John Willey shares sage insights into life in a Maine boatyard, where he worked and kept a journal from 1978 to ’79.

Fortune brings in some boats that are not steer’d.
Pisanio, Cymbeline, III, ii

A Winter’s Apprentice – Chapter 1 Barn Boats
Kennebec River invites boats and fishermen. Photo by Ramona du Houx

© John Holt Willey

Carl and I were seventeen that fall, best friends and bored senseless with the world—except for our interest in the work we did; seven days a week Carl in the dairy barn, where he was lead boy in caring for and milking about sixty head of Ayrshire cattle every night and morning, under Raymond Gifford’s relaxed supervision. And myself in the horse barn, where I fed, watered, cleaned out, and daily fussed over nine huge animals, most of them older and all of them wiser than my callow self. And I daily cleaned and curried and drove Sandy, a tall, handsome buckskin, more used to answering Canadian French than to following my Maine Yankee efforts at horse-talk. Sandy and I took wagonloads of firewood, as needed, to the cottages on the boys’ campus; on Saturday mornings we picked up the week’s trash and hauled it far into the trees behind the barns, where (in those years) it gradually became landfill.

Carl and I lived and worked and went to school at Good Will Farm in Maine, and this was in the early 1950s. The same place is alive and thriving today, now called Good Will-Hinckley, still caring for other people’s children in a rural riverside community of group-homes and schools. Founded 1889 by George W. Hinckley of Guilford Connecticut, it had grown to 3,500 acres by the 1950s, with more than fifty buildings and was home to about 140 boys and girls, age nine to twenty-one.

Nondenominational, the high school taught a college-prep curriculum, and the community gained a remarkably useful set of life skills. Boys and girls were segregated by “cottages” (huge farmhouses) and about a mile of highway. They attended only high school and chapel together and were ruled by all the best Victorian principles, applied on a basic middleclass Protestant ethic.

The school existed on charity, and while the kids worked before and after school, this was seen as our contribution to tuition. The cottage system worked because we all had chores, a dozen boys or girls in each house, supervised by an eagle-eyed matron/housemother. Mine baked at Thanksgiving a pie for every boy in her house, and while strict, cared for us all as if we were her own. Of course I did not understand this at the time. Much later, my own mother filled in the dots for me, right after I’d said something rude about Addie Kearney Lawler (matron) who, it seems, had twice prevented my summary expulsion.

College prep seldom includes coaching for the sudden independence of a student; at college I failed while some succeeded; my oldest living friend from that time became a respected civil engineer and helped keep Amtrak on the rails.

Carl and I arrived during World War II. Neither of us had a clue as to when the cows and horses had arrived, but we were sure they were better company than anyone else—except for Raymond Gifford in the dairy, Walter Price the farm manager, and a couple of cottage mates. Raymond and Walter had been mercifully patient in teaching me about draft animals and how to talk horse. And generally forgiving of my juvenile excesses, like dancing Sandy in circles when hitched to the pung, for the entertainment of Smith Cottage girls. Smith Cottage, on the girls residential campus, was closest of the girls’ homes to the south campus, where the boys lived. A boy could reach it by a discreet woodland path, crossing Marten Stream at a shallow. Some did. I did, was careless, seen by a wide-awake cottage parent, and nearly got myself expelled.

Back to the pung, literally an eight-foot-long box on steel-and-wood runners. I had found that Sandy’s steel-clad hooves would let him wheel in place on an icy surface, spinning the pung in circles, and that he liked to perform. So we did.

The little box flew in circles around the dancing horse, hurling ice chips in all directions from its runners. Sandy could always be sure of an apple or carrot after the exercise. And one of the girls was specially pretty, of course—now and then I made off with a donut or a kiss.

In late winter or early spring, Carl and I got to talking about boats. We decided to build one, and then two. The school was so brilliantly conceived it had its own sawmill, under which was a mountain of pine sawdust. We were not allowed to build our own boats, of course. This made the work far more worthwhile. It did not matter to us that the Kennebec River every spring was bank-to-bank full of pulp logs and not a safe navigable waterway. Our teachers and guardians saw the river as a hazard. We saw it as part of the world to be traveled.

We selected splendid pine planks of suitable length and not quite enough width. We walloped the boats together with “ten penny” (size 10d) nails and tar—stolen from the maintenance shop—working under the sawmill with hand-tools also liberated, temporarily every Saturday afternoon, from the same shop. The boats were about twelve feet long, of uncertain beam, but surely too narrow for their depth, and we meant to run them down the Marten Stream rapids, four rocky sets of whitewater, with the advent of ice-out. We nailed together the ugliest pine paddles you can imagine, rough and wide and ill-shapen, and used them when the time came.

