Building life's work Model boats: A retired boat builder devotes himself to reproducing in miniature the craft that plied the Chesapeake Bay.

March 16, 1996|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

GOLDSBORO - In a small and sunny workshop along Route 287, three old men are preserving a Chesapeake Bay legacy. VTC Flannel-shirted shoulders almost touching, heads bent in concentration over the workbench, they are building scale models of the boats that once ruled a fertile bay skipjacks, bugeyes, tucked-stern workboats.

Two are former watermen, and they labor under the tutelage of the third.

James E. "Buck" Thompson once built big boats. Now, he is building small ones that differ from their larger counterparts only in scale. Tiny taffrails, little hatches that slide, diminutive oyster tongs lying on a culling board these are precise reproductions, miniature monuments to a time when the waters of the Chesapeake rewarded hard work with a generous living.

"If somebody don't duplicate the craft we had years ago, there's going to be no way to know what we had," Mr. Thompson says.

Five decades ago, he and his father made model boats for toys "That's all we had," he says. Now he is 65, and the little boats are the distillation of an adulthood spent building and hauling wooden boats, the only ones he says are worth caring about.

"When I see a Fiberglas tree, I'll build a Fiberglas boat," he says with a scornful smile.

In a bay window behind him sits the Betty Lou, named for his wife. A tiny trail board attached to the boat offers carefully carved eloquence: "Loving wife of 45 years."

His wife became ill in 1990, five years after he had closed James E. Thompson Custom Boats in Queenstown. The couple moved to Caroline County, where she died two years ago.

"When my wife got sick, I had to stay home with her," he says. So the model building that had been a spare-time activity in adulthood "I'd work on big boats at daytime, little boats at night" grew into something therapeutic.

"To occupy my mind, I got back into it," is how he puts it.

His models are built to scale, he says half-inch, three-quarter or 1-inch versions of the real thing.

"It's an exact replica of a real boat I mean exact," he says. He works from a lifetime of marine knowledge and a mental blueprint that guides his hand as he shapes and paints parts so tiny he must pick them up with tweezers.

"I've always been fascinated with boats and with trucks," he says. A business that built and hauled boats allowed him to indulge both interests. His father and his uncles were ship's carpenters and watermen "My Uncle Joe built the last bugeye that was built," Mr. Thompson says with pride.

"He doesn't need any plans he builds it from his head," says his friend and model boat-building pupil, John Thomas. Mr. Thomas, 68, and Emerson Tarr, 77, have come to the workshop from their homes in Grasonville, as they do many days, to work on scale models of their own boats.

"If I fix it in my head, I can do it," Mr. Thompson says.

In addition to his working knowledge of boats, he also studies marine histories. The books have pictures and drawings of the boats that are the Chesapeake's own the early canoes, the 18th- and 19th-century sailing vessels, and the fast-disappearing skipjacks (a one-masted boat) and bugeyes (a larger two-master) that watermen use today.

With the confidence of skill and study, Mr. Thompson adds, "I do it by eye I figure if it suits me, it'll suit anybody."

And it does. Friends hint they'd like one of those boats, but Mr. Thompson says he's too busy making sure that his daughters and grandchildren each have one to fool with anything else. Paying customers also have to get in line behind his family.

"I'll sell one once in a while, but I hate to sell any of them," he says, cradling a skipjack in his big, blunt-fingered hands. Pressed, he says he may sell a few at a consignment shop on his native Kent Island.

But one of his little boats has traveled all the way up the Eastern seaboard to become a tiny ambassador for Maryland.

In Brookline, Mass., last year, making a seafood delivery out of Crisfield (he likes to keep his hand in, he says), Mr. Thompson saw a sign for Skipjack's restaurant. He had a conversation with the restaurant's seafood buyer.

"I asked him where he got the name Skipjack. He couldn't tell me," Mr. Thompson recalls with wonderment bordering on indignation. ""So I told him, 'There's a boat down there on the Chesapeake called a skipjack they've been using for 100 years.' "

The buyer asked for a picture; Mr. Thompson took him a photo on his next trip north. The buyer commissioned a skipjack model for his restaurant, and Mr. Thompson built it and a case to display it for $1,900.

He can't estimate how long each boat takes, but he makes between four and eight a year, he says. "If I figured out the hours, I wouldn't make a dollar an hour." But in his workshop, time and money don't seem so important. Not nearly as important as a vanishing part of Marylandhistory, painstakingly preserved in smooth yellow pine and metal fittings, carved and painted by three men who remember when the bay's bounty seemed limitless.

"A lot of history," Mr. Thompson says as he looks at a model boat. "A lot of history."

Pub Date: 3/16/96

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