History Of Wooden Boat Building In Canada Featured At The 2013 Wooden Boat Conference

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Mary Storey, archivist of the Muskoka Steamship and Historical Society gave an extremely well-illustrated presentation recounting the birth and growth of Greavette Boats Ltd.

Last weekend Antique Boat America hosted the popular 2013 Wooden Boat Conference and Seminar in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, which was presented by an “A-List” of guest speakers from the antique & classic boating hobby. This year’s conference featured “The History of Wooden Boat Building in Canada” with special focus on boat builders and boating history from the Muskoka Lakes and Thousand Island regions.

This great, informative report today comes from fellow Woody Boater Cobourg Kid (a regular contributor here at Woody Boater) who was on hand for the conference in Kingston, Ontario.

2013 Wooden Boat Conference & Seminar
Presented by Antique Boat America
Kingston, Ontario – April 6, 2013
by Cobourg Kid

Just before last year’s Woody Boater Virtual Holiday Party, Texx advised us that Antique Boat America was arranging a symposium in Kingston Ontario. The conference to be held on April 5 and 6 would provide a stream of presentations and discussions focused on the history of legendary Canadian boat builders, chiefly those that emerged in the regions of Ontario known as Muskoka and the Thousand Islands.

Unfortunately after all of that virtual partying I completely forgot Texx’s important message and didn’t think of it again until a week ago when, out of the blue, a relative sent me a story from the Kingston newspaper that provided details about the symposium.

I must admit I was at first reluctant to sign up. Resources in the Cobourg-Kid family are presently somewhat constrained and expenditures need to be well justified. In this case, however, the old reliable “it’s too far away” excuse didn’t cut it as I live only 85 miles from Kingston. In the end, the lure of boats and Muskoka stories broke my resolve; my inner self was telling me that this opportunity was just too good to pass up. So (with the encouragement of Mrs. Cobourg Kid) at the last minute I resolved to pony-up 75 bucks for the Saturday program.

Dawn on Saturday found me experiencing a frosty spring sunrise as I cruised down a largely vacant Highway 401. Arriving at Kingston’s Water’s Edge Marriott in good time I soon discovered that despite the chilly winter hangover outside, there was plenty of warmth and excitement inside as an amazingly large group of boat fanatics had also turned-up to socialize, learn and trade stories.

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Peter Mellon, President of the symposiums sponsor Antique Boat America welcomes the speakers & participants to the symposium.

The symposium launched on time with a quick overview of the day’s activities followed by an introduction of the first speaker (Tony Mollica) provided by the affable Peter Mellon, president of the symposiums sponsor Antique Boat America.

Tony Mollica is a well-known historian and author of many books (many of you probably own his histories of Gar Wood and/or Chris-Craft) who is well steeped in the heritage of the Thousand Islands, and who on this occasion had been charged with providing us with the illustrated history of Hutchinson Boat Works.

Why was Hutchinson (a firm based in Alexandria Bay, NY) being discussed in a forum devoted to Canadian Boat Builders? As Tony wryly explained, the Hutchison brother’s grandfather was a Canadian.

According to Tony, from 1902 to 1964, Hutchinson constructed well over 250 boats. During that period the firm built an amazing array of boats, including houseboats, launches, racing boats, cruisers, runabouts, sedans, utilities, and even large coastal patrol boats for the US Government.

Hutchinson ultimately stayed in business longer than most of its contemporaries because it quickly developed and sustained a reputation for craftsmanship, quality and reliability, both in its one-of-a-kind hulls (which were tailored to meet exacting customer needs) and in its stock production boats.

Tony provided the audience with many photos highlighting the quality, attention to detail, workmanship and unique features that Hutchison put into each boat it produced and surmised that these attributes may explain why a larger than normal percentage of the firm’s products have not only survived but are treasured by their owners today.

More of Tony’s amazing research on this iconic brand can be found at the publication Thousand Islands Life.com and searching Past Issues which lists a series of Tony’s stories.

