James Steele, Maine peapod builder, dies at 70

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James F. Steele, a leading builder of peapods, died March 1 at his winter home in Brooksville, Fla. He was 70.

A homebuilder by trade, Steele, who lived in Brooklin, Maine, began building peapods in 1964, with his boats identified by the Coast Guard as DPS — Down East Peapod Steele. Steele acquired the basic mold for his boats from the late Capt. Havilah Hawkins, but took it further to make the boat his own.

“What Jim did was refine the type a little bit more for pleasure,” said Jon Wilson, founder and editor-in-chief of WoodenBoat magazine. “The original boats were a little higher sided, because they had to haul lobster traps over the sides. He made subtle modifications, which he continued to do over the years, always looking for a combination of how to build it most efficiently, while at the same time making it rugged enough and durable enough for a wide variety of uses.”

The peapod, in its traditional form, is used mostly for in-shore lobstering under oar and sail, Wilson said.

Bob Wallstrom, of the Delta Marine Survey firm, said he knew Steele since 1971 and “found him to be the most clever person that I’ve ever met, at doing things.” Steele, he said, made small engines, a couple of small vehicles he would take to parades, his own log splitters and restored tractors.

“He was a great guy, always willing to help and a wonderful friend,” Wallstrom said. “He had immense integrity.”

Wilson said he met Steele when the boat maker became the first subscriber to WoodenBoat, though he had heard of him and knew his reputation in the industry prior to meeting him.

“What he did with the peapods, how he built them, was just wonderful,” Wilson said. “For me, he made peapods matter because of the way he kept them going; he kept that form going.”

Wilson, who owns two of Steele’s peapods, described the boats as “extremely easily rowed and you can carry quite a load on them.” Also, he said, they are easily towed.

Personally, Wilson described Steele as clever, inventive and humble, with a commitment to quality work.

“He was generally very quiet; he was extremely funny. In many ways he was kind of the classic, Down East, wry humor guy,” Wilson said. “He was much more interested in doing than in talking about it. He was much more interested in listening and learning than in talking.

“He was very much committed to the integrity of his work and the integrity of his word,” Wilson said.

A memorial service was held for Steele in his hometown of Brooklin March 31. He is survived by his wife, Pamela Webb Steele; his son Jeffrey Steele and daughter-in-law Sharon; two grandchildren; three sisters and many cousins, nieces and nephews.

According to the Ellsworth American newspaper, memorial contributions may be made to The Class of 1955, Ellsworth High School Scholarship Fund, c/o Jean Aldrich, 96 Point Road, Hancock, Maine 04640-3727; The Brooklin Keeping Society, P.O. Box 4, Brooklin, Maine 04616 or The Brooklin Volunteer Fire Co., P.O. Box 17, Brooklin, Maine 04616.

—    Beth Rosenberg


2 comments on “James Steele, Maine peapod builder, dies at 70

  1. mike bailey

    This comment is probably going into oblivion because I have just come across this article 7 years too late. I feel compelled to share some thoughts anyway.

    Back in 2003, I attended a boatbuilding course at the WoodenBoat School in Brooklin,ME given by Harry Bryan. Harry was able to prevail upon Jimmy Steele to give us a tour of his PeaPod Boat Shop. Jimmy was one of the most unique people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. I only spent about 2 hours with him in my life, but that is all that was required for him to make a lasting, lifelong impression. This guy was creative, industrious, and wickedly funny with his heavy classic Downeast accent. His boatshop was one-of-a-kind. All of the tools and methods were things Jimmy developed himself over the years. One tool that really caught my attention was a huge over-sized router with the bit sticking straight up out of the middle of the floor. Jimmy build boats all by himself in that shop without an assistant. Some of the tools looked outrageously dangerous, in anyoneʻs hands except Jimmyʻs.

    Half way through the tour he started telling us a story about an OSHA inspector from Boston who called him up and told him he was going to be investigated for numerous OSHA violations that had been reported at his boat shop. This story went on for twenty minutes in Jimmyʻs deadpan downeast delivery. He enthusiastically welcomed the inspector to come visit his shop. When the guy arrived, Jimmy gave him the full tour of his entire operation. All the while, this guy was taking photos and copious notes. After a long day inspecting the shop, the inspector warned Jimmy that he was in serious trouble and his shop would probably be getting shut down. Jimmy smiled and told him he would wait for the official report and bid him a safe trip home to Boston. Several weeks later the inspector returned with his report and citations for a plethora of violations. Jimmy patiently waited while the OSHA inspector went through his litany of citations.

    Once the verbal dressing down was finished, Jimmy reached over to his work bench and pick up his ball cap and said, “Mr. OSHA Inspector, ya see that hat right theyah. When I put that thing on top oʻ my head, it covers my whole fuckinʻ crew. So you sir, have absolutely no jurisdiction over my shop because we have no employees, take your worthless report and truck it back on down to Boston where ya belong.”

    I never laughed so hard in my whole life. Jimmy was an American classic and deserves to be remembered.

    I stumbled across this article because I was hoping to recommend that Mike Row interview Jimmy for one of his shows “Somebodyʻs Gotta Do It” series with CNN. I know Mike Rowe would have dearly loved Jimmy. I was disheartened to find out that I was too late. I really hope someone recorded an interview with Jimmy and archived it somewhere. He was truly a Maine treasure.

    He really stuck with me in spite of our very brief acquaintance.

  2. Pingback: LL Bean’s bootmobile & Jimmy Steele’s peapod. | Cars.xcuz.me

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