On Saturday, February 5th we lost Frank “Boat” Williams, he was 104. Frank Tracy Williams was born on November 24, 1906 in Waco, North Carolina and grew up in Cherryville, NC. His friends called him “Boat” Williams.
Frank Williams was the oldest active dealer of motorboats and cars in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. Frank was a successful and respected Chris-Craft dealer in South Carolina, with dealerships in Greenville and Anderson, SC beginning around 1938.
Frank was married to Virginia Juanita Williams, who passed away in 2002 after 76 years of marriage. They were married in 1926 and Williams often told the story of the first time he saw her. They met when he was fifteen and she was thirteen when she came to his house to hear his family’s piano playing. Frank would say “When this lovely young girl came in the house I was excited naturally,” he said. “For years and years she stuck with me through high and low.”
Here’s a great shot of Frank Williams doing what he enjoyed, spending time at the dock visiting with his friends and fellow antique boat enthusiasts. At the time he has recovering from hip replacement surgery and wasn’t very fond of the wheelchair. One of Frank’s trademarks was always the fresh flower in his front pocket.
Frank with long time friend Jeff Corrigan. Frank restored three wooden boats for Jeff and later trained Jeff to do restoration work.
I never had the opportunity to meet Frank Williams, and only recently learned about the legendary man through Robert & Linda Miracle. Robert & Linda met Frank and interviewed him while attending ACBS boat shows in the South Carolina area. Robert was determined to share the story of Frank Williams and together with Jeff Corrigan, we were gathering information for a story on Woody Boater when Franks health began to fail in January.
While researching the Frank Williams story, I came across a great article that was written for the Summer 1996 Edition of the Brass Bell, the official publication of the Chris-Craft Antique Boat Club. We recently received authorization from Chris-Craft Antique Boat Club to share this heartwarming story of Frank “Boat” Williams and to remember him for his honesty, integrity and life long contribution to the hobby.
“Really a Chris-Craft Man”
It all started when he was 6 or 7 years old. While playing outdoors, he heard a little outboard motor running in the mill pond. He stopped and listened, enthralled by the sound. . . and the rest, as they say, is history.
This rather ordinary childhood experience led Frank Williams of Landrum, South Carolina to pursue and enjoy an extraordinary lifelong love affair with Chris-Crafts, and, with the able assistance of his wife, Virginia, become one of the company’s most successful and respected dealers.
Williams shared his story with your editor and associate editor while attending the Hartwell Antique and Classic Boat Show, where he was a featured guest. From the day he heard that little motor, Williams said, he knew he wanted to own and ride in his own boat someday. As he grew older, Williams became intrigued by engines of any sort—boats, automobiles, motorcycles, and even airplanes. Yes, airplanes!
When Williams was in high school, an airplane flew over town one day. He turned to a classmate and said, “If he can do it, we can too.” With that, Williams got busy building an airplane. As for motorcycles, Williams commented on his first, an Excelsior one-cylinder. According to Williams, “You pushed it off, jumped on and rode. If you came to a hill, the Excelsior motorcycle people furnished you with a little friction enhancer that looked like a bar of soap that you rubbed on the belts to keep them from slipping. Then you made another try at the hill.” Later, he graduated to a Harley ’74.
Williams’ love of engines continued throughout the hard years of the Depression, when he worked for $1.00 a day washing cars and eventually earned enough money to marry Virginia in Cherryville, North
Carolina. Cherryville was another small town where jobs were scarce, and Williams ended up walking to Spartanburg, South Carolina, having found work at a local auto dealership. Williams worked there until he was able to save enough money to open his own dealership selling Packards. The couple had a son, Leon, and operated their Packard dealership.
