The Something-Out-Of-Nothing Man (Dec, 1941)
The Something-Out-Of-Nothing Man
Ralph Barter Has Made A Fortune Out Of The Things People Didn’t Want I Read How This Down East Rothschild Overcame The Handicap Of Losing An Arm—And, In So Doing, Made Himself Into An Institution I
by Bud Martin
“LAD ’tis best you leave the islands.”
George Barter spoke to his twenty-six-year-old son just back from World War 1, minus an arm lost in the Argonne. “You’ve been a good lobsterman, but the old days and the old ways can never be again for you. A seagull can’t soar with one wing, and a man can’t handle a pitching smallboat with one hand. Better forget it.”
Ralph Barter shook his blond head. “Take me away from salt water and I couldn’t live.”
“You need but one hand to become a radio operator aboard a vessel,” suggested the older man.
Maybe marine radio did offer a good career for one-armed ex-service men, but the routine
was a pale substitute for the glamour of lobstering; and young Barter yearned for the tangy wind that puts life into the sparkling waters of Penobscot Bay. So he quit Boston and the radio school. Newport, where he tried again, wasn’t much better. And anyway, watchman aboard a rich man’s yacht was no job for a man who’d hauled his string of two hundred lobster traps from his own boat.
“I understand,” George Barter welcomed his thin son back to Deer Island, Maine. “Some Barters couldn’t live anywhere except on the islands. You’re one of ’em, I guess.” He gave his son an interest in a sardine herring weir, then being built on the island. “Hire a ‘hand’ to do your share of the labor,”
he cautioned. “You’ve a good head on your shoulders. Use it.”
Young Barter, delighted at being back in the islands again and determined to make good, plunged into the weir-building with all the energy that had been pent up so long— and forgot his father’s caution about physical labor. One day he was standing in a dory, driving a wing sapling into the mud in two feet of water. A wave moved the boat. With his left hand, the one he’d lost in the Argonne, he reached out to regain his balance. Ralph Barter went overboard.
To the average islander a ducking is all in the day’s work, but to a strong man newly crippled this was a tragic reminder of his deficiency. It seemed to Ralph Barter that he could never overcome the loss of his arm. He’d failed in Boston, failed in Newport, and now he was a failure at home. Despair, black as the mud that covered his face, enshrouded his very soul.
You don’t hear much about women in the man’s world of the Maine islands but they’re there just the same, making snug homes for their men to return to; rejoicing in good times, cheerful in bad; ready always with a quiet sympathy and practical aid for the wounds, body and soul, which the sea inflicts upon
their fishermen. For three days Mrs. Barter suffered in silent sympathy with her first born. She was prepared when he turned to her at last with, “What can I do now, Mother?”
“You can’t wrastle life with one hand, son.”
“Then you must have another arm to fight with. Son, don’t you recollect you earned your first nickel with a lobster trap someone else had thrown away? You got your start by using odds and ends!”
“Mebby you’re right,” Ralph Barter’s blue eyes were thoughtful.
“Course I am. And that very knack’ll be like a new hand to you, if you use it. ‘Stead of trying to wrastle with the two-handed ones on their own home grounds you’re going to take the things they can’t see any use for and turn them into something worth while. ‘Tis your salvation, boy.”
“Mother,” solemnly Ralph Barter spoke, “that’s just what I’m going to do!” And that’s how Ralph Barter, of Deer Isle, Maine, em-
barked upon the strange career of making “somethings out of nothings.”
Probably there’s no place where less is wasted than on a Maine sea island, where even the clam shells are utilized as gravel for driveways. High and low, back and forth across the thirteen miles of granite ledge and thin top oil which is Deer Isle and Little Deer Isle, Ralph Barter searched, and the only thing he could find that no one else wanted was the job of treasurer of the town of Deer Isle. He took it. And a fertile field for the waste-hunter he found town affairs to be. Naively he wondered why the town was borrowing money when so much was due in back taxes on spruce woodlands.
