Ready to go overboard

A new day for a Searsmont houseboat
By Fran Gonzalez | Jun 07, 2018
Photo by: Fran Gonzalez An 89-year-old houseboat makes for an intriguing construction site on Main Street in Searsmont May 31.

Searsmont — "I was on this houseboat for the first year of my life," Donny Rossiter said with a smile.

At 85, he is chock-full of exuberance and stories just waiting to come out. The houseboat that has been a constant throughout his life now is taking on a new role in someone else's.

For the past two years alongside Main Street in Searsmont, the new owner has been painstakingly restoring planks and fixing the main cabin section.

The second story has been taken off temporarily for repairs and soon new fixtures will be installed, in hopes of sending the ship "overboard" in the near future (a nautical term meaning "to put in the water").

"The scow (the flat-bottom section of the boat with sloped ends) part is original," Rossiter said. "He took it all apart and put it back together. He used Georgia Pine which doesn't rot and he fiberglassed the whole thing so it doesn't matter. It won't leak a drop." 

The boat was originally built by Rossiter's father, Willis, in Camden around 1929.

At the time, Rossiter's father was working 12 hours a day earning a dollar a day, and paying $3 a week in rent. He wanted a place he could live and not pay rent and he figured if he kept it in the harbor, he wouldn't have to pay for the land to keep it on, Rossiter said.

"My father was building 19-foot speedboats at that time," he said. "A guy by the name of S.S. Pierce had a summer place in Islesboro and he wanted my father to build him a scow."

Rossiter's father told Pierce that if he bought the lumber for the scow plus the lumber for the houseboat he planned on building, he would not have to pay him any money. Pierce agreed and ordered all the lumber.

"He started building in 1929; finished it in four to six months and put it overboard. Lived in it and had a rowboat to get back and forth to work," Rossiter said. "Afterwards, he built the second story.

"There was a shop on the first floor and we lived on the second floor," he added.

At the time when the houseboat was docked in Camden Harbor, Rossiter remembers his father having a business venture where he bought five 36-foot cabin cruisers for $5,000.

"Millionaires were going broke and they were selling them cheap," he said.

That was a great deal of money at that time. His father was going to repaint them and turn them around for $5,000 each, but it was on the verge of the Depression, and he ended selling the boats for what he paid for them, before the hard times came, Rossiter said.

"He bored a hole in the workbench of the houseboat, and he would roll up hundred-dollar bills and push them in, and he had a piece of wire with a hook on it to pull them out," Rossiter recalls. "Every two or three months he would pull out another hundred-dollar bill and that would keep him going for another two or three months.

"My mother didn't like living on the houseboat," Rossiter said. "The anchor let go in a storm one time and turned the boat around sideways; scared her just about to death. I don't remember it at all."

At one point his father was a yacht captain for Marshall Fields. "Marshall's store it is called now," he said. "It was a year-round job. Marshall Field had a house out in Islesboro and stored a boat in the boat yard. He paid my father year-round pay for two months a year of work."

Eventually finding work on 700-Acre Island, Rossiter's father pulled the houseboat out of the water and onto dry land, where it remained until recently.

"He worked at the boatyard there 80 years. He lived there (on the houseboat) during the week but he would come home on weekends," Rossiter said.

"They never charged dad a penny," he said. "They ran 220 power to it and they had heaters and he never had to pay an electric bill on 700-Acre Island."

For 13 years the whole family would go out and spend summers on the houseboat. "That's where I fell in love with Dark Harbor and 700-Acre Island," Rossiter said. "After my father died I used it for 20 years.

"Electricity didn't cost a dime," he said. "They were so thankful that my father worked for them. J.J. Emery said, 'You don't charge Willis Rossiter for anything, even when he is gone; no charges go to that family.'"

Rossiter said the new owner is a yacht captain "for people in the same area I was in and he fell in love with the houseboat."

"Hundreds of people wanted to buy it, but it was never for sale when they wanted it," he said.

The houseboat was placed on two scows and towed to Belfast Harbor where it was then placed on a truck and moved to its current location in Searsmont.

"He's done a beautiful job," Rossiter said of the new owner's work. "He's done as good a job as my father did building it. He had the tools to work with. Everything my father did was by hand."

By summer's end, Rossiter expects the new owner will be ready to go overboard with the restored houseboat on a new chapter in its cherished life.

Willis Rossiter paid $25 to have a crane lower the houseboat into Camden Harbor after completing the vessel in four to six months back in 1929. (Photo by: Courtesy of Donny Rossiter)
The houseboat with completed second story alongside one of the 36-foot cabin cruisers Willis Rossiter hoped to paint and resell for a profit. (Photo by: Courtesy of Donny Rossiter)
Willis Rossiter built the houseboat in 1929, in four to six months using only hand tools. (Photo by: Courtesy of Donny Rossiter)
Donny Rossiter at his home in Camden recalls the many stories behind the houseboat, a vessel that was never officially named. (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
Donny Rossiter and his mother pose next to the houseboat in a photograph taken sometime in the 1930s. (Photo by: Courtesy of Donny Rossiter)
The inside of the first floor has been redone and windows will soon be installed. (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
The inside of the second story of the houseboat, which has been temporarily removed for repairs, shown May 31. (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
The lower section of the houseboat has been restored using rot-resistant Georgia Pine and then coated with fiberglass. "It won't leak a drop," Donny Rossiter said. (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
Comments (1)
Posted by: Jon Jenckes | Jun 07, 2018 09:58

Makes one feel good to read stories such as this/ To know that for a portion of one's life, you as a mainer can feel how true to life Donny;s life is and what a wonderful heritage he has/ God Bless him and I think he has done so



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