Next Mary Storey, archivist of the Muskoka Steamship and Historical Society (and proud owner of a Greavette Dippy) gave and extremely well-illustrated presentation recounting the birth and growth of Greavette Boats Ltd.

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Mary Storey presenting the history of Greavette Boats and announces the new Canadian Heritage Boat Data Base Registry.

Greavette Boats was constituted in the depths of the great depression when Tom Greavette, sales manager for Ditchburn Boats of Gravenhurst Ontario, defected and started his own company (Initially called Rainbow Craft) immediately across a small bay from his former employer. Not unexpectedly this created a noticeable rift in the small community. The new enterprise soon faltered and would likely have failed had it not been for the early intervention and involvement of Ernest Wilson, President of Ingersoll Machine & Tool and summer resident of Muskoka.

Unlike Ditchburn, Greavette concentrated on a production line approach to building, developing a variety of standardized models from small outboard fishing skiffs to stylish double ended streamliners. Unlike other contemporaries, it also promoted its products extensively both through published ads and catalogs and through the development and campaigning of a number of winning race boats, including “Miss Canada IV.”

At the end of her presentation, Mary outlined a monumental project that the volunteers at Muskoka Boat and Heritage Centre in Gravenhurst have just embarked on. Recently rolled–out, the Canadian Heritage Boat Data Base Registry is designed to capture information on all wooden boats built in Canada. If you would like your current (or one time) boat included, please give the Heritage Centre a call at 1-866-687-6667 or by email at info@realmuskoka.com.

Next up we heard from Fred Gilbert, the grandson of Nelson Gilbert a Gananoque based cabinetmaker who built two custom Canoes in 1893. Nelson soon loaded those canoes (and himself) on a train bound for Chicago and exhibited his work at that year’s world’s fair, winning an award in the process. On his return, Nelson soon found himself in the Boatbuilding trade, ultimately moving the family to nearby Brockville to pursue it.

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Fred Gilbert, the grandson of Nelson Gilbert a Gananoque based cabinetmaker who built two custom Canoes in 1893.

A dynamic octogenarian, Fred led the audience on a well-illustrated, often humorous and sometimes poignant Power Point journey providing many hitherto unseen family photos and artifacts revealing the facilities, operations, products, catalogs and racing activities of the Gilbert Motor Boat Company of Brockville.

Established in 1904 and officially incorporated in 1911 the firm constructed an amazing variety of boats including sailing canoes, St Lawrence skiffs, long deck launches, outboard race boats, large cruisers and runabouts during its existence. Although no longer active in boat building (which ceased in the early 1950s) the Gilbert family continues to operate a full service Marina out of its original factory buildings on Brockville’s waterfront.

After a break for lunch, (which consisted of yummy heirloom tomato soup, arugula salad and gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches), we soon dove back in with a presentation by Bev McMullen, photographer and author of several books including “Ditchburn A Muskoka Legacy” which she co-wrote with the late Harold Shield.

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Bev McMullen photographer and author of several books including Ditchburn a Muskoka Legacy with Harold Shield. The folks on the screen are Harold Shield and his wife.

Bev’s photos served as a compelling backdrop to her tales about the convoluted weird and often unexpected situations that transpired in the process of finding surviving Ditchburn boats and wrangling access to photograph them.

As a crescendo Bev (who is often referred to as the boat-huntress) recounted how one winter she was snowshoeing across a heavily forested Muskoka property that she had been engaged to photograph when she literally tripped over the moldering remains of the TOLKA (a limousine launch built by the Bell Laboratories in Bedeck, Nova Scotia). Undaunted by its horrendous condition, she subsequently set out to discover what its origins were and to interest a restorer (ultimately wooden boat restorer Peter Breen) who might be willing to resurrect this lost Canadian cultural icon.

