The real Burt Dow was an oceangoing man who lived in a Maine fishing village, liked kids and animals and was handy around the house. But he wasn’t exactly the kind of person you’d expect to be immortalized in a book and an opera.
He made friends, though, with children’s book author Robert McCloskey, who summered near his home on Deer Isle, Maine. McCloskey wrote a fictional tale featuring the real Burt Dow in 1963, the year before Dow died. Then in 2010, the Stonington Opera House turned Burt Dow, Deep Water Man, was into a children’s opera. Six years later, a local actor portrayed Burt Dow near his grave in the Mount Adams Cemetery as part of a fundraiser for the Stonington Public Library.
In McCloskey’s book, Burt Dow takes his leaky boat, the Tidely-Idley, out on the water with his sidekick, the Giggling Gull. Along the way he gets swallowed by a whale. To extricate himself, he splashes the whale’s stomach with left-over boat paint and sediment sludge. The whale then gets indigestion and expels the contents of his stomach
The real Burt Dow never got swallowed by a whale. Whales have only swallowed people on rare occasions — three in recorded history, except for Jonah. And McCloskey’s description of a whale swallowing a human has an element of whimsy missing in the harrowing tale of a 19th-century Cape Codder named Peleg Nye falling into a whale’s mouth. But the book has many elements of truth in it, especially the way it captures the essence of a coastal Maine fishing community.
Deer Isle is a large island off the Blue Hill peninsula, accessible by a high iron suspension bridge over Eggemoggin Reach. The island is home to fishermen, farmers, stonecutters, artists and summer visitors, and includes the towns of Deer Isle and Stonington.
In anticipation of the library fundraiser, Deer Isle residents went on a quest to discover the real Burt Dow.
From his headstone, which McCloskey helped pay for, we know his dates: born in 1882 and died in 1964, the year after the publication of the book about him.
Mary Lott, who summered on the island, knew and admired Burt Dow as a child in the late 1950s and early 1960s. “He would say, ‘I’m not a captain, I’m a mate’,” she said. She was pretty sure he had sailed around the world.
Her father kept a diary, and noted how Burt Dow showed up, then showed up again. “Burt said he had helped build our cottage,” Lott said. The stairs down to the water had washed out, and her father asked if he could make a ramp. He did.
“Dad said, ‘Could you do this, this and this’?” said Lott. Soon Burt Dow had a list of things to do, and he’d join the family for dinner.
She remembers Burt Dow had hairy ears and chewed tobacco, always carrying his can with him. He had a weathered complexion, and he wore wool pants and a raggedy sweater or shirt.
Most of all, she remembered him as sweet. He showed Mary and her brother the best place to find berries and where to fish for scallops. He taught them to row his little boat. Burt Dow also lent them a five-foot model schooner he had made – with rigging – to sail around the harbor near their home. And he gave the McCloskey girls a rabbit.
He lived with or near his brother, a farmer, and his sister, who sometimes babysat for young Mary Lott and her brother.
In the book, McCloskey wrote:
That pink plank,” he says, “is the color of Ginny Poor’s pantry… and the green one is the color of the floor and doors in Doc Walton’s waiting-room… and there’s the tan porch and trim color from Capt’n Haskell’s house.
Burt Dow didn’t have a fishing boat of his own, but as a resident of Deer Isle he had a lobster license. So he borrowed the boat of his good friend, Capt. Stacy Haskell.
He did own a rowboat, which he did paint from leftover paint from Ginny Poor’s pantry. Today, island visitors can stay at one of two Ginny Poor’s cottages at the Pilgrim’s Inn.
As a fourth-grader, Mary Lott had to write an essay on the person she most admired. She chose Burt Dow. “I always had wonderful memories of Burt,” she said.
This story was updated in 2021.