Between 1946 and 2003, Ralph Stanley built, rebuilt or co-built 70 wooden boats of various designs, including lobster boats, Friendship sloops, sailboats and dories. In 1999, he won a National Heritage Fellowship Award in the area of Folk and Traditional Arts, which included a trip for him and his wife, Marion, to Washington, D.C., where they took part in a weekend full of activities to honor award winners. Two books and a documentary film are in the works about Ralph, whose boats can be seen not just in Maine but in Massachusetts, Florida, California, Washington state, England and Italy.
It seemed appropriate that I traveled to my interview with Ralph by boat. He and Marion live an easy walk from the Cranberry Cove ferry stop in Southwest Harbor. They invited me in, and I sat with them in their sitting room, where Marion was hooking a rug for a great-grandchild.
Last winter, I met Ralph and Marion’s granddaughter at the University of Maine.
“You should interview my grandfather,” she said. “He’s a retired boat builder, and now he builds fiddles. And he likes to talk.”
I did not realize at that time that Craig Milner published a book with Ralph, filled with photographs and stories about Ralph’s life. “Ralph Stanley, Tales of a Maine Boatbuilder” is a superb depiction of life on the coast of Maine.
There are stories about old-timers from the 1930s; colorful scenes of growing up in a coastal village during that time; tales of boat mishaps, both comical and harrowing; histories of boats and boat building; and descriptions of lifelong relationships between locals and summer people. Ralph worked for one summer family as captain, cook and “just about everything” for about 19 years. He built a boat for a member of that family, who lived in Sardinia, Italy. She named it the “Ralph W. Stanley,” the only boat ever named after him. Then she invited Ralph and Marion overseas to set up the boat in Sardinia.
“How did you guys like Italy?” I asked.
“It was all right,” Marion shrugged. “I was glad to get back home.”
Ralph and Marion are dyed-in-the-wool Mainers. Their straightforward love of home – an eighth-generation home for Ralph’s family – is the predominant force in their lives. Anyone who thinks there isn’t enough to do along the coast of Maine should take a page out of Ralph’s book. He always finds something to do.
Ralph has stopped building boats because of persistent heart troubles, including bypass surgery. But he hardly skipped a beat and started building fiddles, adapting his own design ideas and using whatever wood he had on hand. He even played me a tune on one of them.
In addition to building fiddles, Ralph is working on a book about his family genealogy, which he hopes to publish next spring. He is a regular guest speaker around the region about local history and has an astounding, encyclopedic memory for names, relationships and stories.
“I gave a talk at Jessup Library. My only notes were 20 names on a page — all of them relatives. Talked for about an hour and a half.”
Ralph was the oldest of eight children — he had seven younger sisters. In 1960, he built a lobster boat for his father, who named it “Seven Girls.” The boat was sold but eventually landed back in Ralph’s hands. Before I left for the ferry ride home, he walked me out along a labyrinthine network of plank docks to the water, where the Seven Girls is docked.
Ralph shaded his eyes with one hand and scanned the harbor, then began pointing out boats.
“That one, going along with the two sails up, is one of mine … and that green-hulled one with the brown sail wrapped around … and see that one? You can see the topmast over the deck of that other boat.”
Ralph’s boats, it seemed to me, are like his children, and he likes to keep an eye out for them, see what they’re up to out there in the world.
At 85 years old, Ralph wondered out loud at the fact he has outlived three of his younger sisters. In addition to his heart troubles, Ralph has a history of poor health since childhood. He missed a year of school when he was 13 years old because of pneumonia, which nearly killed him. But he continues to engage in life with whatever energy he has to put forth, writing his book, playing music, telling stories, meeting people with a ready smile that crinkles the corners of his eyes.
“I don’t know why I’m still here — been through an awful lot.”
Ralph seemed reflective the day we met. He talked about that time when he was 13 and how he had the feeling something pulled him back from death, even though he felt peaceful and ready to go.
“I guess I had something to do. Maybe I haven’t done it yet.”
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at email@example.com.