August 19, 2022

Tall tales Legend, spirit of Barney Beal lives on at Jonesport landmark

The sun hasn’t even peeked over Beals Island yet, but Darryl Kelley is already wound up, waiting for his coffee at the “liars table” at Tall Barney’s Restaurant in Jonesport.

Every town worth its salt has a liars table or something very close to it, a place where early risers greet each other every morning over breakfast with a mixture of bitter comedy, sarcasm and veiled affection. In Jonesport, for as long as anyone can remember, it is Tall Barney’s, named after a nearly mythical Beals Island resident.

Someone nails Kelly about his new Ford pickup truck, even before he gets his breakfast. Kelley is ready.

“You got a $400,000 home, a $200,000 boat, a $40,000 truck, 800 lobster traps. The only reason you don’t have a [swimming] pool is you don’t have the room, and you talk about my new truck? Your engine is worth more than everything I have,” Kelley says in a voice you could have heard in the dark parking lot outside and on the road leading to Beals Island.

It is 4:01 a.m. and some of the fishermen are already eating a hurried breakfast. “Day’s half over,” says Mitchell Beal. “Half of them are already out there.”

Beal makes a tactical blunder when he answers the phone and admits to landing 75 bags of quahogs the day before. Kelley is off and running. “I used to do cartwheels if I got half that much,” he said.

But Beal is ready by the time he hangs up and gets back to his breakfast. “Most of those quahogs jumped into the boat by themselves,” he says to hoots from his audience.

“Sometimes it gives you a headache, especially at 4 a.m.,” says waitress Dani McKechnie, who has heard it all before. She says she has worked for three different owners of Tall Barney’s and knows the fishermen’s orders before they walk through the door. She is related to “all the Beals and the Alleys,” which would account for the lion’s share of town residents.

“It’s good money. I work three or four mornings a week and am a sternperson the rest of the time. I want to get my license and my own boat,” she says.

Dana Beal was first at the liars table this morning, arriving a few minutes before 4 a.m. He said anyone is welcome at the liars table, if they are willing to take the abuse and give some back.

Dale Crosby bristles at the name of the table. “I am no liar,” he protests.

The Red Sox had lost another one to the Yankees the night before and that becomes the first topic at the liars table.

Someone suggests they bring back George Scott, the hard-hitting first basemen who could actually catch.

“George Scott? Didn’t he write the star spangled banner?” asks one wag with a straight face.

It goes on and on, with a constantly changing cast of characters, as the sun finally rises. But everyone agrees, you don’t know the liars table until you have heard the classic tale of the seagull from the leader of the band, Mark Carver, who has chosen this morning to stay home.

It was the liars table that brought new owners John and Linda Lapinski to Tall Barney’s and Jonesport, all the way from New Jersey.

John admits that he was alcoholic, diabetic and 90 pounds overweight when he was driving home on Aug. 21, 2002, listening to National Public Radio, which chose that day to air a feature on the liars table and Tall Barney’s Restaurant, which was for sale. “It was divine intervention,” he said.

He went home and told his wife that they were moving to Jonesport, Maine. “Where?” she said, running for the map. He called NPR because he couldn’t even remember the name of the restaurant.

Her trips to Maine had only included a few border crossings to York Beach, which most Mainers consider part of New Hampshire. But she was up for a change – a big change. Both had worked in insurance in New Jersey for 25 years and were ready for a change, she said.

They drove the eight hours to Jonesport, made an offer on Nov. 21, 2002, and bought it a month later.

“Everything happened on the 21st. I heard about on the 21st. I bought it on the 21st and we moved in on the 21st,” he said.”

Although John’s mother lives in Bangor and he often summered there, he never set foot in Jonesport before buying Tall Barney’s. It was love at first sight. “Before I came inside, I already knew,” he said.

Almost two years later, the New Jersey transplants are still starry-eyed about their change, despite the seven-days-a-week, 12-hours-a-day work week.

Luckily, all of the staff stayed and owner Joyce Bryant stayed aboard for several weeks to show them the ropes.

The Jonesport restaurant is as legendary as Tall Barney for their huge fried fish dinners. “Each dish serves three. They won’t believe us until the plate comes out to the table,” she says. The clams, scallops and lobster are all a few hours out of the Atlantic when they arrive at Barney’s. (The haddock and shrimp come from out of town. Shh.)

Linda was used to entertaining at home and took easily to baking in the kitchen.

It is said that every new house has a surprise and Tall Barney’s was no exception. John said the biggest problem was the upkeep on the old building.

Both Lapinskis swear on a stack of menus that there is no culture shock from the move. “I can honestly say I miss nothing in New Jersey,” John says. He only goes back to see his daughter and other relatives.

“I got my life back. I lost 90 pounds. I came here to be changed, not change anything here. I work as a sternman on a boat with an 80-year-old lobster fisherman,” he said.

The worst part is running a business which operates seven days a week, 4 a.m. to 8 p.m., he says. There is always something to do.

She admits that she misses the shopping in New Jersey and returns for mall trips a few times a year.

She has grown to love the liars table “They are pretty much the same guys. There are maybe 30 to 40 of them, with 8 to 10 in here at one time. There will be three or four of them out there at 4 a.m. The best part [of the change] is the people. It’s so great to make them happy. It’s a lot of laughs and not like working. They all hang out here. It’s always different.

“We are not trying to turn this into Down East New Jersey. We want to keep this a fun place. It’s their place as well as ours,” she said, glancing at the evening group at the liars table.

