Her Island History: 100 Years of Tenacious Island Women

Alberta Willey shares stories from her family legacy of lighthouse keeping, and from her career making boat upholstery for different boat building companies.

Oral History Transcription:

Alberta Willey 

Interviewed by Raney Bench

Southwest Harbor

January 20, 2020

AW: Most of my family started out … this is my great-great-grandmother and grandfather. In that era, they were mostly caretakers for cottages. He [was a] caretaker and captain for the Worthings on Greenings Island. After he passed away, my grandfather took over, and after grandpa didn’t do it anymore, my father took over. And then they were also very much into…


RB: This picture you’re showing, so it’s 1884? Was that their marriage license?


AW: Yeah.


RB: Oh, 1862, 1889. Is this their marriage license?


AW: They had to have this for identification before they could be on lighthouses. My great-uncle Heber and great-aunt Ioner were on Bear Island Light, Egg Rock, and also dad was practically brought up on those lighthouses. Uncle Heber had to pay a dollar a month so that his wife could stay on there. Tom has got the book of all of their expenses, and I’m sure that he would let you scan it if you want. I think a month’s groceries was, like, a penny, something like that. It was really interesting.


This’ll give you an idea of my dad’s childhood, and why I’m upset about lighthouses becoming automated, because that was their life, on the lighthouses. This was on Egg Rock.


RB: What year would that have been?


AW: Dad would be a hundred and three if he was living now, and he was born in 1916. So, it would have probably been around 1917 in that [photo]. He and Mom were born the same year. In fact they got married on Cranberry Island, my grandfather read about it in the paper a week later, and wasn’t he hopping! And that’s my dad. Tom has the pen that’s on his jodhpurs. This is pretty much the dress in that era.


This was my aunt Jenny, who was a schoolteacher on Cranberry. And this was my dad’s mom, who died when she was in her early 30’s. Dad was nine years old, and his sister was nine months. He had the measles and chicken pox at the same time, and they took old Doc Neil, who lived in the little house on the same side as the Kingsleigh Inn, and they took him down in a skidder, by Hawses’, and that was in 1923. Where she had both chicken pox and measles, she was pretty ill, and she didn’t survive.


This is her when she was a baby, you can see the intricate on the chairs. That was in 1895. So lighthousekeepers are pretty much a legacy for my family.


RB: I didn’t realize that you had that connection with the lighthouses.


AW: And this is uncle Heber and aunt Ioner. The ones who actually — they brought up my father and his sister, after their mother passed away. That’s how they ended up on all the lighthouses.


And this is a schoolhouse, which I got the opportunity to go in and play [in], which my dad went to school in.


RB: On Great Cranberry?


AW: Yup.


RB: Is it still there?


AW: Yes. And now they’ve got it hooked up to the WiFi internet and all that stuff. In fact, Wendell Oakwell did that, I found out, when he was fixing my miserable computer. Anyway, here Dad is again. This is uncle Lois and Heber, who were in their garb. I think this is Lois’s father, I’m not sure.


RB: And Tom has a hat from this era, yes?


AW: Yes. And I also have my great-grandfather Albion’s cufflinks, and I had the hat, and I have the book of records that uncle Heber kept. They had to keep a record of everything on that island, which they took and left everything else. Tom has that.


RB: This picture is so funny!


AW: I love that picture, there, because he’s like, “I am the king!”


RB: Was his name Roger… Stanley?


AW: Yeah. And uncle Heber’s and Ioner’s was Sawyer. They had no children of their own, so they took in Dad and his sister. And this is my grandfather, and Dad’s mom, and my sister looks just exactly like her.


This is my mom and dad. This was just before Dad passed away. I thought he was old, but y’know, 59 when you’re 75 is not that old. Mom lived to be 83. ‘Cussed him out every day for leaving her. [Laughs.]


