The Graves Yacht Yards

by Mildred Graves Stetson

What could be more distinctly characteristic of Marblehead -- once known near and far as the Yachting Capital of the World -- than a yacht yard? The story of Graves Yacht Yards is the story of the birth and growth of one of Marblehead's oldest and most famous businesses. It's also the story of the Graves family.

A far cry from the one-horse operation begun in the late nineteenth century by my father, James E. Graves, known to all his contemporaries as Al (which was a Marblehead corruption of his middle name, Elbridge) to the familiar operation today with two full-service yards and known in yachting circles all over the world for its excellence and service. I often wonder what my Dad would say if he could come back today to see what has been accomplished. His little business has grown so far beyond anything he ever dreamed possible that I'm sure he would be very surprised and proud of what has been achieved.

Born in Marblehead on January 1, 1860, the son of Eleazer T. and Olive Perkins (Emery) Graves of Ellsworth, Maine, James received a general education in the public schools of his hometown. As a young man, he worked for a time at farming and Ester Hudson Roads, who later became his wife, was employed by the Roberts Box Shop in Marblehead as a teamster, transporting by a horse-drawn wagon the shoe boxes manufactured there to the shoe factories in nearby Lynn. Ester was the daughter of Samuel Roads, Jr., author of The History and Traditions of Marblehead. She worked in the Roberts Box Shop making the shoeboxes and that is how she met my Dad. They were married in 1895 and set up housekeeping in what had been a barn near the beach on the Graves property on Harding's Lane. My father converted the barn into a home for his new bride. A portion of the old Graves homestead remains standing today as a part of the modern apartment building owned and operated by his youngest grandson. And, as was the custom in those days, my father's parents lived with them until their deaths, both in 1896.

Graves Yacht Yards began almost by accident. Dory racing was a popular sport among many of the young people in Marblehead around the turn of the century. They were rowing races and my father, a big man and very strong, was always successful in these exciting races. Just for the fun of it, he decided to build a dory in one of the small buildings at Little Harbor near the water. This building is still standing, although it has been remodeled into a garage and small studio, and it is still in the Graves family. This dory proved to be a faster boat, and Dad found that he did even better in the races with this new design. Other competing oarsmen asked him to build dories for them, and Graves was underway. A good friend and neighbor, Bowden Crowninshield of the famous Crowninshield family living on nearby Peach's Point, became interested in these new dories and asked my father to build some for him, including a 19-footer which Mr. Crowinshield took to Germany to a race in the year 1906. It was because of Bowden's success in that race, that he became interested in helping my father to begin building larger yachts. His advice and assistance in the architectural and constructional aspects of boatbuilding was invaluable in the founding of Graves Yacht Yards.

In those early days, the boats handled by the yard were stored in the open on their cradles on the beach where several storage sheds now stand. They were covered with heavy tarpaulins for protection from the punishing winter storms. Marblehead winters in those days of innocence were vicious including the storm of February 1898, when the steamer Portland sank off Marblehead. History records the power of that storm. I remember hearing it referred to many, many times in my youth. When the storms came, their fury and and destructiveness would cause the seas to surge up over the ledges and beach of Little Harbor and pour into the low-lying areas flooding everything nearby. I can remember having our home flooded, and the only way of leaving or coming to the house was by boat, with everything awash all around.

A small railway for hauling and launching the boats had been installed near the house. In those days, the power source for operations was provided by a horse that walked around and around the drum upon which the cable was wound, and which hauled the boats. The horse was so trained that he would stop or go on the signal of a whistle produced by his trainer, Henry Cloutman. Henry was one of my father's earliest employees and the grandfather of Bob Cloutman who operated Cloutman's Boat Yard in modern times. Launching a boat, on the other hand, was a wild, splashing affair, and hauling them out had to be done on the high tide, with gravity supplying the needed energy. The stop blocks were placed beneath the wheels of the carriage on the railway to keep them from moving until all was ready. Then they were removed all together, and the boat in its cradle on the carriage would begin to slide down the railway, slowly at first and then picking up speed as it went, until it raced down the ramp, plunging into the water, sending a great and grand salt spray in all directions. Then there it was, if all went well, floating in the ocean, off its cradle which was still firmly lashed to the carriage, now underwater.

