The Wagemaker Company, Builder Of Wolverine Boats – Both Past & Present

A few weeks ago we discovered a new website dedicated to all things Wagemaker and the popular Wolverine line of boats. The Wagemaker Company has a long and interesting history in the boat building business, from their early beginnings in the 1930′s, and who better to tell us the history of the Wagemaker marque than Bob Speltz from his book The Real Runabouts IV.

Here’s an excerpt from The Real Runabouts IV

Grand Rapids, Michigan always has been and still is the center for making wood furniture. Naturally enough, wooden boat building sprung up in the same general area based on advantages such as good skilled work force, excellent supplies of seasoned lumber, as well as varied types of transportation facilities for shipping and deliveries.

The Wagemaker Company was founded in 1896 by Isaac Wagemaker. The firm concentrated on making wooden cabinets, many of which were sold by the famous Macy Company of New York City. As conditions began to change and competition increased, Ray O. Wagemaker, one of Isaac’s sons, came into the business and in the year 1931 the firm started building wooden boats to complement their furniture division and keep their skilled wood workers busy during slack times.


That first year just 43 flat-bottom rowboats were built. The second year, 1932, saw boat production rise to 86 units with the addition of a new 14′ fishing boat which was popular with the sportsmen in the Grand Rapids area. In 1933 national advertising was started on a very lighted scale. Before long a small dealer network was set up and the Wolverine brand of wooden fishing boats were being shipped all over the midwest. By 1938 Wolverine expanded it’s offerings to 9 outboard hulls plus 3 inboards.

When World War II was finally over, Wagemaker Company geared up for boat building once more. One of the first things they did in 1946 was to build it’s own hardware foundry. This was an important step as few boat builders could claim they had their own source for custom hardware as dis Wagemaker. Over the years this was a wise move as Wagemaker always had a reliable source for it’s own hardware and never had to worry about being “cut off” or loosing it’s supplier because of a strike or other disaster. The later Wolverine boats had some very customized-looking hardware which probably would have been very hard and expensive to have made by an outside vendor.


The firm bought out the molded hull division of of the Plywood Corporation and incorporated it as U.S. Molded Shapes, a a wholly-owned subsidiary of Wagemaker. With this move, Wagemaker assured themselves of a never-ending supply of molded hulls which their firm could finish off in their own plant, as well as sell semi-completed hulls to other builders… both firms and individuals.

Wolverine cedar strip runabouts and fishing boats continued to be popular through the mid-1950′s or so. After that time fewer and fewer straight cedar-strip hulls were produced as customers sought more molded plywood and aluminum hulls each year. In their hey day, Wagemaker employed over 300 men & women and turned out some 10,000 boats a year.

Ray O. Wagemaker inspecting a Wolverine in the paint shop.

Ray Wagemaker and two of his brothers ran the plant until 1954. That year saw the firm offer 50 different models built from plywood, molded plywood, and strip-construction with over 500 dealers scattered across the country. A small number of Wolverine aluminum boats were offered in 1954 as sort of a trial experiment. They sold so well that in 1954 Wolverine also bought out the Cadillac Marine and Boat Company which produced both wood and aluminum fishing boats and runabouts.

By 1959 Wolverine boats had changed to the point where the firm was reorganized into 3 various lines of boats shown as follows:

Wolverine – All plywood and ply lap construction
Cadillac – All aluminum boats
Empire – The new line of all fiberglass boats

Wolverine boats and the Wagemaker Company disappeared from the boating scene some years after this. A disastrous fire plus a switch in market conditions and customer preference spelled the end of Wolverine and it’s wooden boat dynasty. Thus we see the rise and decline of another giant in wooden boat building.