So a little bit about Mary and I growing up. We grew up in Southwest Harbor my first two years, after being born, and then we moved to Bernard, to live with Iona, ‘cause she was getting on in years and my mom also took care of my great-grandmother, who died at 91. That was in the 1950s. And the one thing that was instilled in me and my sister — Dad was a lobsterfisherman the first thing he got out of the service — the one thing that we were made to do was accept responsibility for what we did. I was a Holy Christer, it was very hard for them to handle me. Dad always said I was the last bomb in the war. [Laughs.]


But anyway, so, I started work to help earn money for schoolclothes and things when I was ten years old.


RB: What did you do?


AW: I babysat. Sardine factory was really a big thing, and my sister worked in the Underwood factory over in Bass Harbor. Every time I handled the fish, I threw up, so that wasn’t my calling! [Laughs.] So, I babysat until I was fourteen, and I got a permit from the school. Then, I was picking out crabmeat at Richard’s Crabmeat Factory in Bass Harbor. I could handle that. But not a fish.


RB: Where on the harbor was the factory?


AW: You know where the condos are, over — the brick condos in Bass Harbor? That was Underwood’s Sardine Factory. And then just beside it, to the right, was Morris Richards’ Crabmeat Shop. That’s where I worked. I also worked at Lattie Cove, I don’t know if you’re familiar with that… it’s in Tremont… as a waitress. That was not my calling whatsoever. [Laughs.] And also when I wanted to earn extra money, I would pick a project, and I sold teddy bears all through high school for five dollars apiece.


RB: Did you make them?


AW: Yep. I have no idea how many I made, but if I wanted some money, I sat in the sewing room and sewed, and then would go to high school and sell teddy bears. The lady who was my godmother was actually — I had more in common with her than I did with my mom. Her name was Mildred Jones. We met them… her husband broke the code, during wartime, down at Seawall. Do you know where the Ranger’s station is? Right across the road, there was a naval station. And uncle Howell actually helped break the code of the enemy. Then, I went on to Mary Shirley, and took in sewing. Used to make bridesmaids dresses for five dollars apiece. [Laughs.] And then I went to Hinckley’s, after I was married, and was supervisor of the sewing department down there for about eleven years. Then I opened my own down by the old liquor store across from the library [in Southwest Harbor]. And then, I got kind of burnt out, so I went to work in the emergency room for less stress. [Laughs.]


RB: That seems ironic.


AW: Well, it was somebody else’s responsibility. I was the employee at that time. I stayed there for about nine years, and then I ended up sewing again. I had the sewing room down cellar, and people would say, “Y’know I’ve got this little project,” and then I was back in it again.


RB: Who taught you how to sew?


AW: Aunt Mildred, my godmother. In fact, she talked Mom into having me, ‘cause she didn’t want Mary brought up alone. And I’ve been a thorn in my sister’s butt ever since. [Laughs.] So, then I had the boys, and I was able to work at home for quite a while, so I didn’t have to leave them. Once they were in school, that’s when I started working out of the house, which was good. Tom was very ill for the first three years, and I know he doesn’t appreciate me saying that a lot of the times, but it was getting so if he even had a hangnail I’d panic. He was just very ill. And we found out it was allergies. We worked through that, and as you know he’s turned out to be a fine young man.


RB: Yes he has!


AW: Yes he has. He is very, very kind; he’s very caring. I can’t say enough about him. Anyway. This is what I looked like at the beginning of my life. That’s me! You can see Mary, so pleased to have a picture with me. [Laughs.] [That was taken at] Bill Ballard’s. You know Bill Ballard? A lot of his pictures are in the library. He used to take and do personal portraits. That would have been… I was born in ‘44, so that was probably ‘45. I was born in April. And Mary would have been five years older than I was.


