What started out as a story based on recent news that the last Friendly’s restaurant in Rhode Island, in North Providence, has closed was diverted by a couple of late-arriving coincidences.
To wit, the story published in this space two weeks ago, about the historic victory of the America, a 101-foot gaff schooner, ahead of a fleet of British yachts in a 53-mile race around the Isle of Wight in August 1851 in what has been known ever after as the America’s Cup, has Friendly’s, and a few more local connections, in the telling.
I wrote in that earlier piece that the captain of the America, Richard “Dick” Brown, was raised in Mystic, and that the first mate, Nelson Comstock, came from New London. That surely meets New England standards of local, just as Friendly’s, dating to 1935 in Springfield, Mass., did (and in Mystic and Norwich, anyway, still does). But, as it happens, there is indeed more density and depth than in a 22-ounce Fribble milkshake to the tale.
The original America, built in New York and launched in May 1851, was sold less than two weeks after her victory, and sold a few more times before being brought back to the United States, signing on with the Confederacy during the Civil War, where it was scuttled, then raised and repaired by the Union and entered the U.S. Navy, serving gallantly in the war, eventually becoming a training vessel at the U.S. Naval Academy. She was sold again, raced here and there and finally ended up back at Annapolis, where she was neglected and ultimately ruined when a shed collapsed during a snowstorm in 1942. What remained of her was burned in 1945.
There have been three replicas of the America built, two by U.S. shipyards — in Maine and New York — and the most recent in Bulgaria.
Taking the second one first, Scarano Boatbuilding of Albany, N.Y., built it in 1995, and she remains in use, privately owned and sailing around the world as an official partner of the America’s Cup Tour.
Don Rich of Mystic, with the Connecticut State Police for 20 years and TowBoatUS in Mystic for 23 years, tells me his father, the late Ed Rich of Norwich, hand-carved the name board on the transom and the trailing boards on the bow for this replica. “I saw her in Mystic a few years ago and the carvings were still on the boat,” Don Rich wrote in an email.
Ed Rich, who died in 2003, was the legendary “Bean Hill Whittler.”
As for the Friendly’s connection to the America legacy, recall that what became a much-beloved chain of ice cream and light-diner-fare shops was started by two brothers scooping ice cream in Springfield in 1935. One of the brothers, Curtis Blake, died a few months ago at ago 102. The other brother, S. Prestley Blake, still very much with us at 104, once owned the first replica of the America.
Pres Blake, as he is known, is the father of Benson Blake, who has a home in Stonington and is a noted sailor.
That first replica of America was built by Goudy & Stevens Shipyard in Boothbay, Maine, and launched in 1967. She was built for Rudolph Schaefer II, head of the family-owned F. & M. Schaefer Brewing Co., then of Brooklyn, N.Y., and a renowned yachtsman.
Schaefer, who died in 1982, and his son, Rudolph Schaefer III, who died in 2011, were major benefactors of Mystic Seaport. The New York Times, in its obituary for the elder Schaefer, said he helped “support the United States retention of the America’s Cup and the rebuilding of Mystic (Conn.) Seaport.”
In 1972, Pres Blake bought that first America replica for $500,000. Apparently, he soon regretted it. According to a 1982 U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruling against Blake in a tax suit brought by Blake involving the replica, “Blake … had nothing but trouble with the yacht. The vessel required frequent repair … He ultimately decided to dispose of the yacht, in his own words, he ‘had to get rid of [the America] at all costs,’ because it ‘was taking too much … time and concern.’”
He tried to donate it to Mystic Seaport, but the Seaport declined the gift. He ended up negotiating with a charitable organization associated with the United States Merchant Maritime Academy at Kings Point, N.Y.
The way the donation played out, wrote the appeals court, Blake, after discussing ways to assure the yacht’s maintenance at Kings Point, transferred to the Kings Point charity 35,000 shares of Friendly stock to use as it wished to advance training for young cadets. “The stock had an adjusted basis in Blake’s hands of $98, but a market value of $686,875 at the time of transfer,” wrote the court. “The (charity) immediately sold the stock …netting $701,688 … $675,000 of which (was) to be used for the purchase of the yacht America.”
The charity, after taking possession of the America, then proceeded to sell it, which it eventually did for $250,000.
Blake, in his suit against the federal tax court, argued that the transfer of the stock should be treated as a contribution and the transfer of the yacht as a sale. The tax court ruled the opposite — that for tax purposes, the gain realized on the sale of stock was attributable to Blake and only the market value of the yacht was deductible as a contribution. The appeals court agreed with the tax court judge.
In 2011, Brigantine Media, in St. Johnsbury, Vt., published “A Friendly Life: The Autobiography of S. Prestley Blake, Co-founder of Friendly Ice Cream Corp.”
It needs another chapter. He also built, and sold in 2016, a faithful recreation of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello at his home in Somers, Conn., but reportedly had other plans for it involving a college in Michigan and buying this replica back.
At age 104.
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist. He may be reached at email@example.com.