Don Wilcox was born to spend his days out on the waters of Narragansett Bay.
Its harbors and coves were as familiar to him as the streets and lanes are to a postman on his beat. If someone were to tell me that his blood flowed saltier than yours or mine, well, I’d have no trouble believing it. I expect he was never happier than when he was hauling in a full dredge loaded with mussels, seagulls squawking and swinging through the air above him, starfish and spider crabs scurrying around between his feet. That was his world. That was his life.
Claimed by two different seaside villages, Wilcox – Apponaug’s most prominent boatbuilder, and Wickford’s king mussel man – was at ease and at home in both places, pleased as punch to be living both lives.
Wilcox basically created the commercial mussel-fishing industry back in the 1950s. He imagined and constructed a series of specialized, solid-to-the-core, stable, all-wooden draggers that he could use along with a mesh dredge to harvest bushel upon bushel of these little shellfish. Day in and day out, year in and year out, for decades actually, he and his crew of Apponaug and North Kingstown lads left Wickford Harbor and went out on the Hazel W I, Hazel W II and Hazel W III and dragged and hauled mussels from the seabed of Narragansett Bay.
Averaging 175-200 bushels a day, which were trucked post haste down to New York City in the wee hours of each morning, Wilcox cornered the market on fresh mussels and became the No. 1 mussel harvester on the East Coast. But that’s not all he did.
Most evenings, and during those really awful weather days – and awful is a relative term; for Wilcox, it meant gale, deep freeze, or hurricane – Wilcox the mussel man became Wilcox the boatbuilder as he headed out to his converted garage and labored away on whichever boat he was building at the time.
Over a span of time that stretched through more than four decades beginning in 1951, Wilcox – assisted at first by his friends and coworkers, and then by one of his three sons, Don Jr., Albert or Ernie – constructed 39 different wooden boats, both in Apponaug and here in North Kingstown.
He made each and every one of these fine tough-as-nails vessels utilizing the time-honored and painstaking construction method known as “strip-planking.” This Nova Scotian innovation involves utilizing 1½-inch strips of wood to build the hull of the vessel; the fit, as seen in the accompanying photographs, is so tight, so precise, that no caulking or sealing is ever needed. Strip-plank boats are durable fishing platforms and beautifully-crafted masterpieces of the boatbuilder’s trade.
Wilcox was an intuitive boatbuilder as well. He never used blueprints or engineered plans. He saw the boat in his mind’s eye, occasionally sketching the rough form on the back of an old envelope that he thumbtacked on the wall. Ask him and he’d tell you, “I know what I want for this boat.” Wilcox-built boats are so extraordinary that in a number of National Fisherman magazine articles, they are described as “equal to any ever seen anywhere and far superior to many.”
Experienced boatbuilders and fishermen marvel at the fact that, in a business that is brutally tough on its boats, Wilcox draggers and lobster boats last for decade after decade. These wonderful, working-class vessels were tied up at the dock at the end of Main Street for decades, testimonies to the artistry of boatbuilder and mussel man Donald E. Wilcox Sr.