Photo by Ruth Welch
The story has been told of a sculptor who was asked how he proceeded in carving the statue of an elephant. He is quoted as saying, “I merely break and cut off whatever part of the stone does not resemble an elephant and what is left has to be right.”
 
Of Manuel Swartz Roberts, house carpenter, boatbuilder and cabinet­maker, it was said, “Manuel sees the figure that he plans to make in the rough log before he ever picks up his tools”, and this has never been disputed by those who knew Manuel best.
 
A man of unusual talent, he learn­ed the carpenter’s trade as a youth and worked at it for some time. But the first boat he tried his hand at building was a catboat, generally admitted to be the most difficult of any small craft to construct. From this beginning, which was in the nature of an experiment, he built up a reputation as a catboat builder that extended wherever catboats sailed and for close to half a cen­tury, he conducted his one-man shop, and stored and maintained a number of pleasure and commercial boats.
 
It was said of Manuel, at his Masonic funeral service, that he was a man who held the lives of the fishermen in his hands as he built and repaired their boats. The fish­ermen knew this and trusted him and never betrayed that trust.
 
But not only as a boat builder was he admired and trusted. He had a wide following of men from all walks of life. His shop was a gathering place in every month of the year. The fishermen congregated there during stormy winter weather, and summer visitors visited the shop in summer.

 

Early Childhood

 
This latter group made Manuel’s acquaintance in early childhood, for he could not stand to see a small boy or girl disappointed, and when youngsters were sailing their little boats in Edgartown harbor and had mishaps, straight away they would go to Manuel to tell of a broken boom, a damaged rudder, and a “race coming up tomorrow”. Could he help them out? And Man­uel would stop work on something that might be highly important to get the boat sailing once more. He probably never collected payment for the service, but he did make firm friends, and likewise, cus­tomers who would not do business with anyone else.
 
He had a faculty of deflating the pompous, and was never impressed by loud talk or the hint of wealth. Manuel was at work on a quahaug­er’s boat one summer day when a brass-trimmed auxiliary docked and a purple-faced heavyweight, clad in white duck, landed.
 
“A deck-fitting has fetched away,” said the caller. “I can’t belay my halliards properly without it and I am due in Mattapoisett tomorrow morning without fail. Have you got a bronze cleat and can you install it? And remember, I’m in a hurry!”
 
Manuel continued to plane the plank in his vise and reckoned that he could replace the fitting and would do so, but he spoke rather indifferently.
 
The caller turned a few shades deeper purple and let it be known that he was not accustomed to waiting for anyone or anything.
 
“Come in and sit down!” said Man­uel, still planing. “When I get through with this job I’m on, I’ll fix you up and you will make Mat­tapoisett just as soon if you just relax and make yourself comfortable in the meantime.”
 
The man glared and choked as he tried to erupt, but the words would not come. Finally he settled on a battered carpenter’s horse and said: “I guess you’re right at that”, and the dove of peace settled down on the rooftree.
 
He had a steam boiler in the shop which supplied steam for bending boat timbers. One day a loafer put a foul pipe on one of the steam jets, opened the valve slightly and blew steam through his pipe to clear it. Five minutes later Manuel opened that same valve and smeared his fingers with the black and oily goo. The guilty party learned things about himself and his ancestors that he probably had never suspected!

 

Brassbound Attorney

 
Even worse was the scene when a brassbound attorney visited Man­uel one dayy in connection with an at­tempt to break a qill left by a man who had been a close friend of Man­uel for years.
 
“Of course,” said the attorney, “you realize as well as anyone else, that Mr. So-and-So’s mentality was far from being stable, and that he was not responsible when he made this will. Your testimony to this effect, will be of signal assistance in setting aside some of the will’s provisions.”
 
“You This-and-That!” said Manuel straightening up from his bench and waving a hatchet. “Old So-and-So’s brain was a damnsite more stable than yours and if you don’t get to hell out of here in half of no time I’ll investigate it in my own style!” The attorney left without loss of time.
 
But such things very seldom oc­curred. Although Manuel’s shop was generally known as being the coldest place in Dukes County, there were always loafers there in winter. A row sat on his workbench, moving when he approached with a job to do, but returning immediately after it was completed. Edgartown his­tory, traditions, and the skeletons of old families were discussed and Manuel could always add details not generally known. And he could re­late anecdotes from the hearty days of whaling when ships were fitting out and discharging at the docks. But always he was building boats, or re­pairing boats. He built a tugboat once to go to Africa on the deck of a steamer and to serve a trading post on a river. And when other work was slack, and there were such times, he turned to cabinetmaking and furniture building. In this last, he excelled in turning out reproductions of antiques, making many of the so-called “tip-top” stands or tables in choice woods and with a finish equal to Chippendale’s or other ancient masters.
 
But all men who knew Manuel knew that he lived by a code of his own and that this code must be observed. There was no liquor in Manuel’s shop, either in pockets or stomachs. If a man wanted to smoke, fair enough, although Man­uel never used tobacco, but woe betide the man who cleaned his pipe and left smears of pipe dottle anywhere about. The goo from a foul pipestem not only nauseated Manuel, but it made him mad clear through if he got his .fingers ‘into it.

 

Old Friends

 
Scores of his old friends preceded him in death, but there was deep mourning when Manuel finally sailed west. There are still those who have loafed in his shop, now an art gallery, who can recall scenes in that building when the floor Was covered with a toot of shavings and sawdust, when the table saws and band saws buzzed and the hammer or caulking mallet tapped all day long.
 
They can picture Manuel, swing­ing his axe, which was razor-sharp, hewing a stem for a boat, or cutting the rabbet in a keel, and how he would lay down his broad axe to hail a newcomer and exchange in­sults, purple-trimmed, in a manner impossible except between the fast­est of friends.
 
They remember the summer vis­itors, retired bankers and others, who would appear in faded dun­garees, and become a part of the picture, being taken for ancient whalemen, at times, sought by art­ists who painted them as they sat in the shop or on the doorstep. Not for anything on earth would Manuel have disrupted the dreams of those artists, and the gray-haired subjects never cracked a smile, but sat in silence as they were painted into the picture representing them as something that had outlasted a vanished century.
 

Always Helpful

 
Kindly, generous, always helpful, and with a hand and eye that could and did bring beauty and art to light from the most ordinary and rough material, Manuel Swartz Roberts was the embodiment of the best in his own generation and probably at least two preceding ones - where craftsmanship was concerned, and the traditional Yankee principles, as well.
 
Tutored from childhood by staunch old habitues of the waterfront who recognized the value of a reputation more fully than any other generation or group, Manuel had absorbed their teachings and philosophy, never forgetting or ignoring either.
 
For it has been said, that of all the men who built, rigged, fitted and sailed ships, the caulker who filled the seams was trusted most fully. His work was never checked, or questioned, but was accepted as perfect. Manuel Swartz Roberts belonged to that ancient clan.