Exhibit on LI boatyards details tradition
It's possible to overlook Paul Ketcham Jr.'s historic boatyard in Amityville, since it's a small one-man operation based in a house among modern waterfront homes.
But the Paul Ketcham Boatyard could one day go from being hard to find to just gone.
Ketcham has been working out of the family home since 1944, building and repairing wooden boats at the yard begun by his father, Paul Sr. Now, the old-school craftsman, who still relies on tools handmade by his father, is 77, with one knee replacement behind him and another on the horizon. Some of the flood damage from superstorm Sandy remains unrepaired. The business has changed, with limited demand for work on wooden boats. And there is no one interested in taking over.
Unless a local government or historical group buys the property to preserve it as a museum, Ketcham expects the old family home and boatyard to be replaced by a couple of new houses in the not-too-distant future.
Alerting the public that historic boatyards like Ketcham's still remain on Long Island despite intense development pressure and changes in the industry, while also trying to preserve them, is the goal of a new exhibit running July 1 to Sept. 2.
"From Shore to Shore: Boat Builders of Westchester and Long Island" at the Port Jefferson Village Center, is the work of the nonprofit history group Long Island Traditions.
"We're trying to preserve the traditions of boatbuilding and we're trying to educate people about the working waterfront and get more involved in public policy to preserve that working waterfront," said the group's executive director, Nancy Solomon.
"Development is the big pressure," she added. "You have commercial property tax rates that are far beyond what most of the boatyards can afford. We're still in a recession, and people who are still buying boats mistakenly believe that a fiberglass boat is cheaper, but traditional wooden boats last far longer."
There has been a steady erosion in the number of boatyards as Long Island has blossomed into suburbia since World War II. But about two dozen historic boatyards remain, some still building and repairing vessels while others now just fix them.
Some, like the Ketcham yard, are on the way out because there is no one to take over from an aging artisan; or a shortage of materials or work is to blame, while others are adapting to stay in business in some fashion.
Paul Ketcham Boatyard
Ketcham runs a boatyard because his father, Paul Sr., decided to buy land near the bay in Amityville in 1926. At the time, there was no canal running behind the property on Newpoint Place.
"My father paid $10 for a dredge for a half a day of digging to create the canal," Ketcham said. "All the sand for the concrete for this house came out of the canal." With help from his own father, who was a contractor, Ketcham Sr. built a garage and lived there with his wife while he was building the house, moving into the new home in 1928.
"He was a carpenter and he couldn't get any work during the Depression, and a fellow down the end of the block was building a 40-footer, and he needed help, so my father started in," Ketcham said. "From then on, he was a boat builder." Born upstairs in a stucco house with a first floor that was entirely taken up by boatbuilding bays, Ketcham learned the trade naturally.
Ketcham Sr. acquired old rails from the Richmond Avenue trolley in Amityville to build his marine railway to pull boats out of the water and into the shop.
Someone brought a single-sail skiff about 26 feet long around from Seaford and "my father changed the design and we built 75 to 80 of those" boats, aptly named Seaford Skiffs.
But, he added, "we built all kinds of boats," including a flatbottom garvey powerboat for a clammer. "I sat in it, and I said 'Boy, it would be nice with a little cabin.' So I built one. "
Ketcham bought out his father more than 20 years ago, when his father got too old to continue the business. He continues to work mostly on wooden boats, but now it's primarily repairs. He used to supplement his income with some fiberglass repair work "but no more. I don't like the stink of it."
While he owns a variety of power saws and other modern equipment -- much of it still damaged by immersion in chest-high Sandy floodwaters -- Ketcham still uses a lot of antique tools, including an ancient adze used for shaping logs, a handsome set of oversize chisels his father acquired in Manhattan during the Depression and planes handmade by his father to shape masts and other rounded wood. "If you couldn't buy it, you made it," he said.
As is currently the case, Ketcham has spent most of his career since buying the yard working solo. "I've had a couple of college kids working for me in the summertime," he said. But now "it's too late" to find someone to take over the business. "Most of my grandkids are into computers. I tried to get them to come down and try some woodworking, but they never had any interest in it at all."
Even if he could find a buyer, Ketcham added, "Even my suppliers don't have materials for wood boats anymore. Everybody wants [fiber]glass boats; they don't want wooden boats."
He once worked 60 to 70 hours a week, building Seaford Skiffs that he sold 25 years ago for $2,000. Today, that boat would sell for about $9,000. "The money doesn't mean anything," Ketcham said. "I just enjoy the working."
So while Ketcham says "like my whole family, I've got sawdust in my veins," between his age and his knees, he said, "I can't do the work I used to."
So he's eyeing retirement and selling the property after donating some of the tools to friends and a museum. But he'll keep his father's chisels as a reminder that "it was a good life working here."
Frank M. Weeks Yacht Yard
The Weeks family has lived or worked along the Patchogue River in Patchogue since the early 1700s and still owns one of the oldest family-run boatyards in the country.
As a boy, Frank M. Weeks worked as an apprentice for Martinus Smith, who owned and operated a shipyard that is now part of the Weeks' property. In 1898, when he was about 15, Weeks built and sold his first boat -- a small sailing catboat he called Onion because he paid for the supplies by selling his homegrown onions. He bought the yard upon Smith's death, purchasing the first part of the property in 1917 and the remainder in 1928.
