The Steamship Authority ferry is the first thing folks see when they arrive in Woods Hole to take their trip to Martha’s Vineyard — it’s the last image in their mind when they wave goodbye to their favorite Island.
Perhaps the most iconic boat to ever grace the docks was the M.V. Islander. The vessel crossed between Woods Hole and Martha’s Vineyard for more than half a century. In 2007, she was replaced by the Island Home.
The black stripe emblazoned across the bow and stern of the Islander was an unmistakable sight for many.
Steve Spofford knew this when he made his first Islander birdhouse, but the story leading up to his initial creation is one that exemplifies how connections to Martha’s Vineyard can be far-reaching and fascinating.
Spofford grew up on Martha’s Vineyard attending the Tisbury School, and he was always passionate about shop class and woodworking. “I remember the teacher’s name was Mr. Norton. We went to shop class and made a recipe holder — two little blocks with a snap clothespin connecting them,” Spofford told The Times. “I made that little thing and was so proud of what I had created.”
He excitedly brought the recipe holder back to his mother, who “absolutely went crazy over the thing,” Spofford said. “I got so much positive feedback from that at such a young age. I think that’s one thing that really sparked my love of woodworking.”
While Spofford’s father, Donald, was building the family home on the Island, Spofford received a Sears, Roebuck woodworking kit from his mother as a gift.
Each week, he would head to the build site with his father and bring the woodworking kit to play with.
At that point, Spofford knew he wanted to be a wood shop teacher one day, and he let everyone around him know it.
After serving in the U.S. Navy and receiving a degree in industrial arts from Florida State University, he knew it was time to pursue his dream career. “Before I married my wife, I told her, ‘Don’t marry me unless you want to be married to a shop teacher,’” Spofford laughed.
For 20 years, he taught woodshop at Marietta High School in Marietta, Ga., before he left the classroom to become an administrator — a decision that made him realize how important teaching children was in his life. “That’s what I really enjoyed the most,” he said.
For the next 15 years or so he was an assistant principal, an assistant superintendent, and after retiring, he moved to Cambridge to become executive director of the Rindge School of Technical Arts.
In the end, he moved back to Georgia to become chief operating officer for a school system he worked at earlier in his life. But every year, Spofford visited (and continues to visit) his home of Martha’s Vineyard. Each time, he brings with him a special creation made in his shop.
About six years ago, Spofford came upon a news story about the old Islander ferry being retired, and it struck a chord with him.
“I looked at the pictures and thought maybe I could make a birdhouse that looks like that boat for my sisters,” Spofford said.
He went down to his shop and cooked something up, but there was no way he could have anticipated how much of a buzz his Islander ferry birdhouses would make back in his hometown.
Before bringing the special ferry birdhouses to his family on the Island, Spofford posted pictures of his creation on Islanders Talk. “It was the first time I really experienced the concept of going viral. It absolutely blew up on that page,” Spofford said.
After endless inquiries from folks wanting to commission Islander birdhouses, the overwhelmed woodworker had a decision to make.
Six months later, he went down to his shop and devised a way to mass-produce the birdhouses using simpler and more time-efficient methods. With two birdhouses taking a full weekend to finish and paint, he knew he needed to come up with something fast.
Spofford refined his methods and increased his production capabilities, then posted on Islanders Talk that he would charge $85 for each birdhouse, packaged and shipped from his home in Georgia. “I wasn’t making much on them because it takes a lot of time and a lot of materials. What it did for me was it allowed me to reconnect with all those friends and people on the Island that I had missed for so many years,” Spofford explained.
The morning after putting the offer out to the Island community, he woke up with more than 125 requests for Islander birdhouses. “I looked at my wife and said ‘Honey, I hope you are willing to help out.’ That was six years ago, and I’m still at it,” Spofford laughed.
While his family and he were trying to downsize from their home, there was no shop space for Spofford to make his birdhouses (or anything else, for that matter).
A year and a half later, he has a brand-new workspace up and running, and has put his offer for birdhouses back on Islanders Talk.
He sent an email to the 50 folks who were already on a waiting list, and after posting on Facebook, he received another 50 orders in a single day.
“Now, when someone sends me a request, I have to send them a response saying I am sold out for all I can possibly make in time for Christmas, but I can put you on the next waiting list,” Spofford said. If a prospective buyer doesn’t come through with payment, Spofford will reach out to the next in line to offer them a birdhouse.
“People are more than anxious to get one. People who buy these things, they buy them three, four, five at a time, for friends, for family members,” he said.
According to Spofford, he has received countless letters and messages from birdhouse buyers telling elaborate and beautiful stories of what the M.V. Islander, and Martha’s Vineyard in general, means to them.
“I hear it all — ‘I met my husband there, I had one of my children on that boat,’ all these memories just wash through these people. I could write a book on these memories of the Islander,” Spofford said. “It’s amazing the special place that boat holds in peoples’ hearts.”
There is still a long waiting list for the birdhouses, but folks looking to get one commissioned after the holiday season can reach out to Spofford at firstname.lastname@example.org.