by LYDIA BROWN
In 1888, James O. Brown, age 23, rented a small fish house on the Fox Island Thoroughfare and began building boats. Dr. Charles Weld, a wealthy Bostonian and early North Haven summer resident, who had urged Brown to go into the boatbuilding business, soon commissioned him to build North Haven dinghies. The dinghies soon became popular among summer residents who used them for sailing races. In his lifetime, James O. Brown would build 70 of the historic racing dinghies.
In 1895, the shop Brown rented caught fire. Soon after, he built a new shop just westward along the Thoroughfare shore and near the home he shared with his wife, Flora. As Brown’s business continued to grow, Dr. Weld encouraged him to move into a larger space. When the nearby W. K. Lewis Brothers lobster and clam cannery closed in 1897, Dr. Weld purchased the building and outfitted it with machinery. Built in 1855, the former cannery building provided ample space for Brown’s thriving business. Brown established a “lease to own” contract with Dr. Weld and began working in the newly converted boatshop.
A local newspaper reported in May 1901, “J. O. Brown has sixteen men in his employ and is working on quite a number of racing boats.” When Dr. Weld designed a new class of catboat, Brown and his crew spent the winter of 1902 to 1903 building 18 catboats. Over the years, “J.O.” and his crew built dinghies, knockabouts, dories, peapods, and fishing boats. The list also included North Haven’s first motorboat, 14 feet long with a 1-½ horsepower gasoline engine, built for summer resident, Tucker Daland in 1902.
In 1926, James asked his son Foy to join the business, and hence the name, J.O. Brown and Son. Only a year later, James died at age 61. His son Foy continued to run the business, maintaining as many as 70 boats in the yard, even as the Great Depression limited new boat construction. During the winter of 1938 to 1939, Foy built a 42-foot covered lobster boat that he named J.O., in honor of his father. Unexpectedly, the boat became a memorial to Foy as well when he died suddenly in 1940 at age 51. Foy’s son, James went on to captain the J.O. as he transported passengers and freight across Penobscot Bay for over twenty years.
After Foy’s death, the family business went to the following generation, his son, James “Jim” and daughter, Ivaloo. At age 23, Jim was left to manage a crew of men years older than he, not an easy task he would later admit. When Jim left the island to serve in the Navy during World War II, the shop temporarily closed. His sister, Ivaloo and long time employee, Carl Bunker, opened the shop again, when Carl finished his wartime work in mainland shipyards. Jim returned from service in 1944, swearing to never leave home again. Even as he gradually turned it over to the fourth generation of Browns, Jim remained a part of daily life at the boatyard until his death in 2008 at age 91. He once said, “It’s all I ever wanted to do. All I really knew how to do, actually.”
Members of the fourth generation, Jims’ sons, Foy and Jimmy, and daughter, Kim and Ivaloo’s daughter, Linda continue to manage the shop today. Three members of the fifth generation also work at the shop, Foy’s son Foy E, Jimmy’s daughter Rachael and Kim’s son, Adam. While they utilize the modern machinery of any boatyard, the family continues to use traditional tools and the over 150 year-old shop building that was used by the business founder James O. Brown. The sixth generation of Brown descendants, who range in age from infants to teenagers, visit the shop daily. In 2013, the family business will mark its 125th anniversary of building boats.
Commercial Fisheries News, “J.O. Brown and Son, boat builder: Celebrating 100 years of family tradition”, Bill Sargent, September 1988.
Our Island Town, Lillie S. Bousfield, editor, Bar Harbor Times Publishing Company, 1940.
North Haven News, volume 7, issue 8, August 1988.
North Haven Summers, Eleanor Motley Richardson, Courier Companies, Westford, MA, 1992.