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Down Memory Lane: 133 notches on his square

Boatbuilder Levi Hodder with his notched carpenter square in 1966.
Boatbuilder Levi Hodder with his notched carpenter square in 1966. - Allan Stoodley Photography

Remembering Marystown boatbuilder Levi Hodder

MARYSTOWN, N.L. —

Mortier Bay on the Burin Peninsula has a rich tradition of shipbuilding that had its beginnings back in the early 1800s.

It’s believed the first boats built in the area may have been modeled after the vessels used by early Basques fishermen, known as the “chaloupe.” By the 1840s, the so-called “Western Boats”’ were being constructed; these were 20- to 30-ton schooners, crewed by five or six men and carrying two or three dories, to sail the Cape St. Mary’s and outer Placenta Bay fishing grounds. 

Levi Hodder built his 100th boat in 1966 for Rene and Joe Foote of Burin. It measured 26 feet long and cost $450. The veteran boatbuilder built more than 130 boats of all types during his long career and said he never had a complaint that one leaked. - Allan Stoodley Photography
Levi Hodder built his 100th boat in 1966 for Rene and Joe Foote of Burin. It measured 26 feet long and cost $450. The veteran boatbuilder built more than 130 boats of all types during his long career and said he never had a complaint that one leaked. - Allan Stoodley Photography

During the past two centuries, hundreds of ships of all sizes have been built in this area by local craftsmen, from the smaller vessels up to and including larger banking schooners, like the 134-ft. long Alberto Wareham, three-masted tern schooners and minesweepers. In later years the Marystown Shipyard took centre stage, building and launching steel draggers, ferries, offshore supply tugs and other designed ships that were noted all over the world as being “state-of-the-art” workmanship.

More than 50 years ago I interviewed a gentleman from Creston South who can best be described in his day as being a true entrepreneur and an icon in the building of small boats. It was in June 1966, and 59-year-old Levi Hodder, who up to that time had spent 28 years building small boats, had just “slipped” number 100 into the waters of Mortier Bay.

Mr. Hodder, who told me he had built every kind of small boat up to 34-footers, had been using the same steel square ever since he built his first boat in 1938. On this square he had carved 100 notches, signifying the number of boats he had built.

It was quite a record to have built 100 boats in less than 30 years, and naturally Mr. Hodder was quite proud of it. But the amiable gentleman was prouder still of the fact that never yet had he had a man he built for say it leaked.

He explained he had built open fish boats, pleasure boats, row boats and long-liners for people in almost every settlement on the Burin Peninsula and in Fortune Bay. He completed all the work by himself, except when he attempted a long-liner.

The skill of boatbuilding had been passed down through the Hodder family. His grandfather, Thomas, had built around 40 boats in his day. In Levi’s words “that was quite an achievement when you realize that an axe and a saw were the only tools available.” Levi’s father, James, also did quite a bit of boatbuilding.

At the time I interviewed Mr. Hodder he had two more boats on order. He said it took him about six weeks to complete a boat. The number 100 boat was 26 ft. long and was built for Rene and Joe Foote of Burin who planned to use it for gill-net fishing. He said a small craft like that would cost about $450.

Levi Hodder continued on with his boatbuilding, in addition to periodically working at the Marystown Shipyard and being employed for a while in the construction of a local school. By the time he passed away at the age of 88 in 1996 he could boast of having “133 notches carved on his square.” According to his son, Enos, “the last boat he built was for John Kilfoy of Beau Bois.”

Married twice, he was the father of eight children. His son, Harvey, says “growing up I was Dad’s shadow; we were the best of buddies.” He can remember at 14 or 15 “going up North West Brook with Dad to cut timbers for the latest boat he was building and then floating them down the river to his sawmill. In fact, all three of Levi Hodder’s sons were his carpenter helpers during their teenage years.

While his carpenter’s square records Levi Hodder as building 133 boats, Harvey explains, in fact, he built quite a few more during his lifetime because “small dories, flat bottom boats or the 10 “rodneys” he built for the RCMP did not make it as “a notch on his square.”

Levi Hodder’s daughter, Carol, along with her husband, Sam Cleal, now live down near the water on the land where her father’s sawmill once stood.

The short road from Greenwood Street which connects there is named Levi’s Road in honour of one of the most prolific small wooden boatbuilders in this province’s history.

Allan Stoodley lives in Grand Bank. He welcomes comments on this or any other article he has written. He can be reached at amstoodley@hotmail.com.

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