This is the house I grew up in, over in Bernard — looks nothing like that now. This is my grandmother and grandfather and my mother and her siblings, at their 50th wedding anniversary. They had oxen. One set was Off and Going, and the other one was On and Off. [Laughs.] They had that, you know where Ann’s point is? He owned all that. He had cows, and I can remember going and having some of that real fresh milk, and then — in fact, Mary and I were talking about [that] this morning; my grandmother would make cream cake. Oh my god, it was to die for. I’d give anything to have one right now. So, they… and as they grew up and came back from the service, all five children were living, and they all lived within a mile of their parents, which is very unusual. My grandfather passed away first, and he kept telling the doctor, who was Dr. Richard Fields, he said: “I’ve told somebody to come to you, because you’ll treat us at home, and you’ll make us 100% well.” He and the doctor had a big talk about that, because nobody wanted to go to the hospital.


This is my grandmother. He passed away first, and three months later, she followed. They broke their watches, they struggled and struggled to get down through the walks. And he was an honorary man. He had been buried. She, when they dug her grave, was all sand. She was one of the gentle souls.


There’s the oxen there. I don’t know which one is On and Off, or Stop and Go. In fact, Mary has one of the oxen collars. It’s hanging over the barn where Gump used to keep the animals and everything. This was a lot of fun doing this. I get the willies, also — there was a lot of, um, stone masons, and their apprentices. That’s Mary. She was born in Manset. That’s me, and I was born in Ellsworth Hospital. I was Mom’s birth control, because it was a very bad birth. This is my grandfather’s boat. As you’re going into Bernard, before you turn the corner to go there… this is a house, and I think it’s been torn down now, but that’s where my great-aunt lived, and I was named for her. I also found out, doing this, that the original name for Alberta was Albertine. I found out about that. This is aunt Iona, my grandmother, and uncle Haber. I was researching a lot of their sayings [in the library], and I was in hysterics. Some of their sayings… “Uncle Lois is not doing well today, he’s feeling below the sod,” or something like that, and he died the next day. Or somebody had consumption, y’know, all of that stuff.


I got into the cottage work, sewing and stuff, because of my father. When he left lobstering — and there’s not too many old cottages that I didn’t end up doing some kind of upholstery, draperies, things like that. It all started with Dad. He had seventeen cottages in all, before he passed away. They were all Locust Point. I’d be there helping Mom clean, or I’d be doing some kind of a craft thing, draperies or upholstery for them.


This picture here is the lady that talked my mom into having me. And he’s the one who helped break the code.


In fact, she [Mildred] took me, when I was ten years old, down on Cranberry Island. They had bought a house from aunt Jenny and aunt Gertrude, who was my great-uncle’s [wife?]. She took me up in the back room. And we spent the whole summer there. She was a tailor, and a seamstress, and the first thing we did was throw the instructions away on a pattern. “Look at the picture.” And she showed me how to do it.


I did not realize, when I was younger, until I had Scott, that I was dyslexic. And I could think inside-out and all of that? She had picked up on this when I had spent some time with her.


RB: That’s why she had you throw the pattern away?


AW: She would look at something and then figure out the size. Which was a great gift. I was able to pick up on it; once I made something for somebody, I always remembered what I did. I don’t know why, but they could just hand me a pattern with a picture, and then I would take and make all the modifications. They’d put it on, and it fit. I can’t explain it. When Diane got married, she showed me a picture of a wedding dress, and it took five pictures to put it all together. I was very fortunate, because during that time, if you didn’t have a god-given talent, and also being willing to work outside of your comfort zones, you just didn’t have any money. It was very hard.


RB: Was it poverty, I mean, were there poor living conditions on the backside?

AW: There was a lot of poverty and also a lot of alcohol abuse; a lot of — in fact, my mom and dad sort of adopted a couple of families because they weren’t really as well-off as we were, and we were lucky if we got through March, during the winter. Because Dad wasn’t lobstering so often. And Mom was also taking in laundry; that, I never would do.


RB: So you had to work throughout the season to save enough money to get through those winter months, and not everyone was doing that?


AW: When Shirley and I were first married, we worked our buns off for the first six months so that we could get through the winter months. Sometimes it was a big struggle. And Mom and Dad, they’d just get ahead, and then the engine would act up in the boat. Mom hated that boat! But when Dad sold it, she was the one that cried. [Laughs.]