Courtesy Bob Speltz – The Real Runabouts IV


Fast Forward to 2011

In late August, fellow Woody Boater Brian Fogarty launched a new website dedicated specifically to the Wagemaker marque, which includes some history of the Wolverine boats, an on-line Forum, and even an area for other Wagemaker owners to post photos of their boats, etc. Here’s what Brian had to say…

Texx – I am the second owner of a 1955, 14′ Wolverine (Wagemaker) boat with the original 1955 Evinrude 25HP outboard.

I bought it in 2005 at our Indian Lake ACBS Chapter Wooden Boat Show. It had been in storage for 16 years. My dad and I merely sanded it, applied two coats of varnish and tuned the engine up. It subsequently won “Best Outboard” of 21 boats in its class at the 2007 Hessel, Michigan show.

I have been around boats since I was an infant and love the looks and ride they provide. This boat appealed to me because it is light, strong and easy of maintenance due to its molded mahogany ply hull. Our ACBS mission is to preserve these historical artifacts. That is why I have launched the new Wagemaker website at http://www.wagemakerwolverineboats.com/ to bring people together from all over the world to share ideas and resources needed to restore and preserve them.

I have also received approval for Wagemaker Boats to appear in the 2012 ACBS Membership Directory under the Marque Listing along with Chris-Craft and Century.

Sincerely,
Brian Fogarty


Thanks Brian, and good luck with your new website. To visit the new Wagemaker Boat website you can click here.

Also special thanks to Lee Wangstad for providing Woody Boater with the original Wagemaker brochures from his archive for this story.

Texx

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24 Responses to “The Wagemaker Company, Builder Of Wolverine Boats – Both Past & Present”

  1. Al Benton says:

    Texx, cool story! I enjoyed reading the history of of this wood boat company here on WoodyBoater. And thanks to Brian for keeping this marque alive through your great looking website.

    Enjoyed my morning coffee very much today while reading.

    • Matt B says:

      Texx, Did you see our youth group’s Wolverine at the boat show last weekend? They just finished it. It missing some hardware but it turned out nice. I’ll try to dig up some pics.

  2. Andreas Jordahl Rhude says:

    Wagemaker did not purchase Cadillac Boat & Marine Co. They started it from scratch as a wholly owned subsidiary in September 1953.

    Did you know about he Lyman connection? In April 1960 Ray Wagemaker sold his boat operations to Walter and Charles Schott and Harrison Ash. The Schotts also owned Lyman Boat Works at the time. Ash gained complete control of Wagemakr, Cadillac and Empire Boats soon after and changed the name to Ash-Craft.

    There is a history article about Cadillac in the Summer 2010 issue of The Channel Marker newsletter of the Michigan Chapter ACBS http://www.michiganacbs.com

    Andreas

  3. Doug Bosch says:

    What a great feature here at the Woodyboater. I’m a member of the Wagemaker website group and am grateful to Brian Fogerty for his work on getting us organized and leading the charge to bring attention to these great boats.

    Doug Bosch

  4. Frank Miklos says:

    The javelin looks like an Evenrude Lark or a Cadillac Lark…
    BTW The first Evenrude lark was built on a Century Palomino Hull…

  5. Brian says:

    Thank you so much for doing my story on woodyboater.com. We are moving to another website at http://www.wagemakerwolverineboats.com. You ( Texx ) and Matt have a very nice job at woody boater.com
    Thank you very much,
    Brian

  6. RiverRat says:

    1958 Lyman left family owned control when it was sold to Curtis Manufacturing Company of Cleveland controlled by Harold C. Schott who was a summer resident of Sandusky. Curtis Manufacturing sold Lyman in the fall of 1968 to Wyle Labratories of California. Mr. Schott took a national vice president position. The end of Lymans drew near.

  7. brian says:

    I love seeing small boats with the steering wheel in the aft cockpit (as in the 2011 pic of Brian Fogarty above).

    It is almost like they didn’t want to venture too far from that outboard engine – just in case.

    I sometimes wonder what the driver would do with his wife and mother-in-law in the forward cockpit with their 1950′s Marge Simpson bouffant hairdos flying about in the breeze.

