William S. Coperthwaite • 1930-2013

By Steven Foster.

“I want to live in a society where people are intoxicated with the joy of making things.” — William S. Coperthwaite • 1930-2013.

Bill Coperthwaite, Yurt Foundation
Bill Coperthwaite making a birch broom, strip-by-strip.

William S. Coperthwaite, age 83, was gathered on 26 November 2013 in a one-car accident not far from his home at Dickinson’s Reach, Bucks Harbor, near Machiasport, Maine. Bill Coperthwaite was one of those ageless beings one could not peg to a generation. His lifelong passion was teaching others to learn by connecting their brains with their hands to create useful objects, be that a crooked knife, a dwelling, a boat or a poem.

Best-known as the conceptualizer of the modern yurt, he was inspired by the utilitarian design of the Mongolian yurt seen in a 1962 issue of National Geographic. Bill took the basic design concept—a round simple building whose structure was maintained with a tension band—turning it into a practical modern dwelling for simple living. He built over 300 yurts throughout the world, each one incorporating variations on the basic structural design concept, producing temporary or lasting structures of extraordinary beauty.

Bill Coperthwaite, Yurt Foundation
Bill Coperthwaite inside a laced panel folding yurt at the Common Ground Fair in Maine, 1978. We built two yurts in two days, designed to fold, put in a pick-up truck and take to an event.

A designer, thinker, writer, builder, and student; above all, Bill was an educator. He built his first yurt at Buck’s Harbor in 1964, a simple open weave structure with a birch bark roof. He lived off the grid on one of the last undeveloped bays on the Maine coast. In 1960 he purchased 500 acres, with nearly five miles of coast line. He joked that he only had fifteen-hundred dollars, so at three dollars per acre, it was all that he could afford. To visit Bill, one had to hike in about 2 miles or travel 3 miles by sea to reach his home. He had no phone. He had no email address. In his adult life, he had no electricity (though he was not adverse to stopping by for a visit and catching a movie on TV).  It was wise to write a few weeks ahead of time before planning a visit. Bill Coperthwaite traveled the world seeking out the best artisan of a particular knife form, basket, box, boat, chair or other utilitarian object. In the early 1970s, soon after receiving a doctorate in education from Harvard University, he gathered-up Eskimo artifacts from museums in the United States and Canada and took them on a traveling exhibit to Eskimo villages in northwestern North  America. William S. Coperthwaite is the author of A Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004 hardcover; 2007 softcover).

Bill Coperthwaite, Yurt Foundation
Bill Coperthwaite mooring Son Fjord boat, October 1978.
Elixir Farm Yurt, Brixey, Missouri. Bill Coperthwaite, Colin Foster, and Clear Spring School students, 2003.
Yurt built at Elixir Farm, Brixey, Missouri in workshop with Bill Coperthwaite, Colin Foster, and Clear Spring School students, 2003.

On a personal note, I met Bill when I was 17 years old, while working at the Shaker Community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine. A larger-than-life personality, with thoughtful and energetic inspiration, he had a profound impact on my life. From 1974-1978, I helped in the construction of six yurts in New England, and 35 years ago this month, I met up with Bill to assist at a yurt workshop in Reeds Spring, Missouri. That is how I arrived in the Ozarks. In 2003 he returned to the Ozarks and led a yurt workshop for my son, Colin, and his class at the Clear Spring School. The boat pictured below is named for the Norwegian fjord on which it was built, Son Fjord. Bill built this square-rigged single sail, two person oar-powered, fishing vessel. It was extraordinarily stable, fast and maneuverable. One person operating the vessel with oars could speed past two people pumping hard with paddles in a canoe. He talked me into investing $200 in the boat. Rich memories of Bill flood my mind—his hearty sparkle-eyed laugh and Yankee prudence; conversations now silent, questions unasked. I have an envelope from him in my unopened mail. I can only answer with a joyous smile for having known this extraordinary human.

Bill Coperthwaite, August 1979, photo shoot highlighting design and lines of the counterweighted, narrow-feathered, Norwegian oars.
Bill Coperthwaite, August 1979, photo shoot highlighting design and lines of the counterweighted, narrow-feathered, Norwegian oars.
Norwegian Son Fjord, built by William S. Coperthwaite. A calm morning on the Atlantic Ocean, Yurt Foundation, Dickinson’s Reach, Bucks Harbor, Maine. ©1978 Steven Foster.
Norwegian Son Fjord, built by William S. Coperthwaite. A calm morning on the Atlantic Ocean, Yurt Foundation, Dickinson’s Reach, Bucks Harbor, Maine. ©1978 Steven Foster.