But anyway. Like I said, Mom and Dad took a couple families under their wing, and made sure that they had something to eat — there wasn’t a lot — and made sure that they had shoes on their feet. Every Christmas, and every one of their birthdays — there was five in the family — Mom would make sure that they had something. And their father was a real alcoholic, and it was really bad.


This is my mother, Mary, and I. That’s one of my favorite pictures.


RB: Scott looks exactly like Scott. Tom doesn’t look like Tom yet.


AW: He never changed. Looks older, but never changed. In fact, Tom looked exactly like his father’s baby pictures and toddler pictures, but as he got older, all I could see was my dad.


This will give you an idea of the boats that they used at that time, for Cat-B and Captain. Something else I had, right after Dad died, I had a woman show up at my home. She met Shirley over at Northeast town dock, went up to him, and wanted to know if he knew a Roger Stanley, which was my dad. She was curator of the Worthing Museum in New Mexico. So, when she found out Dad died, she came to me, wanting to know if I would do exactly what you’re doing now. She left me with a tape recorder, camera, a few names she had — and I found a lot more on my own — and wanted to know about the Worthings here, and their life here. Mom happened to work for them. Anyway, I did that, and I put big notes, photo album, and everything in the safe, and completely forgot about it. Several years later, I took it out, and found the address and the phone number for the museum. It was a different curator that I was talking to, and she said, we’ve never been able to find that album, and I said, well, it’s in my safe! I made arrangements to send it back for them, and asked how much she wanted me to insure it for, and she said seven thousand dollars. So I was sitting on a hot number. [Laughs.]


I had a lot of fun doing it. We’d just get into Brittany, and some of Mom’s family…. I did the Willeys all in a different book. Ralph Stanley was a cousin to my dad. Of course, you know, boat building and all that. And I guess that’s about it!


RB: Especially because you’ve been on the island for generations, and primarily on the quieter side of the island… as a woman, did it always feel like women worked? You were raised in a time period where women would have just been coming out of the home and into the workforce.


AW: At the time that I was growing up, the women were just plodding along. And I can remember an interview I had for Hinkley’s, with one of their clients, and I met them. I had on a summer dress, and whatever, and they blew me off. So I made arrangements to meet with them again, and I went in suit, tie, and I was very well-accepted. And I thought, this is bullshit! [Laughs.] So I was steaming when I got home, and Shirley said, “I think you’re just making something out of nothing,” and I said, “No, I’m not.” I was greeted that way at several different places that I went to, especially on yachts and things.


RB: If you dressed as a woman, you felt that you were —


AW: I wasn’t equal. Yeah. As you know, I’m so bashful that I never said anything. [Laughs.]


RB: And what kind of changes did you see over time, as you were starting to open businesses, and moving through different careers?


AW: I’m finding that there’s more women in the medical part of things, and I’m finding that there’s more women opening small businesses or taking over, which — if you were in a family business it was usually the son or a relative male who would take over the business. But that’s not the way it is now. I mean, the woman is more into the equal part of it all. Which is good! It’s making it somewhat easier.


In some ways, I think that there’s too many options for people now. Not that I feel that women should be excluded, but when I was growing up, you really had to do your job, put your efforts into it, respect, and I don’t really remember the stepping-on-toes that a lot of times I’m seeing now. I think it’s much more open to the females, I really do. I mean, I was very fortunate to be able to work for a lot of really — we’ve got a lot of money on this island, from summer folks, we’ve got a lot of talent, a lot of talent. The thing that used to bother me the most when I was growing up, whether it was male or female — you really, really, had to show yourself that you respected what you were working for. And sometimes I think, for the younger generation, I hate to say this, things are handed too easily. In many ways, Shirley and I were very guilty of doing that for our boys. Shirley was an enabler, unfortunately [laughs] and I was the bobby-car. But all in all, I think, yes, we’re becoming more equal. And we’re making our voices heard more.


