, dark mop of hair and deep voice, as a young man Steve White had chafed in the lecture halls of Cornell University and Colby College. After “just barely” graduating from the latter, he took a job aboard a tugboat in Louisiana’s offshore oil industry. “After about a year of that, Brooklin was looking pretty good to me,” he recalls.
Steve joined the boatyard’s staff in 1978 and before long was managing the place. At the time Brooklin Boat Yard was one of the few yards in the country still employing traditional timber construction. Nearly everyone else was building boats from fiberglass and resin composites.
“There were seven people working here then, and three of them were part time,” he remembers. The facility is now Brooklin’s largest employer, with sixty employees. “I realized there was a lot more potential than my father was utilizing,” he explains. “He didn’t want to manage people. He wanted to design and build boats.”
That he did. Joel, who died in 1997, is still regarded as one of the country’s leading designers of wooden boats — everything from dinghies to yachts. He became famous in boating circles for designing wooden boats that performed deftly and were beautiful in their unadorned simplicity. His most popular designs are the Haven 121/2, a small sailboat known for its stability, speed, and responsiveness, and the seven-foot, seven-inch Nutshell Pram, which can be sailed or rowed. Created for WoodenBoat magazine as a kit for do-it-yourselfers, the Nutshell Pram symbolizes the synergy that began to build in Brooklin in the early 1980s. By then, WoodenBoat was settling into its new home, a 1916 estate on the Naskeag peninsula, and its paid circulation was approaching a hundred thousand. No one was more surprised by the magazine’s rapid growth than its publisher, Jon Wilson, who conceived the idea in his Pembroke boat shop in 1974. He had no editing or publishing experience, nothing except a knowledge of wooden boats and a concern for their future.
“Fiberglass was coming into the market big time,” recalls Wilson, who looks professorial with his steel-rim glasses and wiry build. “My goal was to make sure wooden boats didn’t go extinct without a fight. I didn’t think we could turn the tide, but I wanted to slow it down.”
Wilson was lured to Brooklin in 1981 by Joel White, Steele, and marine engineer Maynard Bray. “It was the best thing that ever happened to us because of our connection with the competency and experience of the craftsmen who were working here and with those three guys in particular,” Wilson explains. “They had a stake in the heritage of the town.”
In addition to a mansion with ample office space for the magazine’s staff, the Naskeag estate had a large carriage house where Wilson opened WoodenBoat School. Just as he had tapped master craftsmen to write for WoodenBoat, Wilson invited boatbuilders from Brooklin and beyond to teach one- and two-week courses on topics like
lapstrake construction, lofting, and building skiffs and kayaks. That first year, seventy-five students enrolled for eight classes (the enrollment and course offerings have since increased tenfold).
Meantime, wooden boat construction got a boost from the introduction of composites, and Brooklin’s tiny boatbuilding industry began to grow. “Joel White and Jimmy Steele had been the only active builders in Brooklin, but then Eric Dow came home from boatbuilding school in Lubec,” Wilson recalls. “Richard Duffy began building fiberglass lobsterboats. Brooklin began to look like a place where boats really played a role. Now we have Doug Hylan, who is extremely competent, and Brion Rieff who has a small yard with a worldwide reputation. Peter Chase is building peapods in Jimmy’s shop. There’s Wade Dow and Nate Hopkins — too many to name them all. Not many towns have this many boatbuilders per capita. I don’t know what it is about Brooklin that attracts them. Part of it is Brooklin Boat Yard — many of these guys worked there before going out on their own. Part of it is the magazine.”
Indeed, WoodenBoat has attracted many customers for Eric Dow, who writes articles for the magazine and teaches a class at the school every summer. There is a spirit of community and cooperation among Brooklin’s boatbuilders as well. Each shop has its own niche — Dow’s is the Haven 121/2 — so competition is not a source of friction. “We’re all busy enough,” Dow says. “We’re all on good terms and we loan each other materials if someone is out of something until a shipment arrives.”
Brooklin,” John Ellsworth observes, “is pretty passionate about Brooklin.” Its literary legacy and boatbuilding prowess, he says, are inspirations for the entire town. “There are a lot of talented people here — artists, writers, farmers, some of the best woodworkers in the world.”
With a pair of draft horses, Ellsworth and his wife, Jennifer Schroth, farm land on the Benjamin River that was once owned by Schroth’s grandfather, James Russell Wiggins. During twenty years as managing editor and executive editor of the Washington Post, starting in 1947, Wiggins had transformed it from a local journal into a newspaper of national significance. In 1969 he settled in Brooklin and became editor and publisher of the Ellsworth American (he famously reported to work every day until he died in 2000 at age ninety-six). In 1990, in need of a helping hand on his gentleman’s farm, he invited Schroth and Ellsworth to join him.
The couple grows market gardens — salad greens, garlic, tomatoes, herbs, beets, carrots, potatoes, and the like — for area restaurants and farmers’ markets. In winter, they thin woodlots for clients, and Ellsworth builds timber-frame barns. It is a demanding, yet rewarding, life, and they succeed in part because a cooperative composed of neighbors pays them in advance for the farm’s bounty, getting them through the lean months when they have no produce to sell.
Such examples of community are abundant here. Fishermen work from a pier built by the town at Naskeag Point a few years ago. The Brooklin School is never lacking in volunteers — there are more than two for every student. “Whenever there are fund-raisers for the school, people come out whether they have children in the schools or not,” says Schroth, who serves on the school board. “They’re very loyal to the town and the people in it.”
Still, many townsfolk express concern that Brooklin’s identity is threatened. While its largest employers — Brooklin Boat Yard, Atlantic Boat Company, and WoodenBoat — have protected Brooklin somewhat from the economic forces transforming other coastal Maine towns, the year-round population is shrinking while the number of houses that are dark nine months of the year is growing.
“Brooklin is partly built on our summer community; no one wants it to go away,” Schroth says. “But now we’re seeing developers buying ten to fifteen acre lots and pounding five or six mega-houses on them. It’s a whole new scenario. It seems like we’re on the cusp of some kind of change.”
When she arrived early for her job interview at Brooklin School a year and a half ago, Halina Nawrot pulled up a stool at the general store and ordered coffee. “People sat beside me and talked to me,” says Nawrot, a trim, no-nonsense blonde who has won praise for her frank, courteous leadership. “I looked different than most people here. I stood out like a sore thumb, but they didn’t hold that against me. I felt this was a community in the real sense of the word, a community I could live in. I still feel that way.”
The eighth-grade boatbuilding class was a tradition before Nawrot arrived, and she has embraced it enthusiastically, both for what it gives the students and what it says about their community. “At every grade level, we do things that are somewhat unusual, trying to instill in our children the things that we as a community decided are important — independence, creativity, and commitment to excellence,” Nawrot says. “Brooklin is not about big, better, more. It’s about being the best you can be.”
- By: Virginia M. Wright