Bob Graves closes his machine shop
Bob Graves is closing his machine shop on Uncas Avenue in Oak Bluffs, the only one on Martha's Vineyard. After more than 25 years in business on the Island, Mr. Graves, 75, is retiring to spend more time hunting and fishing and enjoying his grandchildren. He has been selling off his lathes and shapers and grinders, his stock of blanks, and his inventory of arcane hardware.
Mr. Graves's machine shop made things out of metal. Most of the things he made you can't buy in a store or from a catalogue because they don't exist yet, except in engineers' blueprints and specifications. Mr. Graves told The Times that 90 percent of his business has been crafting parts for big off-Island manufacturing companies, such as General Electric. Last week he was finishing a set of steel pin-gauges to be used to check tolerances in new aircraft engines.
Bob Graves sits in the familiar surroundings of his machine shop. Photo by Ralph Stewart
However, local folks sometimes need a machine shop, too. Sitting on Mr. Graves's desk last week, among piles of blueprints and a clipboard full of phone messages, were two old-fashioned keys, about four inches long and of unusual design. The antique county jail in Edgartown needs half a dozen new keys made before Mr. Graves closes up shop for good. The locks they will fit were made in the 19th century.
When something breaks on a farmer's baler or a commercial fisherman's winch, he needs to get it fixed. Perhaps he can get it going again with something he has lying around his workshop, but more often than not, it needs a specialized part.
Finding replacement parts can be a nightmare. When Nancy Cabot needed a longish setscrew for her antique Singer sewing machine (circa. 1930), no hardware store on the Island had one that would fit, and the folks at Singer just laughed. The screw was tiny, but the machine couldn't be used without the lever it secured. Eventually someone suggested Bob Graves. Years later she can still recall the shop's distinctive and not unpleasant aroma of lubricating oil and hot steel - a no-nonsense, workmanlike smell. Sure enough, he found the right screw in a tall cabinet fitted with dozens of little drawers.
Some Island farm or boat machines, like the old Singer, haven't been made for so long that no one makes parts for them anymore. Even if the machine is relatively new, the manufacturer may consider that odd-shaped bracket part of a larger assembly and can't (or won't) sell you just the bracket. Or perhaps it's just that the hay needs to be baled before rain spoils it, or the fisherman needs to get to sea before the state says the quota has been met. Getting a part shipped here takes time.
You wouldn't go to a machine shop every time you need a replacement part, but when you need a part made, no one else can help you. For more than 25 years, there has been only one machine shop on Martha's Vineyard.
The lure of the Island
In 1981, Bob Graves had been coming to the Island for years as a summer vacationer. His late wife, Shirley (née Hinson), brought him to her family's summer home. Bob, a hunter and fisherman, loved Martha's Vineyard and the kindred spirits he met here. The Graves family - Bob, Shirley, and eventually eight children - came to the Vineyard for two weeks every year. In 1978, living in Springfield, Mr. Graves had quit his job working for a tool-and-die manufacturer and expanded the moonlight machine shop in his garage to a full-time business. He was making more money in his garage than in his regular job. When he suggested to his wife that he could move the business to the Island, she was thrilled with the idea.
In 1981, Mr. Graves bought Machine and Marine in Vineyard Haven from Dan West (who had in turn bought it from Miles Carpenter). In 1984, when Mr. West needed the space for boat building, Mr. Graves moved the machine shop to Uncas Avenue.
Mr. Graves says that coming to the Island was a good personal choice, but, "It wasn't the smartest thing in the world to bring a machine shop to the Island." There is not much local business, and servicing off-Island clients involves some inconvenience and extra expense. However, it was a choice he has never regretted, and he told The Times, "I want to thank all my customers and friends for all their support over the years."
Mr. Graves is selling off his equipment piecemeal because he could find no one interested in buying it all and running an Island machine shop. He told The Times, "Someone will fill the void." He said there are lots of welders on the Island and named three men who own a metal-working machine or two. But there soon will be no real machine shop on the Island, and farmers and fishermen (and users of antique sewing machines) may have to scramble.
But there is a ray of hope. He says that he will move a couple of unsold machines to his garage, just to keep his hand in and earn a little money. Vineyarders who know Bob Graves may still find a part to keep that pesky old machine working.