Meanwhile, remembering the sound of that little outboard reminded him that his real interest was in boats. Williams had built his own boats and repaired and ran outboards on virtually every lake in South Carolina and North Georgia. Then, as a sideline, he started servicing Chris-Crafts. While his reputation grew within the lakeside communities as the one to go to for the best repairs and the best boats, Williams began to consider a career change. In the words of Virginia Williams, “one day, Frank grew out of cars and said, ‘I’m going to start to start selling boats, period.” Of the boats he had seen, Williams was drawn to the beauty and quality of Chris-Craft mahogany runabouts and cruisers. Deciding that Chris-Crafts were the best, he established his first dealership in Spartanburg. Williams later moved his dealership to Landrum, North Carolina, closer to the Carolina border, where he would be surrounded by more lakes. It was at this dealership that Frank developed his ultimate reputation for excellent service and for running a place where customers could become friends. In fact, boat owners would give Frank Williams the keys to virtually anything they owned.
Virginia Williams recalls many, many, late nights when, anticipating a freeze, a frantic boat owner would call Williams and ask him to hurriedly come winterize their boat “He’d always go,” Virginia said, “any time he was needed, from boathouse to boathouse. The Chris-Crafts were like his babies, and the customers were his friends. Frank is really a Chris-Craft man.” Other boat dealers in competition with Williams even came to him for his expertise.
During the early years of his Chris-Craft dealership, the Williams’ often had to make do with rather limited resources Williams recalls driving boats home from the Chris-Craft plant in Algonac in an old Dodge truck with a little 6-cylinder engine. The boat trailer behind the truck would be rigged with two boats on it, and another boat would be stacked on top of the truck. Nowadays, he says, younger boys think they can’t tow even one boat unless they’ve got a big Suburban or a heavy-duty pickup truck. Williams told how at one point they were so poor that on a trip back from the Chris-Craft factory in Algonac, they blew a tire and didn’t have enough money for a new one. They stopped and looked up in a lady’s yard and saw where she had taken a tire, painted it white, and planted daisies in it. Williams went up into the yard, inspected the tire, and after deciding it still had some life in it, uprooted the daisies and put the tire on the truck. Knowing Williams’ reputation for honesty and integrity, he undoubtably left a dollar or so to compensate the lady for her trouble and replanting.
There are other stories about Williams pulling boats from Algonac, Cadillac, Manistee, Cortland, New York, Coruthersville, Missouri, Holland, Michigan, in fact, there are a lot of stories that have accumulated in the 89 years that Frank has been on this earth. The amazing part is how vividly he remembers and how well he tells them. Virginia Williams, too, has a vivid memory of her years in business with Frank, as she ordered ensigns and emblems and helped him ship boats for a time that, as she said, “seems like all my life.” Mrs. Williams said that her husband is often interviewed and asked to speak at boat shows, where people love to hear him tell “the old stories.” Mrs. Williams, however, says that she wishes he wouldn’t tell some of the things they had to resort to while they were working together, because the sometimes unusual circumstances led to some pretty strange arrangements—like acquiring that tire and shipping those three boats on one truck and trailer. Still, such determination is a hallmark for which the Williams dealerships were known. As Mrs. Williams said, “People thought we were crazy—and we were!”
Another interesting thing about Frank Williams today is how the adrenaline flows when he gets near a boatyard or marina At Hartwell, while others less mature than Williams were walking gingerly along the edges of the dock, lest they lose their balance and fall in, Williams was riskily scampering from dock to dock visiting with the various boat owners and regaling of how he sold identical models when he was a dealer.
The highlight of these stops was when he spotted a 1941 16′. Chris-Craft Step Hydro, proudly proclaiming “Pleeze” from its transom, and shortly thereafter met the boat’s owners, Ray and Mary Tischer. The irony of this meeting is that Williams owned and used the boat when it was new and had completely lost track of it after several sales. Also ironic is the fact that the Tischers, from Ohio, came to the Hartwell show without the faintest notion that they might fortuitously encounter the original owner of their boat and learn the story of its name—which by good fortune, had never been changed. The reason for the boat’s name is as simple as the story of Frank Williams’ life: he never concluded a sale without asking the customer “pleeze.” And, when concluding this interview, as Williams tailed off to his pickup truck to head home to South Carolina, he said, “Pleeze let me get back to you with some pictures.”
For anyone who is interested in attending Frank “Boat” Williams funeral or passing on their condolences here is a link to the Petty Funeral Home located in Landrum, South Carolina.
Photographs for this story were provided by Robert & Linda Miracle, Miracle Photography.