Ralph Stanley at the helm of one of his vessels. “Ralph Stanley: An Eye for Wood,” a Jeff Dobbs Productions film about the life of the iconic islander, premiered at the Southwest Harbor Public Library last weekend. FILE PHOTO

Stanley film latest to profile Maine icons

“Ralph Stanley: An Eye for Wood,” the latest documentary from Jeff Dobbs Productions, had its premiere Saturday at the Southwest Harbor Public Library.

The film gives an extensive look into the life of the Southwest Harbor boatbuilder, musician and historian through archival photographs and interviews with Stanley, his friends, family and others.

The film is the fifth produced under the Jefferson Davis Grant Foundation, a nonprofit organization with the mission to produce films of historical interest that focus on Maine. Jeff Dobbs is the president of the foundation. The films, which include profiles of Margaret Chase Smith and L.L. Bean, are made by Dobbs’ production company.

Choosing Stanley as the subject of a documentary seemed natural. The octogenarian is widely known for his craftsmanship and has been dubbed one of the country’s “National Treasures.” People like Stanley are “a dying breed,” Dobbs noted, and many of those who recognize that fact encouraged him to make the film.

“A lot of people wanted us to do it. So we did it,” he said.

The film was written by Mount Desert resident Gunnar Hansen. Local musician Bob Bowman contributed the soundtrack, and the narrator is former state senator and storyteller Dennis Damon. Damon, who grew up on Mount Desert Island in a fishing family, narrates the film in a folksy and genuine manner.

“I wanted to have a voice that was a Maine accent and understandable,” Dobbs said of Damon’s narration.

The film explores early Stanley family history – they first settled on the Cranberry Isles in 1755 – giving the viewer a look into the background and influences on Stanley as a young man. It seems Stanley was always interested in boats and began drawing them at an early age. He also explored the hulks of boats that had been scuttled on the local shore. This, he says in the film, helped him understand how boats were constructed. In high school, he built his first boat, a 15-foot dory.

At age 21, he built a 21-foot lobster boat. The materials cost $150. There was no formal apprenticeship in boatbuilding for Stanley; he learned what he could by trial and error and watching others.

“People gave me a lot of advice,” Stanley notes in the film. “I learned a lot about how things were done.”

Stanley is probably best-known for building wooden Friendship sloops. The shapely and easily handled sailboats were used as lobster boats during the early 1900s. Stanley is among the boat builders who revived this traditional design for pleasure boaters. In the film, Jon Wilson, publisher of “WoodenBoat” magazine, describes Stanley as a “keen observer” of how boats behave in the water. These observations led to changes Stanley would make to improve the ease of handling his boats.

“Ralph Stanley is the epitome of relaxation in a boat,” Wilson states.

According to the film, Stanley, who retired from boatbuilding a few years ago, built more that 70 boats, the largest being 44 feet long. Although he received considerable recognition for his Friendship sloops, he says it’s the workboats that he is most proud of building.

Stanley’s other passions, music and history, also are discussed in the film. In 1953, Stanley decided he wanted to play the fiddle, so he just went ahead and made one in his shop instead of buying an instrument. Playing old-time folk tunes, Stanley and his fiddle have been a near-constant presence on local stages.

Dobbs said he is setting up other screenings of the movie, but no dates have been scheduled. He is, however, still trying to raise money to pay for making the film, which had a budget of around $135,000. Right now, he said, he is about $20,000 short and still looking for donations. Donations can be made online at www.jeffersondavisgrant.org.

Dobbs is working on a new film about the early history of Acadia National Park called “Acadia Forebears: The Birth of Acadia National Park.” And he’s basking in the glow of the comments he received Saturday at the premiere.

“After you’re done, and you see how much people like the film, you kind of forget how much money you didn’t make,” Dobbs said.

Mark Good

Mark Good

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Mark Good

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