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. He wasn’t exactly the kind of person you’d expect to be immortalized in a book and an opera.
He was friendly, 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 he died. Burt Dow, Deep Water Man, was turned into a children’s opera by the Stonington Opera House in 2010. Next week, a local actor will portray 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 gets indigestion and expels the contents of his stomach.
Parts of the story are a tall tale. Only one man, a 19th-century Cape Codder named Peleg Nye, is known to have fallen into a whale’s mouth and survived. But there are many elements of truth in the book, 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 is made up of the towns of Deer Isle and Stonington.
In anticipation of the upcoming fundraiser, Deer Isle residents have been on a quest to discover the real Burt Dow.
From his headstone, which McCloskey helped pay for, we know he was born in 1882 and died in 1964, the year after the book about him was published.
Mary Lott, who still summers 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 there was a list of things for Burt Dow 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 was weathered, and wore wool pants and a raggedy sweater or shirt.
Most of all, he was sweet. He showed Mary and her brother the best place to find berries, where to fish for scallops. He taught them to row his little boat. He lent them a five-foot model schooner he had made – with rigging – to sail around the harbor near their home. 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 and 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.
When she was in fourth grade, 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.
You can see excerpts from the Stonington Opera House production of Burt Dow, Deep Water Man here. You can buy tickets for the July 9 Stonington Public Library fundraiser, ‘Gone But Not Forgotten Cemetery Tour,’ featuring Ray Dinsmore as Burt Dow, a ferryman, a Civil War soldier and a ship captain, at the library, as well as Dockside Books, Island Approaches, Boyce’s Motel, and Turtle Gallery and on the day of the tour at the Burnt Cove Church.