WINTER HARBOR – Despite the dangers inherent in their profession, the majority of the 13 men whose names are listed on a stone outside a local lobster fisherman’s co-op do not have tragic stories associated with their deaths.
They were born, they fished lobster for a living off the rugged Down East coast, and most passed away one by one as they advanced into old age.
Three of the men whose names appear on the granite tablet died before anyone thought they would, however. The sudden death nearly a year ago of one of them – as he sat unconscious in the cab of his stuck, burning pickup truck – prompted his fellow Winter Harbor Co-op members to erect a monument last month to their departed comrades.
The death of James Arnett, 21, hit this small community hard. After years of working stern for other fishermen, he had completed his first season of fishing on his own boat, the Rose E., and recently had hauled the vessel out of the water for the winter when he went out one night with friends.
Early the next morning, last Dec. 27, Arnett’s truck burned after it got hung up on a piece of concrete curbing in the harbor parking lot and a rear tire spun nonstop against the pavement. The spinning tire started to smoke and then caught fire from friction, and soon the truck was engulfed in flames while Arnett sat slumped unconscious at the wheel.
“James is the youngest on there,” Susan Soper, the co-op’s clerk and bookkeeper, said Tuesday of the monument. “His [death’s] anniversary is coming up. It’s still hard.”
Resident Chris Byers agreed that Arnett’s death was tough to accept.
“That really was a devastating blow for this community,” he said Tuesday.
Byers, a lobster dealer who regularly buys from the co-op, said he has three relatives who died tragically, two of whom have their names etched into the granite stone. His grandfather Ralph Byers Sr. and his uncle Danny Byers, who was not a co-op member and therefore is not listed on the monument, drowned while fishing in October 1973. Ralph Byers Jr., another uncle who was a co-op member and is listed on the monument, and two other men died one night in September 1981 when a skiff in which they were riding capsized.
Dale Torrey, the co-op’s president and a member since its inception in 1971, said Tuesday that Ralph Sr. and Danny Byers drowned when they went out in rough weather to move traps. Danny Byers was not a co-op member because he worked stern for his father and did not have his own boat or license, Torrey said.
Torrey, who briefly went to an Ellsworth hospital earlier Tuesday after getting two fingers on his right hand caught in fishing equipment, recalled the drownings as he sat in the co-op office. He said he and other fishermen found the body of Ralph Byers Sr. in the water after Byers’ boat was hit by a large wave and capsized on the west side of Turtle Island.
“We never did find the boy,” Torrey said.
Phil Torrey, Dale Torrey’s son and a friend of Arnett’s, acknowledged Monday that some residents are upset the monument doesn’t include all local fishermen who have died. He said he and his fellow co-op members did not intend to slight anyone.
“We wanted to recognize the members of the co-op,” Phil Torrey said. “It makes you stop and think ‘yeah, there was something here before us.'”
Dale Torrey said that each letter on the monument, which stands several feet high, costs $14. Soper said the manufacturer, Wieninger Monumental Works of Milbridge, donated the lobster boat image etched into the stone but that the finished tablet still cost more than $3,000.
“You’ve got to stop somewhere,” Dale Torrey said. “We thought we’d go for the co-op [membership].”
Also listed on the monument are the names of Robert Potter, Percy Merchant, Rudolph Johnson, Bruce Torrey, Otto Backman, Herman Faulkingham, Francis Torrey, Joseph Gerrish, Maurice Sargent, Victor Smallidge and Wynne “Chick” Arnold.
“They were all good friends of ours, every one of them,” Dale Torrey said. “You’ve got to die to get your name on it. That’s the bad part of it.”