During the years, 1905 to 1910, or so, my father built the first seawalls around the yards and back-filled to provide more room for the yards and much better protection from the storms. On the first construction phase of the walls and before the wall was capped, a storm swept in and tore out most of his work, but characteristic of his indomitable spirit and persistence, he destroyed everything. My Dad pressed on, rebuilding and repairing the forms, pouring new cement and finishing the new seawall. My Dad built those walls well, and parts of those walls are still standing today, although the Great Storm of February 6-7, 1978, wrought severe damage in the entire length.

The fill we used for backfilling and increasing the yard space was provided by the Town's dump trucks bringing in their loads of refuse. There were two unexpected results from this alliance, one bad and one good. It was not long before we were nearly overrun with rats which came in with or, maybe, that followed the trucks, knowing the determination of Marblehead wharf rats. And then later, we found to our amazement that a beautiful crop of delicious mushrooms had somehow seeded from the refuse and grown profusely in the damp dark climate of the storage sheds.

Graves Yacht Yards' capabilities and facilities for building, servicing, maintaining and storing large yachts and boats were greatly expanded by the construction of the seawalls. The railway was now motor driven, and the launching of the boats was smoothly controlled. The amazing and exciting launches of the past that captivated the children of Marblehead were now a thing of the past. Now the yachts were slowly lowered by cable, carefully, gently, exactly. Large and additonal storage sheds were built on the new land inside the walls. On the opposite side of the yard, near the fishermen's shanties and near the backyards of the neighbors' houses on Beacon Street, were our shops for the painters, riggers, and machinists. The long mill shops where the boats were actually built and where heavy repairs were made stood proudly, their great doors opening outward directly onto the railway to the sea.

At the top of a long flight of stairs attached precariously to the outside of the building next to the mill was a tiny office where my mother's sister, Edith Russell (Roads) Copeland, carefully kept and guarded my father's books and records. Working at a rolltop desk with nothing even resembling a typewriter or an adding machine, she did everything by hand. She was well known to be a bookkeeper and organizer without equal. "Auntie," as all who knew her called her, was clearly a genius at her job and was largely responsible for my father's business success in those early years. Without Auntie's keen and careful watch over all financial matters and record keeping, the history of Graves Yacht Yards would surely have been lost. She was an invaluable asset, who worked quietly without fanfare.

The tide was a constant problem in Little Harbor. Nothing of any size would be handled at any time, except exactly at high tide. At low tide the deep thick growth of eel grass on the easterly side of the yard made it necessary to actually drag small boats and dories by hand into the deeper water by the end of the reef of rocks running out from the end of Brown's (or Orne's) Island. We used to refer to those rocks as the "Ring Bolt" because of a huge ring secured to the rock at the very end of them where a beacon had once been standing to mark the rocks to passing vessels. At that time, the upper end of Marblehead Harbor was also thick with eel grass, and eel fishing was great fun.

To correct this low water situation in Little Harbor, a basin was dredged from the "Ring Bolt" to the seawall on that side of the yard around 1915. This made it possible to haul and launch boats at almost any tide. At that time, also, a new railway, float and runway were built at that end of the yards, again, improving the yard's facilities and capabilities, and making it possible now to handle the largest and heaviest yachts.

Around this time, my father designed a new and more rugged towboat. He named her Selmilede. Boats are historically named after a favorite girlfriend, wife or daughter of the owner. The first Graves Yacht Yard towboat, the Edith P., was properly named after my sister. Later there was the Mildred, named after my other sister. The new boat, broke with tradition and combined the first three letters of the names of my brother, Selman, known to most as Jim, Mildred and Edith. The first Selmilede was sold to a buyer in Boston after only a few years' service, and the Selmilede II was born from the drafting board and the saws and hammers in the mill and launched in Little Harbor. Like her predecessors, she was not only the work boat for the yard, working hard every day hauling and moving customers' yachts, but she also became the treasured family boat.

Charlie Stacey was the captain of the Selmilede I knew best, and what excellent care he took of her! During the work week, she was busy doing her many jobs and some of them were really dirty, but on weekends, she was always scrubbed down clean and gussied up for the Graves family to all go off on a day's ocean jaunt or on an overnight up the Danvers River or to the sand dunes of Essex. Charlie always went along as Captain, cook and chief bottle washer. What great times we had! I remember that little towboat whenever I look at Selmilede III, a great old work horse, still in use, but hardly holding a candle to the purest little boat of all: Silmilede I. Her Graves-designed hull outlived several engine changes, and her many years of service were recognized by her being chosen to lead the parade of boats on such special Town occasions as Sail '78, a massive parade held at the beginning of the season. Her large forward deck easily accommodated several talented musicians who always provided exciting musical accompaniment to the armada of Marblehead yachts.