The Jonesport winters are a marginal problem.

“Actually, we got more snow in New Jersey. We lived in the mountains. I never worked harder. But funwise, I have never been happier.”

John says, “I love the cold. I go out in my boat until December. The winters are longer here, but it’s not a big problem.”

When John goes off to grill a steak, Linda confesses. She wants to buy a place in the Virgin Islands to spend at least a few weeks during the long winter.

They get a kick out of the summer tourists who say they are “just passing through” when they pull in to Tall Barney’s. (Who is “just passing through” Jonesport?) “I bet we had tourists from 35 or 40 states last summer,” Linda said. “They came from Australia, Europe, all over. The word-of-mouth has spread. One couple from Indiana said they came for the haddock burger, after their friends had been there the year before.”

They all ask about the legend of Tall Barney. Although Barney seems to be the Down East version of Paul Bunyan created by the veterans at the liars table, Tall Barney actually existed. How much of the legend one wants to believe is optional.

Tall Barney is too good to be true. He even has his own ballad, printed with reverence on the last page of Tall Barney’s Restaurant menu.

A book on his life, “Tall Barney,” written in 1975 by distant relative Velton Peabody, explores the man and the myth. Peabody got interested in the stories after reading Richard Dorson’s folklore collection, “Buying the Wind,” which determined that Barney Beal “possessed all the folk tale attributes which are customarily and erroneously credited to Paul Bunyan.”

All of the Beals Island Beals trace their ancestry back to Col. William Beal. He may not have arrived on the Mayflower, but he landed a year later, aboard the Fortune. By the mid-1600s, the Beals had the good sense to abandon the Boston area and settled in the Kittery-York area. Around 1763, Mainwaring Beal Jr. left the Kittery area for the wilds of Bucks Harbor, then to the island that bears his name, arriving around 1775.

Tall Barney was even tall when he was born on Dec. 13, 1835. By that time, the Beals had four generations on the island, had met the Alleys and married a lot of them.

In those days, boys were digging clams by age 10 and hauling traps by 14. Many boys went off to sea by age 14. Barney married Phebe Ann Stanwood, 15, on Dec. 19, 1885, just after his 20th birthday. They must have been an interesting couple. Phebe was 5 feet tall and about 100 pounds. Depending on whom you listen to, The tall one was already 6-feet-7-inches to 7 feet tall, weighing around 300 pounds. They moved into a small house built with lumber from a salvaged sailing vessel and had 12 children, an unremarkable number for the times. He was so big that his knuckles hit the floor when he sat in an average chair. The house was so small that Barney often slept with his large feet hanging out the window, at least during summer weather.

Beals and Jonesport were “dry” towns then, as today. But inhabitants, then as today, do not allow that to be an impediment for any well-earned thirst. Barney often had his thirst, relatives say. Resident Charles Lenfestey told Peabody that Barney used to lift a keg of beer unassisted, then drink from the bunghole until his thirst was gone.

He would neither seek a fistfight nor walk away from one, but he refused to participate in the Civil War, due to his Quaker training.

In a 1971 taped interview, Delcena Lenfestey, then 76, told Peabody that “I have been told that Grampy was 6-feet-7. I do not know his exact height but he was the biggest man I have ever seen.”

When some unfortunate English sailors sought to enforce the international fishing border around Machias Seal Island, they ran into Barney. He landed his catch, then threw the nets on top of the startled English sailors.

“He knocked them down to the bottom of the boat. The officer pointed a gun at Grampy and he took it and bent the gun barrel up so it was looking the English officer right in the face. They scrambled out from it quick and they turned tail and went back from whence they came. Grampy didn’t leave that place until he got ready and went back whenever he wanted to,” Lenfestey said.

She said Barney would land his own loaded dory then pull it ashore, a job usually reserved for five or six very strong men.

When fishermen end their day, they often have a strong thirst. When a Beals boat landed in Portland one day, the crew hit a waterfront saloon and an argument started. When Barney stood up to his full height, the argument ended and some wise Portland boys ran for the door. One started to ride away in his horse and carriage. Barney caught up to him and killed the horse with a single blow, she said.

Merle Beal, great-great-grandson of Barney, told the story of a Boston tough who boarded Beal’s boat to test this now famous Mainer. Beal wasn’t aboard but soon appeared, walking down the dock with a huge barrel under each long arm. That bare-knuckle bout never got started, as the Bostonian decided it was a proper time for a stroll.

Barney supposedly had a bout scheduled with the great John L. Sullivan, The bout never came about, for reasons lost in the swirl of history. “That was the only regret he ever had in his life,” said great-great-grandson Avery Kelley.

On a Nova Scotia trip, some Canadians decided against selling any liquor to the Beals Island crew. Kelley said the crew came back to the boat and asked Barney to try. Barney walked into the barroom, thumped the counter a few times and bellowed for whiskey. The Canadians were so grateful to get this giant off their hands that they gave him the whiskey and never asked for any payment, the tale goes.

The stories go on and on, ending with the tale of Barney’s death on Feb. 1, 1899, at age 63, after a feat of superhuman strength involving a loaded dory. His appropriately sized 7-foot monument marks his grave today on Beals Island.

If you want to hear the rest of the tale, you will have to visit the liars table at Tall Barney’s. Hang around long enough to hear Mark Carver’s seagull story. Then order the gigantic fried fish dinner. It’s big enough for three.

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