The business is housed in a group of sheet metal buildings on the river's west bank that could be mistaken for a maritime museum.
All of the repair sheds still have dirt floors.
The machine shop, built before 1920, looks like a museum exhibit -- in fact, Mystic Seaport Museum in Stonington, Conn., has tried to acquire it over the years. It's not surprising, considering leather belts running over the gears still drive the lathes, drills and other machinery that share the space with modern devices, even though the belts have been closed in cages since the 1970s to meet federal labor regulations.
The corrugated sheet metal boatbuilding and repair sheds, which company president Kevin Weeks, Frank's grandson and the only family member still working there full-time, calls "the barns," were built in the early 1900s. Skylights were added in the 1980s so work could be done with natural light on cloudy afternoons.
"There's no electrical lighting in here whatsoever," Weeks said.
The oldest building is the wooden "White Shop" built in the late 1800s by Martinus Smith. In 1965, it was moved away from the water to the rear of the property, where it is used for boat storage and is awaiting restoration or demolition after the family installed reinforcing cables to keep it from collapsing. The exterior white paint for which the building was named is mostly gone, as is some roofing peeled off by superstorm Sandy.
"My grandfather really thought of himself as a boat builder and not a guy who ran a boatyard," Weeks said. So he was not happy when the next generation built a bulkhead and docks and added a traveling lift to replace the end of the old marine railway leading down into the river for moving boats into the sheds.
But he would probably be pleased that the yard still uses old blocks and tackle to move boats on old cradles around the sheds.
The yard no longer builds wood boats but still occasionally makes small fiberglass sailboats and iceboats. Most of the work is now repairs.
"We've become part of the Patchogue skyline," Weeks said. "People who don't know anything about boats know that as you go up the river, you see the big Frank M. Weeks Yacht Yard boatbuilding barn. We try to keep the classic look of the place."
Davison's Boat Yard
The 3-acre East Rockaway yard was founded in 1932 by Russell Davison Sr., who lived on a barge docked out back until three years later, when he moved it onto the land, jacked it up and added a first floor under it. That building still houses offices, the sales counter and the parts department.
In the early years, Davison built small wood skiffs for the Coast Guard and lifeguards as well as dinghies for yacht-owning customers. A tin-walled repair shed containing the original wood shop, the oldest building on the property, is still in use. Current owner Dan Schmidt has rented it for two decades to Sandpiper Marine, a marine repair carpentry shop.
Davison's three children bought the business in 1955. Schmitt worked for them starting in the 1970s as a teenager before he could drive and bought the property in 1992.
The yard -- and Schmidt -- worked on bandleader Guy Lombardo's three motor yachts named Tempo when half the business was maintaining wooden boats.
The repair business expanded over the years to include outboard motor and sterndrive sales, and the staff peaked at 40.
"We still have some wood customers," Schmidt said. "But little by little, the business has changed from boatbuilding to fiberglass and mechanical repairs."
While there is no boatbuilding anymore, the company does finish hulls purchased from a manufacturer during slow periods. The workforce has shrunk to five full-timers augmented by specialized contract workers.
Superstorm Sandy sank a lot of boats inside the sheds for storage or repairs and damaged much of the yard equipment and inventory, with repairs still ongoing.
But despite the storm and development pressure, "We're going to stay in business," Schmidt said, "even if we had to change the location" if a developer makes an offer for the land that's too good to refuse.
There has been a boatyard on the property on Stirling Creek in Greenport since John Wesley Ketcham -- no relation to Paul Ketcham Jr. -- began operating there by 1907.
In 1934, Ketcham sold the business to Charles L. Hanff, whose two sons, Bill and Walter, continued the operation until selling it 14 years ago to John Costello and his late brother, George.
At the time, developers were building condominiums around Greenport and offering big bucks for waterfront land.
"There were some offers for quite a bit more money and they sold it to us" because he and his brother promised it would remain a maritime operation, said John Costello, who also owns Costello Marine Contracting, which builds docks and barges.
Costello has worked hard to keep it maritime and still pay his bills. Besides building barges on the antique marine railway, for more than five years he has rented the old Hanff wood shop to Donn Costanzo, owner of Wooden Boat Works, which repairs old wooden craft and builds replicas of them in a shed where an array of old wood nautical blocks, or pulleys, hang from the rafters and sawdust forms drifts on the floor around a giant bandsaw and planing machine in the middle of the space.
Costello rents the adjacent space to marine artist Cindy Pease Roe, who paints historic boatyards and boating scenes and makes sculptures out of plastic trash that washes up on local beaches.
The boatbuilding sheds and many of the tools around the yard date back to the Hanff era. And the building that contains a marine railway leading up from the creek dates back to Ketcham.
The old Hanff wood shop building with its unpainted plank walls dating to 1935 looks like a movie set out of "Jaws." It is awash with collectibles and curiosities, including an outboard motor turned into a lamp with a shade made out of seashells, antique flags, duck decoys and shipbuilding tools mounted on the walls. Hanging from the rafters is a large model of a surf rescue boat once built in Greenport. A bar made from recycled antique planks and used for charity fundraisers overlooks the water.
Just recently, a German film company filmed a made-for-TV movie at the boatyard.
"I love working here," Costello said. "We're preserving the heritage for the next generation."