Small talk brings the Rose brothers to life

Published: Wednesday, July 9, 2014 at 04:55 PM.

Just like Lloyd Willis builds them, my Down East coworker remembers James Rose and his brother Earl — the Rose Bros. — building boats without plans. He remembers James and Earl using string to form and visualize the distinctive Harkers Island flare of the bow. LA Times writer Hillinger quoted Lloyd Willis’ son, then 44-year-old Captain Billy Willis, in his 1985 column: “No one here uses blueprints or elaborate plans to build the boats. It’s all in our heads. We’re born with this talent.”

Computers? Fancy drafting equipment? Industrial machinery? Plastic? No. The Rose Bros. boats were built without blueprints by the eyes of generational wooden boat builders. They used innate talent. Months of experienced hand work. Love of the craft. Simple tools.

My coworker remembers the brothers’ “old-fashioned” folding wooden rulers used so much that their friction locks were worn smooth. The rulers would fall open without an extra hand to hold and measure. He remembers the brothers using adjustable squares pivoting at a wing nut to calculate cutting and laying angles of the juniper and pine planks used to build the boats.

At the approving sway of the salt marsh grass and screech of sea gulls, a simple ramp from the Rose Bros. warehouse launched the boats into Core Sound.

The brothers’ deaths, a couple of years apart from each other, spelled the end of the Rose Bros. Boat Works on Harkers Island, but not the end of their influence. Memories of their extraordinary skills subsist, and of simpler times when worn, folding, wooden tools ruled the day.

Far better than instant messaging can ever hope to, summertime small talk vividly recalls treasures found by a young boy on Harkers Island half a century ago. But it also can point us toward our ultimate rendezvous with Captains Lloyd Willis and James and Earl Rose — and other Harkers Islander boat builders like them — and to our certain adventure across the endless sea to the Great Beyond.

Barry Fetzer is a columnist for the Havelock News. He can be reached at

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