Boatman of Edgartown

Fri, 12/02/2022 - 12:45pm

When vehicles line up on Simpsons Lane to get on the Chappy Ferry in Edgartown, the head of the queue begins next to a building called the Old Sculpin Gallery. When returning to Edgartown from the island of Chappaquiddick, vehicles make a left turn and pass right by said gallery where there is a plaque that reads:

For many years this building was the shop
of Manuel Swartz Roberts, Boat Builder
1881-1963
From Its Doors Came Catboats, Beachboats, Fishingboats. All staunch. All Honest. All Seaworthy. All Partaking Of The Nature Of Their Builder. Thru Its Doors Also Came His Many Friends and, In Particular, The Young Sailors Of The Town To Gam, To Learn The Use Of Tools And to Draw Inspiration From His Homely Philosophy, Keen Wit And Never Failing Kindness. Manuel Was Never Too Busy To Give Of His Time And Heart. Truly He Was Also A Builder Of Men.

In a recent column I referred to how an economy can develop in a particular locale because of the need for goods, and services, and supply and demand. Of course, we need people to create, and define a particular locale, in order to create these goods and services, and who those people are is a prime element in helping to define the locale. On a recent Busman’s Holiday of my aimless ramblings around Marthas’s Vineyard, I met - through complete happenstance - with a granddaughter of the late Manuel Swartz Roberts. I was stopping by the Gay Head Lighthouse in Aquinnah around dusk, where myself and a couple were the only people there. We talked about how close this lighthouse came to being lost to erosion; just like the Southeast Light on Block Island. Bob and Wendy are from Bourne, Massachusetts and were visiting a friend in Edgartown who owns the French restaurant, l’etoile.
As the cold wind was honking from the southwest we got to talking about some other Vineyard topics, and that’s when Wendy told me about how their restaurateur friend Michael Brisson had come to the island and how he has had his restaurant in Edgartown for 37 years. As we chatted more about Vineyard history, I told Bob and Wendy how I had planned to visit the Carnegie Heritage Museum in Edgartown. As this place has been on my radar for a couple of years, I had it planned to ride my E-bike for a couple of days and then hit the Carnegie for a quiet afternoon of learning some new historical things about Marthas’s Vineyard. When I mentioned this, Wendy told me about her grandfather Manuel’s work and his boathouse, which is now called the Old Sculpin Gallery.
“When you go to the Carnegie Museum, be sure to go downstairs and see my grandfather’s exhibit,” said Wendy. “They have some great artifacts, and you can see his tools.”
“That’s great! Actually, it was part of my plan to be there tomorrow, now I can’t wait,” I said.
“You’ll love it,” said Bob (who sported a Sculpin Gallery cap).
We parted company and went our separate ways. This was exciting information, especially when Wendy mentioned that her grandfather built catboats. Being a sailor and a lover of catboats since I was a kid, I was all in for learning about Manuel Swartz Roberts. The next day I went to the museum and found it closed. Thwarted, yet undaunted, I was now on a mission to learn all I could about Wendy’s grandfather.
Back in the time when Manuel came of age in Edgartown, there were catboats sailing all around the Vineyard and Elizabeth Islands. They were a practical and very beamy sailboat designed for stability. They were primarily workboats used for fishing and hauling freight. Moreover, catboats could be seen all along the New England coast. They were a proven sailing craft and there was substantial demand for these boats to be built. It was clear, learning about Manuel, that his carpentry skills, learned as a young guy while building houses - a passion since his youth in Katama - blended in perfectly to help him supply this demand for catboats and other kinds of vessels in Edgartown. Manuel Swartz Roberts had found his place in the world; or perhaps, this place in the world, found him.
“My grandfather Manuel was very quiet and observed everything,” said Wendy Koder. “He had a big smile.”
Manuel Swartz Roberts was born on a farm in Katama in 1881 to parents who had roots in the Azores. His carpentry skills were honed as a house carpenter; however, what he is primarily known for is being a capable shipwright. Manuel was one of many boat builders at that time on the Vineyard. Among other types of boats, Manuel had built about 200 catboats in his lifetime in Edgartown, and we can see some of them today sailing in Edgartown Harbor. One in particular is the pristine 21-foot catboat named Vanity, which was built for an Edgartown sailor named Oscar Pease. She was used by Pease to scallop and to do some blue fishing. Vanity was built by Manuel in his boathouse at the Chappy Ferry landing. This place was the epicenter of the man’s life. (At one time he and his wife lived in the loft of the boathouse.) Another noteworthy boat that was built by Manuel in
1909, was a catboat named Helen. This solid boat was built for Captain Manuel Sylvia of Nantucket. She was measured out at 30.8 long, her beam was 13.6, and she drew 4.5 feet. I mention these dimensions to note the mathematical precision needed to build a boat. My research of Manuel’s capability and skill set, which morphed from building houses and barns to building boats, informed me of a disciplined and focused craftsman.
After finding the Carnegie Heritage Museum closed last Wednesday, I walked down to Manuel’s old boathouse. The Old Sculpin Gallery is now empty and closed for the season; there was a stillness at the Chappy Ferry dock as I looked in the windows at this empty space that I’d driven by for decades of Vineyard visits. While looking in the windows I tried to conjure what went on in this small piece of square footage in Edgartown. Besides building boats—this is only the tip of the iceberg of Manuel’s legacy—this special place and the man who worked here was a nexus of countless human interactions and causes and effects. Moreover, when people came through these doors and information was absorbed and assimilated we can only imagine what was made of these interactions. Here is where people of all ages could drop in and see the observant master involved with a work-in-progress—smiling—and who was willing
to share what he knew. Finally, after Oscar Pease’s passing in 1995, the catboat Vanity is now part of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. She is a living and historical legacy of Manuel Swartz Roberts, the Boatman of Edgartown.