RB: What was your favorite part of being from the island, or growing up here?


AW: The camaraderie. The community. If I was in trouble, or my family was in trouble, the neighbors were always there. They always were. Even if they didn’t have a lot to give. You don’t see a whole lot of that [now]. I’m not saying that it’s not still going on in this community, but in the overall world, I think we’ve lost a lot of that, which is sad, very sad. I was very fortunate that I did have the talent to do what I did. I worked on many, many boats — in fact, Ralph Stanley built the Dictator, which was a Friendship sloop. Jarvis Newman got ahold of it, it was sitting somewhere in a dock in New York, I think, and he finally brought it back. Tom was working down in the southern states on a movie film, and I’m very embarrassed, I can’t remember the guy’s name. But he was the owner of Dictator, and Jarvis was refurbishing it. So he’s sitting there, Tom was, and the guy — he was the one who did all of the critique of different things on the movies? — he was sitting there with this letter from Jarvis Newman, and Tom said, “Oh, he lives just down the road from me!” I mean, small world.


RB: Yeah, yeah — and you did the upholstery on the boat!


AW: Yeah.


RB: So, what was it like to work at Hinkley’s and run the upholstery as senior supervisor of the sewing group? How many people were under you, sewing?


AW: Actually, it was pretty good down there. At the that time, it was run as a family business. They took care of their workers; I was very fortunate to be there at that time. Plus they had Vaughn Bradford, who was self-taught and could do anything — he built his house, and he worked at the factory. You heard his name called all the time to fix pieces of machinery. He was a sail-maker. In fact, I asked him if he would teach me how to do the hide on the steering wheels, the baseball stitch and stuff, and he said, “You’ll learn the same way I did — go tell the old man you wanna learn.” That didn’t happen. Henry and I — I always wondered how I got to stay there, because he and I were at odds all the time. Bob would come running up all the time, and say, “What the hell did you say to my father this time?”


RB: So how many people worked for you?


AW: I had my aunt Gladys, my neighbor Elaine Lawson, myself and my aunt Charlotte Sawyer. If you think being in your twenties, and you’re working for your aunts and neighbor that’s the same age, I really had to struggle with that. “Okay, I’m the boss! You don’t tell me any more what to do; I’m telling you!”


RB: How’d that go over?


AW: It took awhile for us all to be comfortable with each other, but it worked out.


RB: Any tricks to make that relationship work?


AW: I just went and got my orders, and I laid it out. In fact, aunt Gladys — the first boat she did, she cut every bit of it wrong-side out. So the next thing I knew, I had aunt Gladys over at my sewing machine and hers right there, and she says, “Don’t you dare leave me.” [Laughs.] And I remember one day telling Henry that he had to get different material for one of his boats, the first one he did — like the 49 footers and the 50 footers or whatever. I told him he had to get different material. And that didn’t go over well. I think Bob came up the stairs that time, too. And then, I remember two boats on the line — they were both in the 40s — and the owners happened to be there at the same time. They didn’t realize that the wives picked out the same colors. So one of them was so upset that she went to Ben Hinkley, who was the purseholder of the business. Henry could sell shit on a shingle, but Ben was the purseholder. And so, anyway, I was confronted about it, and they said, y’know, the sewing is not up to par, this is wrong, that’s wrong, something else is wrong. And I remember standing in front of Ben, and he always went like that. [Gestures.] I thought he was going to bite his tongue out. Anyway, I said, if you give into that woman, you find somebody else for the job. Needless to say, she went out of that boatshop with the same colors.


RB: So she was trying to accuse you so that she could get new fabrics for free, huh?