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TOLKA – Gull Lake, Minnesota 2012 – Dane Anderson Photo

Up next Tim DuVernet, a well-known professional photographic artist, educator and part time Muskokan, presented a selection of his stunning photographs showcasing a number of well-known historic watercraft from the Muskoka Lakes Region.

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Well-known professional photographic artist, educator and part time Muskokan Tim DuVernet during his great presentation.

Tim also provided the audience with aerial shots of numerous classics zooming across the Muskoka Lakes and remarkable aerial panoramas of last summer’s re-enactment of the famous 100 Mile Cruise from Gravenhurst to the head of Little Lake Joseph. That trip involved an astounding 150 antique and classic boats which followed the path of the historic cruise boats Segwun and Wenonah.

Following Tim’s presentation, John Zidner provided the participants with a well-illustrated presentation on the history of the Shepherd Boat Company. John is a master cabinetmaker and has almost 30 years of experience researching, cataloging and, restoring Shepherds boats.

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John Zidner provided the participants with a well-illustrated presentation on the history of the Shepherd Boat Company.

According to John, the Shepherd‘s were originally carriage makers from Detroit that migrated to the Niagara area. In 1928 Lloyd Shepherd launched a business in St. Catherine’s Ontario which initially built custom truck bodies, gradually transition into other lines, particularly boats. Ultimately in 1939, the decision was made to move production to a new boat plant located at Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Although the firm subsequently suffered a disastrous fire, it quickly rebuilt and soon adopted the production line methodology similar to that followed by Greavette. According to John the firm was very good at promoting its products and even managed to arrange for the T Eaton Company to sell their boats across Canada via its stores and catalog.

Always the innovator, Shepard also entered an arrangement with JAFCO Marine in Buffalo, NY. Completed hulls (with no engine or hardware) were shipped to JAFCO which would complete them in the US, thus minimizing import and export duties and at the same time developing an international dealership network before most other Canadian boat builders.

John related that ultimately founder Lloyd Shepherd and his son Howard Shepherd sold the company to James Hahn in 1958 after which production was generally shifted to larger more profitable day boats and cruisers. The firm subsequently continued to operate under the Shepherd Boats Ltd banner and even experimented with a licensing agreement to build fiberglass Donzi-Shepherds until 1966. In that year Shepherd was sold to Trojan Yachts and disappeared.

More on Shepherd boats including an online forum for Shepherd enthusiasts can be found at www.shepherdboats.com .

The final speaker, Ian Turnbull, is a long time resident of Port Carling, Ontario and has been actively involved in ACBS activities for many years. As a teenager Ian ferried summer guests back and forth to the now defunct Wigwassan Lodge via Wigwassan III and Wigwassan IV – two pre 1930 Ditchburn long deck launches.

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Ian Turnbull – Long time resident of Port Carling, Ontario in the famous Muskoka Lakes Region of Canada.

Ian’s presentation began with statistical data showing the rise and fall of wooden boat firms, steam launches and ships and resorts in Muskoka from 1860 to present, but he rapidly transitioned into a compelling motion picture montage that used historic 8 mm footage and modern digital footage to showcase the many and varied products of Muskoka’s historic boat builders in action in and around beautiful Port Carling, Ontario.

A more fitting and relaxing end to the symposium could not have been imagined.

More on Ian’s adventures as a teenage launchman can be found at The Real Muskoka Story – published quarterly by the Muskoka Steamship & Historical Society.

Many thanks to Peter Melon and the staff of Antique Boat America-Canada for organizing the symposium, and to the many sponsors. In the end, the knowledge conveyed (not to mention the terrific lunch) proved to be exceedingly useful.

Cobourg Kid
Cobourg, Ontario.

Thanks to fellow Woody Boater Cobourg Kid for sending us this great report today. These historical / information based seminars are great fun and go a long way towards promoting and preserving the history of the classic boat hobby. – Texx

Also – The next major symposium / workshop is the ACBS Hands-On Workshop which will be held at the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, NY on May 17, 18, 19.