    It could not have been easy to see where one was headed.

    • Randy says:

      Ride is a LOT softer in the aft cockpit may have been one reason. Plus, a bit easier starting the outboard if it didn’t have electric start, which most did not in those early days. It is such a short distance to the bow in these small boats that visibility was not that much of a problem.

      These little outboards are a blast compared to the ‘big/heavy’ inboards — like the freedom of being on a motorcycle! C’mon Texx, give one a try sometime!

      • Texx says:

        Randy – Maybe we can find one at Lake Chelan this weekend and convince the owner to let us take her out… You drive & I’ll ride Shotgun.

  8. John Rothert says:

    That mid seat verson of these boats and Whirlwinds was, as suggested, to put you near the engine. Remember in those days you had to pull the cord to start her, and fiddle with the mixture and choke….not remotely…but from turing around and fooling with that stuff….
    John in Va.

  9. Dave Knowles says:

    Brian, could I get your phone to discuss these types of boats and a good time to call

    thanksdave

  10. Martin Yager says:

    Brian: I am the owner of a 1938 wagemaker boat with an inboard Onan engine. I have an intersest in selling this boat. Do you know of a market for such a boat & trailer? If so where would I list this for greatest exposure? Thanks, Martin

  11. gary kilmer says:

    I have a 1954 Wolverine with “Elgin” decals on it. Elgin was Sears and Roebuck’s line of boats and motors so I assume that the original owner (I’m the third owner) bought it from a Sears store or through the catalog.

  12. Sam says:

    When I was a kid back in the late 40′s and 50′s, my dad had a 12 1/2 Woverine boat. The first motor I remember on it was a 16 hp Johnson which was replaced by a 25 hp Evinrude. We all learned to ski behind this boat and had a great time every summer. It would pull 2 skiers easily. We even used to run it at night as it had a deck and stern light powered by a long battery that was located under the front deck. In later years, Dad sold it and very soon it was in an accident it sunk and was never recovered.

    The boat was painted blue on the bottom with white sides and the front deck must have been mahogany as it was varnished.

    If anyone might know what this boat was I sure love to hear about it.

  13. Sam says:

    Just a small addition- in regards to the last paragraph, I know it was a Woverine boat and it was 12 1/2 feet long, but would like to know what model it was and approx. what year it might have been made.

  14. Dave Taghon for Empire, MI museum says:

    Sirs,
    I am looking at a boat built about 1970 called an Empire Speed Boat by seller and its logo on back corner says “Empire” with a short crown above the larger E. They made fiberglass boats here in Empire called the Empire Boat Corporation and we have a row boat about 14′ and wonder if this could have been a run about built in Empire MI. I know Wagemaker made Empire boats also but have not seen their logo. Can you help? I can send some photos of boat and logo if needed.

    Dave

  15. I have been surfing online more than 4 hours today, yet I never
    found any interesting article like yours. It is
    pretty worth enough for me. In my view, if all site owners
    and bloggers made good content as you did, tthe internet will be
    a lot more useful than ever before.

  16. Anyone know about Atchison Boat Works? I am working on a 14ft outboard called a Shannon.

  17. Jake Strissel says:

    I’m not sure if this is the right place to post this, but after searching far and wide on the web, this is the closest thing I have found in accuracy to my search. I am from North-Central Montana and recently aqcuired a small row boat that sat in the quonset of an old farmer for many years. I looked at it and there was a tag on it that reads “Shannon Boat MFD By Atchison Boat Works in St. Paul Minn”. It has the address of that place, but nothing I have found on the internet suggests this place even existed. Accompanying this tag, was another tag that reads Montana Bureau of Reclamation Boat #19. Milk River Project. I know they put in a dam on the river not far from where I got the boat back in the 1950′s. The boat is a 1953 model according to the registration. Could anyone help me find out more history on this boat? I would like to preserve it and restore it to its original state, but without knowing the history, I do not know how to properly do this.

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