AW: Yeah. Yup. Didn’t work. [Laughs.] And I remember the first 40’ that I did. Aunt Gladys and I made the curtains, and we went to hang them up… we were in hysterics. Needless to say, the first set of curtains that went on the boat, went in the garbage. It was awful, awful. [Laughs.] I shudder to think about it. I also remember, I was working on one of the boats down there, and one of the owners wanted this particular material, and I said, “Well, if you choose that, just be aware that when the fog comes in, they’re gonna grow two inches.” It was like, rayon or something like that. And they didn’t believe me. Well, you know how summers are here, and the fog? Well, they came up and very sheepishly and wanted to know what we could do to make this matter better. They were very good about it — they did not take my opinion of what was going to happen, but we did choose a material suitable for their boat.


RB: Now, were women only working as seamstresses at Hinkley at the time, or were there other positions?


AW: No, as a matter of fact, Franny, was one of the cleaners on the boat. They had to be cleaned before they left shop. Then, we had women up in the fiberglass shop. Not many. And we also had women varnishers. And boy, were they soooome good. We had Fairfield Morris, who was cabinetmaker. This is another thing I want to share with you. Fairfield Morris, Brent Clark [? 38:18], and Vaughn Bradford were masters at what they did. And they took pride in their work. They were so scared of losing their jobs, because they worked there during the war years, that they wouldn’t share anything with us youngers. Even the grandsons, they wouldn’t share a thing.


RB: Job security, huh.


AW: Yeah. And it was really sad, because once we lost them, we lost a lot of knowledge that could have been passed down. But you can almost understand why they were the way they were, because they were living through the Depression. I remember my mom and my aunt Iona, who was Dad’s sister, they lived in the Clark house in Southwest Harbor during the end of the war. And she was in the back part of the house, adn Mom was in the front part of the house. They shared their food stamps and expenses; while one was working, the other would take care of the children. It was really a, y’know, get-together and make this struggle work. I don’t remember a whole lot about that time. We left when I was two. Mary would remember more of that than I would. But you were always there for each other, during those war years. Mom always made sure, if nothing else, that we had something to eat and we had clothes on our back. We might not have had a lot of other stuff. I feel very fortunate that I was given the work ethics that I was ingrained, that I have my sense of humor through my dad, and I’m also very fortunate to know that I had a mother, who God bless her, she took care of a great-grandmother, she took care of my dad, she took care of her siblings before she even got married, and then she was a mother, so she was taking care of us. But that’s how the family worked at that time. They were always there to go down through the generations. I do remember that.


If anybody asks me if I’d trade my life: no, I would not. In fact, sometimes I feel kind of sorry for the younger generations, because unless they have somebody with a work ethic, the respectability of their neighbor or whatever, I think they’re missing out on something. So, I guess that pretty much sums it up!


RB: One last question — which years were you at Hinkley?


AW: Tom was three years old, and he was born in ‘67. I think I was there eleven years.


RB: So, about 1970 to 81?


AW: Yeah. I was still working there when we had built our house, which was in ‘73. The reason I can remember when I left the Emergency Room is that it was the year before Brittany was born, and I had my double mastectomy. So it would have been twenty-six years ago that I left, and I was there for about nine years.


This is Dad’s license to be captain at port, and Harvard Beal, who owned Beal’s wharf, was the one that signed it for him. My dad only went to the eighth grade, it was funny, because, um, he graduated from eighth grade and back then they went to Ellsworth high school, from the islands, so my grandfather took him to Ellsworth, he did a few errands, and when he got back to Beal’s wharf, dad was there waiting for him. He never did go to high school. But he used to crochet, he used to knit, he knit all of his bait pockets, built all of his own traps. Tom has a tool chest that Dad made. Anything he needed, he did all the work on the houses, all the repair work on the summer cottages. I think that’s where Mary and I got ingrained in our work ethics, because he and Mom both were always working, always. I remember us down at Dan Hinkle’s cottage once, and Mom was there cleaning, and Dad asked a question, and Mom said, “That’s not right,” and she told him what it was really. Dad goes down on his hands and knees and says, “Just once, Ruth, let me be right: lie!” [Laughs.] Poor Dad.