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 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
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.
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.