Commercial fisherman and boatbuilder Makley Lewis (1925-2018) of Harkers Island lived to be 93, but he always said “he was born too soon.”
He baffled folks a bit with that “confession” in 2016 during an “oral history project” interview session.
Makley Lewis said he and his brother, James “Danny Boy” Lewis, caught “30 boxes” of flounder off Cape Lookout one night, and when they took them to the fish dealer, they got 12 cents a pound – $360.
“That same catch of flounder now (in 2016) is $11,000,” Makley Lewis said. “Born too soon.”
“We’d catch like 50,000-60,000 pounds of spots, hauling up and down these channels, drag it all in and bale it, but it didn’t make no money. Spot is three-cent, five-cent. That’s another reason I said I was born too soon. They’re now about $1.50.”
Makley Lewis said he loved to fish, but “fishing kept me from making any money.”
So, he got serious about boatbuilding, working with his father, Brady Lewis, to build boats – beginning in their backyard. “Daddy got the title of being the father of ‘Core Sound Flare Bow Boats,’” Makley Lewis said.
One of Brady Lewis’ famous workboats is the Jean Dale, built with planks of heart pine and juniper in 1946 for Harry Lewis. The owner named the 40-foot vessel after his daughter Patty Jean and son Dale.
After Harry Lewis died, the family generously donated the boat in 2000 to the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center on Harkers Island. It presented a huge restoration challenge for volunteers to return “The Core Sounder Sink Netter” to mint condition. But that they did in 2010.
One of the first journalists to write about the effort was Rodney Foushee in 2003. He interviewed Clarence Willis, a retired Harkers Island boatbuilder, who said the Jean Dale “was a real fishing boat. Harry worked her year-round shrimping and pulling nets. Sank twice and caught afire once.”
Willis remembered one time when she sank “off Browns Island in rough seas with a heavy load of jumbo croakers – maybe 120 to 125 boxes full. They raised her and got her dry in a day or two and went back at it again.”
Willis learned the boatbuilding trade, beginning at age 13, from with Brady Lewis, and Willis actually helped build the Jean Dale.
“She was narrow, long and graceful with a distinctive flared bow, a low transom and a rounded stern to prevent the fishing nets from hanging up when they were pulled in by hand by a three-man crew. She had a fairly flat bottom for a shallow draft to navigate the waters of Core Sound.”
“The flared bow helped cut the waves offshore in heavy seas. A narrow boat was a better sea boat. But you didn’t let her get side-to in rough seas. You took your waves head-on.”
The Jean Dale first caught the eye of Robert Bartlett Dance of Kinston, a renowned nautical artist, in the 1960s when he began “painting her.” Dance helped with the fundraising for the restoration project at the museum by offering special reproductions of his paintings.
Another stellar advocate for the Jean Dale has been fine arts photographer Lawrence S. Earley of Raleigh.
Outside the Core Sound Museum stands the “monumental and graceful” Jean Dale, Earley said. She’s a tribute to “the pantheon of known and unknown boatbuilders whose mastery of simple tools and obdurate materials made the Core Sound workboat synonymous with beauty and utility.”