SOUTHWEST HARBOR — Legendary master boat builder. Bluegrass fiddler and violin maker. Sailor and captain. National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow. Historian and genealogist. Neighbor and friend. A local who could trace his ancestors back to 18th century Cranberry Isles. A Mount Desert Island native who stayed.
Ralph Warren Stanley was all that, but to the people who knew him as friend, father, husband, craftsman and a dedicated Southwest Harbor Library patron, his accomplishments were a little more grounded in the day-to-day.
An acquaintance emailed him last month asking about the trim paint on a lobster boat he built that she’d seen three years ago.
“He remembered,” said Letitia Baldwin, arts and special sections editor for The American. “It was custom color: Stanley Tan.”
With his death Dec. 7 at the age of 92, he is woven into the history of Southwest Harbor, the community he called home for decades.
“Ralph understood the working boats and the men who sailed them and their concerns,” said Charlotte Morrill, who edited his book “The Stanleys of Cranberry Isles” and worked with Stanley for close to 20 years on the Southwest Harbor Public Library’s digital archive. “He came from men who sailed; his father and great-uncles had all sailed for summer people, as did Ralph. His perspective was as a boat builder and a sailor … but he knew a lot about fishing.”
Stanley could name and give the complete history of every vessel in Southwest Harbor, she recalled. “And he had 1,457,000 stories.”
And while Southwest Harbor may rightfully claim him as a native son, “every historical society on the Eastern Seaboard considered him one of theirs,” she added.
“I used to look at him and think, what would be lost?” Morrill mused. “We spent 20 years recording Ralph in every way. His stories about rum running on the island are the only ones in existence, practically.”
Honored in Washington, D.C., by the National Endowment for the Arts as a master boat builder in 1999, Stanley built and restored vessels, from simple rowboats to a 44-foot lobster boat, for over 57 years. His first one came after he returned home from Ricker Junior College in Houlton with an associate degree.
“I’ve been building boats ever since,” he said when he was honored as a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment of the Arts, the nation’s highest honor in folk and traditional arts. The foundation also noted Stanley’s death, stating: “Always striving to learn and to make improvements to his work, Ralph Stanley had once said, ‘Building wooden boats is like climbing a still-growing tree where you never get to the top … you’re always looking to improve.’”
Over 70 pleasure vessels, lobster boats and the single-masted Friendship Sloops came to life under his working hands. Local pine, white cedar and oak were used in their construction. His favorite was reportedly the Friendship Sloop, with Stanley telling the Working Waterfront in 2009, “I just like sailing them. They feel comfortable.” His ease with the sailing sloops helped him win the Class A division in Rockland’s Friendship Sloop regatta three years running. Now the award for the best-maintained wooden Friendship Sloop is named the Stanley Cup.
Bar Harbor filmmaker Jeff Dobbs captured Stanley, complete with his Downeast Maine accent and detailed knowledge of local history, in a 2015 documentary, “Ralph Stanley: An Eye for Wood.” It debuted, of course, at the Southwest Harbor Public Library before being showed on the PBS television channel. Stanley’s friend Gunnar Hansen wrote the script, and former state representative and MDI resident Dennis Damon narrated it.
“I said, ‘Ralph, give me everything you’ve got,’” Dobbs recalled. It first took two to three years of interviews with Stanley, who was nearing 80 years of age. “As Ralph would readily admit, you could sit down and talk with him, and then realize the next time you talked with him he’d told you a heck of a lot more. He wasn’t bashful and could tell a good story.”
The film includes Stanley’s violin making, which he did in his basement.
“Ralph’s musical career was interesting,” Dobbs said. “He couldn’t read music, but he had a good ear.” While shooting Stanley playing fiddle with a young woman, she asked him what key he played in. Dobbs recalled Stanley’s response: “You start. I’ll make up the key.”
Stanley loved the film, Dobbs said.
“Every time we showed it, he would show up.” At one showing at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, so many people came, the film was played three times.
“Ralph was always ready, able and willing to talk about it,” Dobbs said. “I think he really just enjoyed the fact that he got to tell his story.”
Stanley appears somewhat frail in the film, and Dobbs said he and Hansen finished it as quickly as they could.
“It still took several years, in retrospect,” Dobbs said. “And Gunnar [Hansen] passed away two or three years before Ralph did.”
Morrill noted Stanley’s ability to see the “human funny quirks of everybody in Southwest Harbor. He didn’t miss a thing … He loved the rapscallions, he loved the crazy things, the guys whose wives were chasing them. He got it and he loved them all.”
When Stanley had finished his last boat and was ready to retire from boatbuilding, Morrill said he told her, “I’m more than just a boat builder. I’ve got so many things to do and so many things I’m interested in, and I’m going to do them.”
“And he never missed a beat,” she said. “His whole life had been building boats. He just stepped off that cliff and onto another one and never looked back.”
Stanley married Marion Linscott in 1956, and left behind her, sons Richard and Edward and daughters Nadine and Marjorie to continue the stories.
A service of remembrance will be held on Jan. 6 at 1 p.m., at the United Church of Christ in Southwest Harbor.