Ralph Stanley, a lifelong Mount Desert Island resident who became one of the country’s most acclaimed builders of wooden boats, died on Dec. 7 at the age of 92, according to an obituary published in the Bangor Daily News on Wednesday.
Over the course of a nearly 60-year career, Stanley built wooden boats for clients from all over the world, including lobster boats, Friendship sloops, sailboats and dories. Using time-honored boatbuilding traditions, some of which date back to colonial times, Stanley’s boatyards in Southwest Harbor built or restored more than 70 boats in total.
Born in Bar Harbor on Feb. 9, 1929, Stanley was the eldest of eight children of a lobsterman and a nurse, and came from a long line of sailors and fishermen who were among the first colonists to settle on the island in the 1760s. Growing up in Southwest Harbor, he was attracted to boats at an early age, and made toy boats out of wood as a child. He later accompanied his father on his lobster boat, and began learning the tricks of the trade watching the construction of commercial vessels on other island boatyards.
“I used to go and see what they were doing and talk with them. A lot of times it was better to watch what they were doing and not ask. You’d learn more,” Stanley told the National Endowment for the Arts in 1999. “Boatbuilders didn’t know how to tell you, you know. Stand back and watch, and you’d find out more.”
After attending Ricker College in Houlton, he worked as a ship’s hand and captain on the island. Stanley built his first boat in 1952, a 28-foot lobster boat. He never stopped. He used Maine woods like oak, pine and white cedar, and designed his boats by either drawing up plans on paper, or carving scaled-down wooden models.
Though boatbuilding technology has changed a lot since he first learned his trade in the 1940s, Stanley said that he preferred building wooden boats to fiberglass ones, because each wooden boat is unique, and each successive one that he finished challenged him to refine the next.
“Building wooden boats is like climbing a still-growing tree where you never get to the top,” he said. “I keep finding new ways of doing things and new things to do. You can always improve; you’re always looking to improve.”
As one of the few remaining master wooden boat builders in the country, he was recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1999 as a National Heritage Fellow. He was also awarded the Bancroft Award from the Friendship Sloop Society, the Sunbeam Award from Maine Seacoast Mission and the Don Turner Award from the USS Constitution Museum in Boston. In 2002, then-Gov. Angus King named him Shipwright Laureate of Maine, and in 2004, then-Gov. John Baldacci proclaimed June 25 as Ralph Stanley Day. He was on the board of directors for the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport and the Southwest Harbor Public Library.
His son Richard also became a wooden boat builder and worked with his father. After their Southwest Harbor boatyard closed, Richard leased space in Manset to continue building.
Ralph Stanley’s wife of 65 years, Marion, who survives him, was bookkeeper at the boatyard for many years. He is also survived by his four children, Nadine, Marjorie, Richard and Edward, and their spouses and children.
After he retired, Stanley turned his focus to sailing, building fiddles and playing bluegrass — with a name identical to a bluegrass icon, it only made sense, and he could be found at bluegrass jams all over eastern Maine, as well as playing with his band, the Country Strummers. He also focused on his love of maritime history and genealogy, even publishing a book about his family history in 2017.
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. January 6, 2022, at the United Church of Christ in Southwest Harbor.