Each of the successive Selmiledes were rugged designs and built for heavy duty in rough seas. Their outstanding performance in ocean rescue during the worst local storms and during salvage work afterwards under the able and competent seamanship of their several captains won all of them due recognition with the Marblehead Harbormasters, and with the U.S. Coast Guard. There are few living Marbleheaders who were not well acquainted with the sight of one of these famous Selmiledes in action at one time or another over the years.

Marblehead Race Week in those days was a huge international event, but perhaps the period leading up to the actual week of racing was even more exciting for us. The bottom painting was so crucial in these races that nearly every single racer would want his boat hauled and the bottom cleaned, smoothed and polished as well as having all the rigging tuned and racing gear put into first-class condition. Nearly every racer would also want this done at the last minute, just before the race, of course. So the week before Race Week was extraordinarily busy at Graves Yacht Yards. Boats would be constantly hauled out and moved under cover as much as possible. The yards would be packed like sardines to accommodate as many boats as possible and still leave room enough for the men to get between them to work. One could easily walk from boat to boat; they were so close together, never touching the ground. Then on the last day before the beginning of Race Week, one by one they would be moved to the railway, launched and towed to their moorings, and the yard would be suddenly very empty and deserted.

During Race Week itself, everyone in the yard was alert and prepared to make emergency repairs of just about any kind, so that the racers would not have to miss a single start. The Graves craftsmen were famous in their day: Ed Goodwin, brother of Frank, the famous building mover, head of the yard crew; Cill Blackford, Henry Schofield, and Arthur Eaton, painters; Ernest Lillibridge, Sam Humphrey and Charlie Lawton, carpenters; Henry Cloutman, yard man; and Ducky Standley, tin smith. Each of these men, many from longtime Marblehead families, was a dedicated craftsman and worker who knew exactly what to do, and took pride in doing it the best it could be done. These men worked around the clock, getting the job done, and their reputations were also the reputation of Graves itself.

In the summer of 1927, a fire destroyed the mill shop completely, and in replacing it, an entirely new building, the present mill, was built at right angles to the old one. This allowed the lumber to go in one end and the finished boat to come out the other, although it was hardly as simple as that. One of the real pleasures my father had during the growth era of his business was the construction of this new mill.

During his ownership and under his management, Al Graves developed the business from the one-man operation building rowing dories to the production, maintenance, repairs and storage of boats and yachts, both sail and power, up to seventy-five feet in length. At its height, Graves employed over 30 full-time people.

In 1929, the business was officially incorporated under the firm name of James E. Graves, Inc., and continued to expand under the able direction of son James and older daughter, Edith, who took over the position of treasurer and bookkeeper from the faithful Auntie. James E. Graves struggled with poor health for several years and died in August of 1930. He had devoted his life to the family and to the family business. He had served Marblehead and the sailing and yachting community extremely by creating a boatyard which ranked among the best in the country, and that was beloved by all who knew it.

In 1933, the Graves Corporation purchased property from the Stearns & McKay Yacht Yard, another Marblehead boatyard which also started in the early 1900s. Now there were two Graves Yacht Yards: one on Front Street near the site of the first customs House and the present Philip T. Clark Landing and the original boatyard at Little Harbor, which at that time was adjacent to the charred remains of Starling Burgess's airplane factory and the old Gas House Beach, which burned to the ground on the evening of the "False Armistice" on November 7, 1918. After a few years the yard at Little Harbor was sold to Henry Basy.

During the development phase of the yard on Front Street, my brother felt that it was too bad to use the entire harbor front for business and considered building a house for himself and his family at the water's edge. While he was thinking about it, the old Glover Inn which stood across the street from the northern end of the yard was put up for sale. Jim purchased it and had it moved across Front Street, through the yard to the railway, which had been built up to ground level to support the building. Using the railway the house was moved to its present location at the harbor end of the yard. The front door of the old inn now faced the house next door. The other side of the building, now facing the harbor, became the front of the new Graves family home. Good capable Frank "Topsy" Goodwin, famous for his amazing ability to move anything, accomplished this remarkable move in the nick of time. No sooner was the old inn safely in its new position than a wild Nor'Easter tore up the harbor and destroying the railroad where the house had just been.