“Nobody’ll pay taxes on spruce,” the tax collector informed him patiently. “The trees are too small for lumber. And too gnarled, and twisted, and knotty. ‘Tis a relief to the owners when the town takes the prop’ty off their hands.”
The tax collector’s opinion of Deer Isle spruce was corroborated by three different lumber companies which Barter contacted. Not one of them would take it as a gift. Still, the green town treasurer believed the spruce
could be used. It seemed a pretty big problem for him to tackle all alone, but he made a trip to the city of Rockland, on the mainland, anyway. Then he took a deep breath and began to buy tax liens, and even tax-paid spruce woodland—all he could get of it. He sold his interest in the weir. He used up his savings from the lobster-fishing days, every nickel. Then he borrowed money from a bank and bought trucks, a portable sawmill, and hired men to cut and haul the spruce no one on Deer Isle wanted.
“He’s plain daft,” was the island opinion.
“Mebbyso,” opined one cracker-box philosopher, “but ’tis the fust time ever I see a banker loan money to a crazy man.”
Maybe Ralph Barter was crazy but the banker didn’t think so; not when Barter told him of that trip to Rockland to interview the superintendent of maintenance of the Eastern Steamship Company, which operated scores of routes serving the coastal and river towns of Maine. Barter had convinced the super of maintenance that a tidy saving in upkeep could be made by using island spruce because its very twisted, gnarled knottiness
made it all the tougher, longer-wearing planking for wharves. The super gave Barter a twenty-thousand-dollar initial order for Deer Isle Spruce.
So began the Barter Lumber Company. It also was the beginning of the Barter Coal Company, which almost ended the Barter Lumber Company and Ralph Barter too.
You’ll see wharves jutting into the harbor waters all along the coast of Maine; shabby, graying fingers reaching out for the rich bounty of the sea. A wharf can be a mighty profitable investment or a veritable old man of the sea, a fatal burden of taxes and repairs. The latter is what Ralph Barter blithely bought in the exuberance of the moment. Then, when he realized that the expense of maintaining such a large wharf would just about sink the so auspiciously launched lumber company, he tried to sell the wharf or to swap it for a smaller one. But this time Ralph Barter really did have something no one else wanted, and it began to look as if he was stuck with it.
The only way out that Barter could see was to add some business that would help pay wharf expenses. It was a fine location for buying lobsters. Barter knew lobsters, believed that he could make money as a dealer. But the memory
of the old days was still an unhealed wound. If he couldn’t fish for lobsters, he’d be-damned if he’d handle ’em at all.
Take coal, on the other hand. Coal is a nice bulky merchandise with which to utilize waste space. Not many on the island used coal for house heating because, Barter believed, the price was too high. He studied the situation, learned that he could lower the price by four dollars a ton if he bought coal direct from the mines and had it come to his wharf in chartered barges. He put a cautious ad in the Deer Isle Messenger, secured sufficient advance orders to warrant the venture, and wired for his first barge of coal.
It was a big event, the arrival of the first oceangoing vessel to make Deer Isle harbor in many a moon. At flood tide the waterfront was crowded with islanders come to welcome the shipment that was to bring them winter warmth and comfort many had never known before. A shout went up as the sea-going tug rounded into view. Slowly, majestically the tow entered the reach between the headlands, the long voyage almost over, danger past. If Ralph Barter had known where there was a good brass band no one wanted he would have hired it. He ordered the unloading crew out upon the wharf.
“What’s she stopping out in the reach for?”
Dense smoke belched from the tug’s rakish funnel. White water boiled at her counter. The barge was stuck fast in the channel mud two miles from Barter’s wharf! And Ralph Barter’s hopes of saving the Barter Lumber Company with cheap coal were stuck out there with it.
