John Swienton always seems to be peering out from under his low-slung hat brim. Back in the day, the classic swordfish hat was his de facto trademark, long before his Eat Fish shirts became a must-have for tourists and islanders alike. John doesn’t always have much to say or time to say it, but he’s quick to smile even when busy with his Twin Maples apartments, the bait and tackle shop, boats, docks, guests and, most importantly, his family.
“We don’t really take anyone new” into the apartments, he says. “We use the same charts each year. We just change the dates.” Twin Maples is a throwback, a place where some guests have been staying with his family since the 1960s. Spread across the back side of Block Island’s Trim Pond, it’s a reminder of how the island operated before air conditioning and the constant distractions people avoided by going to the island. Twin Maples was originally built for WWII soldiers who never arrived; John’s parents, Mackie and Madeline, purchased the apartments in 1949, then turned them into guest cottages. Having grown up with the family business, John maintains them just as his parents did: keeping them comfortable, clean and efficient. Even though there’s no heat for cold fall nights, John keeps Twin Maples open through late October to accommodate returning striper fishermen. “The fishermen who come in the fall, they know it. They fish all night and sleep all day, so they’re warm,” John says with a smile.
John always has time to tell a customer where the fish are, who caught what where or what bait has been seen in the harbor, often as the fishermen weigh and photograph their catches, or buy a t-shirt or a bag of eels. Through the summer he’s busy checking his minnow traps each day, changing over cabins for returning guests, retying boats in an afternoon blow, waiting on customers and watching his young granddaughters restock shirts and stick price tags on lures. With a tackle shop out front, a dock out back and John’s constant attentiveness, it takes a lot of work to keep things simple.
John graduated from the island school where his wife Bonnie taught for 25 years. While his four children are grown now, they return for summers and visits with their own five children. For years John lobstered from his Repco 37, the Bonnie S, then on short fall days cleared the deck for totes of surf clams to catch codfish within sight of Clay Head. Mornings are the best time to catch John, when surfcasters pull in for some sleep and while he’s out pushing his grandkids in their strollers. While his face might be hidden beneath that hat, it can’t hide his big smile.