Something else interesting came of moving the old inn to its new location. Mrs. Roach, the resident then at 9 Goodwin's Court, the abutting property, was disturbed by rumors that it was to be converted into a kind of club for Captains and visiting yachtsmen. She feared that her privacy was to be invaded, her peace and tranquility destroyed. Without consulting the new owners, she promptly hired men to erect a spite fence on the edge of her property so that the entire view from any window of the inn facing her house was completely blocked. It became a local attraction with harbor people passing by in their boats or on the ferries pointing up to the fence and telling their passengers the story of why it was built. Mrs. Roach died soon after the fence was built. The real estate agent approached our family as possible buyers. My sister, Edith, took the opportunity, and we moved from Beacon Street into 9 Goodwin's Court. One of the first things she did was to take down the spite fence and use it to close in a corner of the spacious porches on the house for our new kitchen. The next summer, passing boat people and their passengers on the ferries saw the happy ending to the story of the spite fence.

Over the years, the name and fame of the Graves Yacht Yards spread far and wide. Such famous yachts as Minotaur, the 1960 United States Olympic victor of the 5.5 meters at the Bay of Naples in Italy; Name Sang of West Coast and Honolulu racing fame; Charles Hovery's Easterner and Boss Anderson's Nefertiti, a 12-meter candidate for the defense of the America's Cup, all bore the name of Graves of Marblehead as the builder.

During World War I, several of the Graves personnel left for service with the famous 10th Deck Division. Graves helped flying boat inventor Starling Burgess in his war defense effort by providing storage space at the Beacon Street yard for the engines of the government warplanes being built at his busy plant across Little Harbor. Also, the V-type wings for an experimental tailless Burgess-Dunne plane were manufactured at the Graves yard off Beacon Street.

In World War II, both yards were contributing to the national defense in the production of sixty-four 38-foot picket boats for the Coast Guard; forty 47-foot tugs for the Army, thirty 30-foot sea-sleds and one 36-foot and one 78-foot sea-sled for the Army Air Corps. By installing heating systems and protective ice sheathing for the hulls and by adding suitable deck houses, several private yachts were also converted for use in the Coast Guard Reserve. During those years, James E. Graves, Incorporated, was twice the recipient of the Army-Navy "E" Award for excellence in the performance of its work, awards which were celebrated by a big dinner party for employees and management at the old Adams House, attended by many local and state officials.

In 1949, Graves built uniaks, patterned after Eskimo craft, for the Army.

After the war, when once again full attention could be given to the sailing and yachting world, there came a period of building more and more racing classes. Years before World War II, class building was begun with the construction of the Triangles. Now, the extremely popular international 210s and 110s designed by Marblehead's own C. Raymond Hunt, were built and sold to owners all over the United States and as far away as Brazil, Nassau and Honolulu. Later, the one design class, Constellations, of Graves design were turned out in great numbers.

Over the years, Graves has not only participated in all of the the important boat shows in New England and in New York City, but for several years also housed local boat shows on their premises. These proved to be very popular, but had to be discontinued because of local fire laws and building codes.

A family business from the beginning, Graves Yacht Yards grew enormously in capabilities and in reputation between 1925 and 1960 under the personal care and direction of the second generation of the Graves family. I joined my brother and sister in the company around 1941, coming from the mathematics department of Ginn and Company, publishers, of Boston. As time went on, I grew into the job of helping my sister Edith with the financial end of things, and eventually took over when illness prevented her from carrying on. She died in 1960, and about that time the third generation began to come on the scene. Since then, through this new generation of Graves, we saw the development of the Fiberglass Department, the installation of the versatile traveling crane at the Beacon Street Yard, the expansion of the stock room to a fully stocked marine store called the Forepeak on Front Street, and the development of a Yachts Sale Division at the Marblehead Yacht Yard.

My brother James retired in 1965, but is still interested and actively involved in the business at times. I retired completely in 1970.

Looking back over a lifetime and reflecting upon the changes in the economy over the years, my prayer is that the Graves Yacht Yards, in the years to come, will be as they are today, among the oldest, if not the oldest, and the finest yacht yards operating on the northeast coast.