Ralph Barter forgot a lot and he learned a lot that first hard winter. He forgot the pride which had prevented him from buying lobsters; and he put in a tank to sell gasoline to the fishermen from whom he bought lobsters, which gave him dealer’s price on ? fuel for his sawmill, coal and lumber trucks. He worked so hard at pulling himself out of the ditch that first shipment had put him in, making something out of nothing, justifying the confidence of the townspeople, that he forgot he was a cripple. And when he did that he learned to laugh again.
Today Barter is the largest independent buyer of lobsters on the Maine Coast, and that’s not all. He owns the only coal company on the island, still operates the lumber company, is a gas and oil distributor, a ship chandler, a cannery owner. He does a half million dollar a year business from a town of 1.400 population, but you’d never know it by his attitude or by the appearance of his present headquarters.
Only in a Maine island fishing village can you find a store like the one on Barter’s Wharf, Town of Stonington, on Deer Isle, in Penobscot Bay. Odoriferous with tarred rope, oilskins, tobacco smoke and fishermen, it’s partitioned into one corner of a tired old barn-like building that was
once painted red. The store looks small because so much sea-going merchandise is packed around the walls, in front of the counter, and suspended from the walls and ceiling.
Many among the frugal islanders seem to resent Barter’s ability to recognize opportunities they’ve missed for years. Some call him a “hard man to do bizness with.” But the fifty or more men who work for him at one season or another don’t seem to find him hard. Half the “customers” occupying the deacon seat in Barter’s store are on his payroll. Not one jumps up to feign activity when the boss comes in. “I’d fire a man in a minute if I see him do that,” Barter says. “When there’s no work for a man to do I want him to sit down and rest his face and hands. It’s dishonest in a man to try and make me think he’s workin’ when we both know damn well he isn’t.”
The Ralph K. Barter Company uses 5,000 barrels a year to ship its lobsters, clams and scallops to a clientele that extends beyond the Mississippi. It would appear that he effects a tidy saving by having his own men assemble the containers. “I figgered it out once,” Ralph Barter says, “and it costs me just ten percent more than it would to have the barrels shipped from the main, all built. But it helps keep my crew together—gives ’em work during the slack season.”
Barter expects a lot of his men, and usually gets it. “If a man’s taking my wages I expect him to use his head for me as well’s his muscle,” is the way he puts it. “When one of my truck drivers is out collecting clams I expect him to notice whether the clam digger needs a new hoe or mebby a new pair o’ rubber boots, and to remind the man that I sell these things.”
The office of all the Barter companies is a large pine sheathed room. Dainted brown and white, in the loft of the tired old building on Barter’s Stonington wharf. The view includes a glimpse of Ralph Barter’s latest acquisition, the property which got him into competition with Japan.
Just as it was the Eastern Steamship Company and its wharves which enabled him to launch the Barter Lumber Company, so it was the Eastern and a wharf which precipitated Ralph Barter into a business which heretofore had been considered the sole province of the Nipponese. The steamship company had abandoned its Stonington run years before but the steamer wharf, with its 40×100-foot waitingroom and freightshed, still remained. It was in excellent repair; a nice big white elephant, eating its head off in taxes. It cost $28,000 to build. Barter offered $300 for it, cash—and got it!
Before he made the offer Barter knew where he could dispose of the material comprising the wharf for a neat little profit of $5,000, and furnish a winter’s work for a dismantling crew, to boot. But it was such a nice big wharf, such a gorgeous white elephant, it seemed too bad to take it down.
Barter did a little figuring. He looked up the owner of an abandoned sardine factory on the main. Then he ambled over to the Stonington Town House.
“What this town needs,” Barter opined, “is a public wharf. One that any craft, from a vessel to a peapod, can tie up to. Something each and ev’ryone can use—free.”
The First Selectman fixed him with a wary eye. “Voters wouldn’t stand for it. Cost too much money.”
“Well, mebbyso. But what if the town could get the use of a wharf like that without it costing the voters a cent? Be a big feather in the selectmen’s cap, wouldn’t it?”
