Harkers Island , NC Community Leaders

Julian Guthrie: Boat Builder and Oral Historian

by Rodney Barfield

Julian Guthrie is a native of Harkers Island, a small island community due east of Beaufort. It is a unique community known widely for its traditional boats and, less so, for its coastal folkways. The island was first granted to Thomas Sparrow in 1714 and was sold to Ebenezer Harker in 1750.
Mr. Guthrie is a boat builder, as are many of his neighbors. He built his first vessel at the age of 12, “just to see if I could do it.” It was a craft he learned from an uncle, for whom he also built a little fishing skiff. Over the next 60 years he has built more than 100 boats, everything from small skiffs to pleasure yachts and commercial work boats.

The techniques Guthrie leaned from his uncle have been passed through the generations. They include the use of juniper (white cedar) for the sides of the boat and heart pine for the bottoms and frames. Both are long lasting but light woods that are easy to use.

As a youngster, Mr. Guthrie would find his wood in the forest of Harkers Island. The pine was especially important for the frames, or ribs, a frame that runs the inside of the boat to the floor and makes a 90 degree turn to run along the bottom. Mr. Guthrie would find branches that were naturally curved with the 90 degree bend so the rib was made of one piece of wood, making it stronger than if joined.

Such construction techniques came to mark boats with a unique identity so that they were recognizable in coastal communities as haling from particular locale or the product of a particular building. Mr. Guthrie built boats for commercial fishermen in Florida during the 1940s that were noted for Styrofoam refrigeration units that permitted the boats to stay outside for almost a week and take on 20,000 pounds of fish. There are people in Florida who continue to use a “Guthrie Boat,” and occasionally call to inquire if Mr. Guthrie is still building.

Mr. Guthrie built his first skiff with “little more than a saw, a hammer and a hatchet.” He worked without plans, without drawings and without half models. When asked how he could possibly know if his lines were true without plans, Mr. Guthrie’s matter-of-fact reply is “I walk off and look at it and if (it) don’t look right then I come back and change it.” This skill of building boats without plans is rare and fast becoming extinct. In 1988, he “singed” his first boat, a traditional fishing skiff not unlike the one he built for his uncle 60 years ago, for a New Bern doctor who wanted a piece of history…

Mr. Guthrie recalls his own youth on Harkers Island with a fondness uncluttered by sentimentality. It was a time of fishing for jumping mullet, of shrimping and clamming and hunting and skinny dipping in Back Sound.

He told the writer that he once made decoy sin his younger years and he allowed that they were not as pretty as those made today on the island. “But,” he said, “people used them.” And that, I think, is the key to Mr. Julian Guthrie and to what he represents to the cultural heritage of North Carolina. What he passes to us, the next generation, he passes unadulterated, just as he heart it or learned it, without embellishment. Like his decoys, he is the genuine article…

Mailboat, Fall 1990, Vol. 1, No. 3 Reprinted from “NC Folklife Journal, Summer/Fall 1989

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