NORTH HAVEN, Maine — The J.O. Brown & Sons Shipyard has built and repaired boats through two world wars, a depression and several other major economic downturns.
Through it all, the boatyard has stayed in the family and served generations of the year-round and seasonal residents of North Haven and some from neighboring Vinalhaven.
The family will hold an open house Saturday, July 13 to mark the 125 years since 23-year-old James Osmond Brown rented a small fish house along the Fox Island Thoroughfare on North Haven and began building boats.
Today, the boatyard is operated by James Brown’s great-grandchildren Kim Alexander, James Osmond, Foy Weld Brown and Linda Crockett. The fifth generation has already started working at the boatyard.
“Pretty much everyone in the family has cut their teeth at least working here in the summer,” Kim Alexander said.
The boatyard’s main focus now is repair and storage of boats, she said. The island complex also includes a hardware store and — during the summer — a laundry facility and public showers.
Island resident Jason Mann, who is the media director for the Island Institute in Rockland, said the Brown boatyard has been an integral part of life on the island for the many generations.
“The Brown boatyard is inseparable from life on the island,” Mann said.
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a North Haven resident, also voiced the importance of the Brown shipyard.
“J.O. Brown has been a critical part of the island of North Haven for all of its 125 years and its critical role continues today. From boatyard to hardware store to the one gas pump and gathering place, there is always someone who can fix your outboard, find you the right piece of line, sell you a few lobsters or fill you in on the latest gossip — it’s the heart of our town,” Pingree said in a statement Friday.
When the founder of the boatyard opened it in a former clam factory, he built North Haven dinghies. Hundreds of those dinghies, launches, sailboats and lobster boats have been built over the past 125 years.
Alexander said it has been several years since the boatyard had built a wooden boat, saying few people want them anymore. The last wooden boat built was for a summer resident who liked the look of the old wooden open launch used by the boatyard. The difference from old wooden boats, however, was that the boat built for the customers was a 22-foot long, high-end boat with a lot of mahogany and varnish.
In recent years, the company has finished work on a lot of already made fiberglass hulls. The boatyard adds the wheelhouses, cabins, electronics, steering systems and engines onto the hulls.
The boatyard is also a mainstay on the island because it is the only place to buy gasoline and home heating oil.
The yard also has a certified diver on board and a travel lift to get boats in and out of the water.
Mann said it is special to have such an exceptional multigenerational family business thrive on the island.
Alexander said the success was due to the single-minded attitude of her father, who was a workaholic.
“I think he first felt a lot of responsibility in having inherited it so young,” she said. “He always worried about the crew needing to support their families, as well as he just plane old loved the work.”
She said her brother Foy inherited that workaholic ethic and to some extent all of this generation has.
“It’s very difficult to work your family; it’s hard to not let work issues cause hurt feelings. It’s like a high-wire balancing act,” she said.
She said her generation wants to keep the business going for their children and grandchildren.
Alexander said the future looks good for the boatyard. She said the company is investing money on its facilities, and with the help of a state grant — aimed at assuring access for the public to the water — will expand its pier.
The 40-foot-long dock will be extended by 30 feet and will be widened by a couple feet. A derrick will be installed at the end to allow fishermen to drive to the end of the pier and load and unload gear, she said.
There is no other location on the island where fishermen have a deeded right to access the waterfront, she said. Many fishermen park their vehicles at the Maine State Ferry Service parking lot and load and unload traps but that there is no formal agreement. In addition, the location can only be used when it is high tide because at other times, vessels would ground out. And having many fishermen use that when the ferry arrives or departs can create a chaotic situation, she said.
The boatyard’s agreement with the state — to receive the $260,000 grant — also includes a stipulation that if the property is ever sold, the state would have first rights to make an offer. And, Alexander pointed out, the price for the property would have to be based on its use as a commercial fishing facility and not as something more expensive, such as development for residential condominiums.
But the sale of the property is unlikely in the foreseeable future as the fifth generation continues the family tradition. For example, Foy Everett Brown’s 5-year-old son Cyrus is spending his summer painting lobster buoys and sanding model boats at the boatyard.
James Osmond Brown started the business in 1888, a time when the economy was booming under the first term of President Grover Cleveland.
The family said a wealthy Boston physician — Dr. Charles Weld — had urged Brown to start the business and commissioned him to build what would be called North Haven dinghies. The boats became popular for sailing races.
Brown moved into larger nearby quarters in 1897 when a clam factory closed. Weld purchased the building and signed a lease-to-buy agreement with Brown so that he could expand his thriving business.
The business’ heyday was from that period until the Great Depression of the 1930s. The boatyard built the island’s first motorboat — a 14-foot-long boat with a 1.5-horsepower gasoline engine — in 1902.
In 1926, the founder’s son — Foy Brown — joined the business. James Brown died a year later at the age of 61.
Foy Brown ran the business through the Great Depression when few boats were being built, but which saw the business maintain as many as 70 boats.
Foy Brown died in 1940 at the age of 51 and the next generation took over — his son James and daughter Ivaloo Patrick. During World War II, Alexander said, Ivaloo ran the facility as the men of the island were called to military service.
Ivaloo’s house was just over the hill from the hardware store and boatyard. People would call her home or stop by if they needed something, and she would go down and open the store.
James continued to operate the boatyard until he died at the age of 91 in 2008. His children and niece now are the generation in charge.
Eight family members work year-round, with some extra workers in summer.
Despite the difficult economic times since the recession struck in 2008, the boatyard has done well, Alexander said.
“We’ve really been insulated since the recession. Most of the folks that have boats, most of their families have been around as long as we have been,” she said.
The July 13 open house will last throughout the day with food, drinks and music from the local band Toughcats.