The FS removed his feet from the visitors’ chair and motioned for Barter to “set.” Before Barter left the chair the First Selectman had promised to lower to $108 the $800 annual town tax on the $28,000 property Ralph Barter had bought for $300—in return for Barter’s promise of free wharf privileges for the town. A week later Barter had engaged sixty diggers and operators, installed a boiler and retorts from the abandoned sardine factory; and the Deer Isle Canning Company was born, in, of all places, the Eastern Steamship Company’s erstwhile waiting room.
The opening of a clam-canning plant on the wharf that was too good to be worth anything because the taxes were too high has worked out pretty well for everyone, including Ralph Barter himself. But it wasn’t until they sent him to the State of Maine Legislature for the second time that he actually got into competition with Japan.
This came about because there is nothing the Down East fishermen detest more than crabs. Even dogfish or sand fleas are preferable to the thieving crustaceans which get into the lobster-pots, steal the bait and otherwise make life burdensome to lobstermen.
Imagine the surprise of Ralph Barter when an act regulating the taking of crabs was consigned to the Legislative Committee on Sea and Shore Fisheries, of which he was a member. And imagine his chagrin when he learned that the astute Portland fishermen had worked up for themselves a right profitable little business in the crustaceans which his own Down Easters threw away in disgust. As soon as the legislature adjourned, the solon from the Penobscot Archipelago hied himself to Casco Bay to learn what, if any, were the reasons his constituents couldn’t make money out of crabs, too.
Right away he found reasons.
To begin with, the Penobscot Bay area was too far from the big city markets to deal in fresh crabmeat, as the Casco Bay fishermen did. Furthermore, the meat of Maine crabs could not be canned except by a registered formula the use of which entailed a prohibitive royalty. And even if you could can Maine crabmeat you couldn’t sell it on account of low-price competition from
Japan. In other words, Down East crabs were as big a nuisance as everyone had always said they were, and more too. They were a pestilential abomination, to put it mildly, and anyone who even thought of doing anything with them commercially was crazier than a coot. Which was just the kind of talk Ralph Barter liked to hear.
This Barter man can’t get tired in an ordinary twelve-hour day, so he reads in bed from midnight till two and three in the morning—has done it for years. His mind grips facts like a lobster hangs onto breakfast. For weeks he read books on chemistry and canning at night and experimented in the canning shop by day. Out of this “messing around,” as he calls it, came an original Barter formula for the canning of crabmeat.
So now the Penobscot Bay Islanders no longer curse the once-pestiferous crab. They set for him special traps, designed and built by Ralph Barter, and they cash in on the former pest. Yes, Ralph Barter is canning the crabs no one wanted.
It is doubtful whether the Down East fishermen will ever put the Japanese completely out of the canned crabmeat business, but already Ralph Barter’s canning company is moving to larger quarters. No one seemed to want the big brick building in Stonington which was abandoned by a sardine packing company years ago. So, of course, Barter bought it.
While the new canning machinery is being installed Ralph Barter is “messing around” with a brand new product. Sea urchin is the common name. The fishermen’s name is unprintable. The sea urchin is a little marine animal a-kin to the starfish. It looks like a big thistle, somewhat flattened, but it’s twice as ornery as any thistle that ever saw the land, with hundreds of dark-green-blending-into-purple spines that are sharp as needles. They find ’em in Down East waters by the millions and a more useless article you never saw in all your born days. That’s why Ralph Barter’s so crazy over ’em.
Sea-going Italians sometimes eat sea urchins fresh but no one else ever thought of doing anything except avoid them whenever possible—until the something-from-nothing-man cooked some, broke open the brittle shells and concocted of the roe-like meat a canape spread that rivals the spawn of the Russian sturgeon. He’s experimenting now with the canning of this “American caviar.”
“It’s nothing—nothing at all,” Barter says.
Which, if true, ought to net him at least another half-million.