We worked on the boats on Saturday afternoons because that was our only unsupervised time of the week. We would simply vanish, dig up the boats and planks, work like hell for four hours, bury the boats in sawdust, and run back to our cottages on Page Terrace to tuck into supper. I can still smell the pine, the tar and the cold nails—and the pitch we used to fill in the worst gaps, carefully gathered from blistery spruce on our way through the late-winter woods.

Canoe awaits adventures on a Maine river. Photo by Ramona du Houx

Just days after ice-out on the stream we got them done, and I kept Sandy in harness on a Saturday morning, when chores went quickly. Carl met me at the sawmill; we made sure no one else was in sight, and with the boats in the wagon, I put Sandy into the tote road to the oxbow on Marten Stream. At water’s edge, we piled winter-killed brush on them and hurried back to the barns. I was late for dinner that day, but my housemother had a morning’s turbulence on her mind, or my excuse was better than usual.

The following Saturday down the stream we went, somehow through all four rapids without spilling into the freezing water, somehow talking each other through in perfect ignorance of what we were doing.

Neither of us had ever heard of hypothermia, but in a moment of calm reflection a couple of weeks later, I found it in the dictionary—it was just after I’d helped Carl get dried out. We were to meet just below the first rapids on the stream, to manhandle the boats up past them and get another practice run. And Carl was missing. And his raw-wood boat and his paddle. I started to run down the shore path to the Kennebec River, but in less than a hundred yards I saw him, trudging toward me. On a cold blowing day, he had tried to cross the Kennebec, only to capsize in the acres of pulpwood offshore. Unable to reenter his boat, he somehow pulled it behind him to shore, fending off the logs and waste still being poured into the river in those years. A hundred feet or a hundred yards, he didn’t know, but he was very pale and could hardly form words. God knows how he reached shore or walked so far. I knew just enough about cold to help him strip down to one layer and then to walk and finally run to his cottage, for dry clothing. He had set out with three layers on and must have been bone chilled by the time we met. The last I heard, Carl still has that boat. It rests on a stone fence in Readfield, on land his mother left him, still his home and harbor. I was careless; a spring freshet caught mine and took it downriver, probably crushing it in the logs.

Years later, visiting the school, I found Lawrence Easler, still chief of maintenance, working at the gym. In the war years and for long after, Lawrence looked after fifty-five large buildings, built wagons and boats, welded broken plow trucks and farm machinery, plumbed and electrified, ran a small municipal water system and repaired it when it broke, and on one memorable occasion borrowed me one day from school to move an old square grand piano from Belfast into the girls’ campus library. We used his pickup truck, rope, plank, a handful of wedges, and Lawrence’s perfect understanding of Archimedes. It was one of the more educational days of my young life. Lawrence was sturdy but not more than five foot eight or nine inches and could not be called muscular. I was plain skinny. Lawrence explained things to me as we went along, and I just followed instructions. We moved that piano without breathing hard once and set it in place without scratching its finish. By day’s end, I finally understood that brain could ease brawn in most cases and that a little geometry was a truly beautiful thing.

Years later, idle by the gym in the warm sun, we’d chatted a few minutes when Lawrence asked, smiling, “John, whatever happened to those boats you and Carl built under the sawmill?”

My eyes wide, I told him about Carl’s Readfield dry dock and my own carelessness and then asked, “When did you find out? And when you knew, why’d you let us keep on? If Norman Hinckley’d known, I’d still be scrubbing floors here!”

My surprise pleased Lawrence, “Well, I missed a handsaw one Saturday. And then some tar from a can I thought was full. And anyone building something had to get wood for it. So I scouted a little and then saw some tracks under the sawmill and found the boats. After a little while, I knew who it was. You came back for some more tar!” He grinned again.

I was goggle-eyed: “And you never told.”

“Didn’t seem to be any reason to. The boats were small, but they were pretty sturdy and looked like they’d keep you from drowning. That was the only thing concerned me. So I’d go check on them after you and Carl were done.”

“Every time?”

“Well, yes . . .”

Every week, when the boys were in Sunday school far from the barns and mill, Lawrence would patiently dig up the boats, check them over, and once more cover them with sawdust. And Carl and I never knew.

“They were small boats, so you weren’t planning to go very far with them. And I never saw boats built with so few tools, so I got curious. As I remember, you didn’t trouble too much with paint.”

“No,” I smiled, “a quick coat on the outside was all. We were kind of in a hurry—”

“But they worked all right,” he said, “even with those paddles. Those were pretty rough, I thought.”

“Oh, they were rough all right.”

So Lawrence was pleased with his surprise and that he had figured right. And I was pleased that this remarkable man had broken the rules for us and taken on himself extra work to make sure our work was right and that we were, in fact, responsible enough to do some growing up on our own. It was the first time in my life I knew anyone allowed me that.


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