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Place and people in time.

As I write this first column relating to environment, vernacular architecture, and maritime culture, it is a very hot and humid July day here on Long Island. Across the street from our office on Manhasset Bay harbor are several boatyards and yacht clubs, which have had a long and complicated cultural history. Before English and Dutch settlers came to this area, indigenous peoples harvested clams, oysters, scallops, blue fish, striped bass, and other shellfish and finfish species. They helped teach the Europeans how to harvest these gifts from the sea, using modest craft made from local trees.

Beginning in the 1800s, new companies created shoreline enterprises to take advantage of the fish and provide commercial services to the growing river transportation industry servicing New York and New England. Whaling ports, such as Cold Spring Harbor, welcomed boat builders, while Patchogue encouraged ferry and steamboat companies to build and maintain their ships in the protected harbor. With the development of the Long Island Railroad, a new recreational maritime industry emerged, transporting well-heeled New Yorkers, including Teddy Roosevelt and Cornelius Vanderbilt, to marshland hotels for hunting adventures. They financed their own private fleets, housing them at their new waterfront estates, where they lived alongside baymen, boat builders, and other "bay rats." It was not long before a variety of boatyards evolved, each reflecting the personality and social class of its patrons. Baymen kept and worked on their boats along the streams and rivers, while yachtsmen trusted their crafts to yard managers. One such place is South Bay Boat Repair in Patchogue.

The yard was originally founded around 1892 as the Bishop Boatyard by George Bishop, a ship's carpenter. Bishop built a variety of boats, ranging from warships to oyster steamers, commercial fishing boats, rowboats, skiffs, and cruise ships. The boatyard built a boat for John Doxsee of the Deep Sea Fish Company in Islip, used for harvesting fish from ocean trap nets; a fifty-foot scow for Captain Forrest Burr of Oakdale; and a fifty-three-foot oyster steamer, the Standard, for the Westerbeke Brothers' oyster company. During Prohibition, the yard was a commonly used site for shipping illegal liquor, as were other yards on Long Island.


The yard built several warships for the U.S. Navy during World War II, along with recreational sailboats. After the war commercial fishing boats, including dragger and tong boats, were built at the yard. In 1947 Bishop sold the yard to Eddie Wayne and boat builder Stanley Grodeski. Wayne worked on Blue Point Oyster Company boats, Davis Park Ferry boats, Jones Beach scenery barges, and dragger boats. During the 1960s, the yard built several dozen fourteen-foot rowboats for the State Park Commission that were rented to park patrons. Edward's son George purchased the yard in 1973, selling it in 1979. The current owner is Art Volkman.

The yard continues to specialize in repairing wooden craft, due to the dedication of Charlie Balsamo, who has worked at the yard since 1958. Beginning in the 1970s, most yards stopped building wooden boats, as fiberglass boats became popular. On Long Island, however, there is a marked tradition of using contemporary and historic wooden craft. The yard works closely with owners, advising and supplying hard-to-find historic materials. Among its customers are local baymen, such as Eddie Nagle, who worked on the bunker fishing boats in Greenport and also clammed in Great South Bay; wooden boat enthusiasts; and owners of pleasure and cruise ships. According to patrons, "Charlie could always do whatever you needed done. Charlie is the best in the business. Charlie always took the time out to explain things."

Sadly, in 2009 the current owner removed the historic marine railway, which transported heavy wooden boats into the "barn" where Charlie worked on the craft, to make room for a marina. While Balsamo continues to guide boat owners, this has meant that larger boats can no longer be accommodated. It also means that the future of the yard is in doubt, as craftsmen like Charlie become an endangered species. Yet this yard is a survivor--many other historic boatyards have been replaced by condominiums, restaurants, and marinas.

In an effort to raise awareness of these cultural sites, we invite you to write us about your favorite boatyard, as we prepare an exhibit for 2011. Happy yard hunting!

Nancy Solomon is executive director of Long Island Traditions, located in Port Washington, New York. She can be reached at (516) 767-8803 or
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Author:Solomon, Nancy
Publication:Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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