Maine Community Builds More Than Boats

As we do every summer, my family is spending some vacation time on the mid-coast of Maine in a tiny lobstering village. The coastline is stunning here. The deep cerulean blue water is dotted with colorful lobster buoys and pine-topped islands; and lighthouses perch atop the jagged points of the rocky shore.

Artists Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, George Bellows and three generations of Wyeths all spent considerable time here aspiring to capture the unique light and spectacular views. Generations have made their living on the water here fishing, lobstering or boat building. There are boat-building schools and boat manufacturers up and down the coast.

North of us is the small town of Brooklin, which some proclaim to be the “boat-building capital of the world.” With a population of only 850 people, at least 100 of them are boat builders. There are nine boat-building facilities there, ranging from one-man shops to factories with 50 or 60 employees. It is also home to WoodenBoat magazine, THE magazine for wooden-boat enthusiasts.

Brooklin was made famous by three generations of Whites: E.B. White lived and wrote “Charlotte’s Web” there; his son Joel became a legendary boat designer; and Joel’s son Steve now owns the Brooklin Boat Yard. It’s no wonder that his grandfather E.B. said, “Waking or sleeping, I dream of boats.”

Boat building is so much a part of life in Brooklin that the Brooklin School has a unique graduation requirement for its eighth-graders. Each year the entire class of eighth-graders marches 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 then follow the log from the wood lot to the saw mill to the boat shop at WoodenBoat, where they then build a boat. They loft it, they shape the wood, they hammer the nails and spread the glue.

This is a school and a town that values creativity, independence and ingenuity. In addition to the hands-on skills they learn from the boat-building process, these eighth-graders also learn terrific problem-solving skills.

I love the boat-building tradition established by the Brooklin School. I love that it honors the generations of craftsmen who have made their living this way. I love that it demonstrates the boat-building process from start to finish. I love that it connects one class of students to another through the process of felling a tree for future classes. I love that it teaches hands-on skills and cooperative learning. I love that it instills community pride.

Brooklin is a unique place for many reasons. One of the most interesting is indeed the residents’ sense of community and how that plays out in a very real way. For example, a farm cooperative of neighbors pays the farmers in advance for the harvest to get them through the winter when they have no produce to sell. And the Brooklin School has so many volunteers that there are more than two for every student. This is clearly a place where people have pride in their community and look out for one another.

Art and craft are often confused. You do not have to be a talented artist in order to be a skilled craftsman. Boats may not be seen as art like paintings and sculpture, but the craft of building them – using skills passed from generation to generation – matches the raw creativity of art. It is skill, knowledge and hard work – with a riveted attention to detail – that makes a beautiful boat.

I so admire those qualities because they link every craftsman, whether the boat builder in Maine, the furniture craftsman in North Carolina or the metal worker in Ohio. All possess the skills and dedication that are passed down and survive only in a community of people.

Our schools and our community should foster craftsmanship in creating beautiful, practical things and in raising beautiful, practical craftspeople. We should be a community of boat builders.

Kathy Shapell has a master’s degree in special education. She is the director of the Augusta Levy Learning Center for autistic children in Wheeling and the mother of two children.