May 17, May 18, May 19, 2013

Guest speakers include Mike Corrigan (Boat Purchase/Survey), Peter Luebener (Wiring/systems), Bo Muller (Wood Repair or Loeing), Kathy Muller/Mike Corrigan (Staining/Varnishing), Dave Van Ness/Don Wilson (Engine maintenance & repair) and Tony Mollica will give a very interesing talk on some aspects of boating history including the history of the Hutchinson Brothers Boat Works.

Also planned is a private tour of the Doebler boat storage building that houses almost half of the Museum’s collection.

For more information on the upcoming ACBS Hands-On workshop you can contact the Antique & Classic Boat Society website here.


24 replies
    • Chad
      Chad says:

      My “TOP 3” list

      1) My family & friends
      2) Boats & everything else in life
      3) PowerPoint presentations

  1. floyd r turbo
    floyd r turbo says:

    As many Canadians were at the Sunnyland show, you could have had a preview there before the Kingston event and given some yankees a first hand look at Canadian boat production. This would be especially eye opening for those who think that Chris Craft, Hacker, Gar Wood and Century were the only boat manufacturers back then.

    But please don’t bother if you’re going to present it in the “open theater” tent where your presenters have to compete with train whistle blasting, a nearby live music bandstand, amphibious airplanes taking off and landing, ambient crowd noise and bright sunlight that washes out the video screen.

    2 yrs ago, the presentation was much more “palatable” even without a speaker system at the “Temple of Reconstruction” and at Richard Arnold’s Rejuvenation Woodworks in Eustis.

  2. m-fine
    m-fine says:

    Thanks for the thorough report. Sounds like a it was a day well spent.

    I highly recommend the Clayton symposium for anyone who can make it. Just remember to bring a coat, it can be a tad cool out on the water even in May.

  3. Tommyholm
    Tommyholm says:

    Nice report, thanks. I could have save my money for varnish, had I known such a report was forthcoming, but I would have missed those exciting border crossings!

  4. Alex
    Alex says:

    Cobourg Kid, that was a very well written report. Thank you.

    I see bottled water and coffee on the tables, but not a single Molson. You sure this was in Canada?

    • Cobourg-Kid
      Cobourg-Kid says:

      Hey Alex thanks to you ( and others) for kind words. Unfortunately that brewer merged with an american company about eight years ago so a lot of us Canucks no longer think of them as “canadian”. As I was planning to drive home after the symposium I skipped the amber nectar (so I’m not sure what the hotel had on offer) but if i was staying I would have probably gone for a Muskoka Mad Tom

  5. Al Benton
    Al Benton says:

    Thanks for this great report. As with Texx, I feel that I was there, absorbing all the history of Canadian boat building. Thank You Cobourg Kid & Texx!

  6. Sean
    Sean says:

    Excellent report.
    If not for my daughter’s basketball tournament I would have been there, and now I know what I missed. My $75 will find its way into my Greavette if it already hasn’t.

    This weekend? TSACBA workshop in Port Perry!!!! Woo-Hoo…

  7. Greg Lewandowski
    Greg Lewandowski says:

    Coburg Kid,
    Wonderful report that leads me to believe you may have some background in journalism. I started reading it this morning, but was short on time due to an appointment. Got back on the web site as soon as I returned home and thouroughly enjoyed the detailed and well written report. It gives me some great background for my first trip to lake Muskoka this July. I am going to the show with a couple of my Canadian friends, and hope to try one of those Muskoka Mad Toms. If you see the Michigan group at the Friday Poker Run and lunch, please come over and say hello. I would love to meet you.

    • Cobourg-Kid
      Cobourg-Kid says:

      Thanks Greg I have a feeling that you are going to love Muskoka, it’s been drawing folks up from south of the border for over 150 years . As for the amber nectar , the brewers of mad tom tell me that they will be promoting all their brands , including “the legendary oddity,” at the show.

      I probably won’t be at the poker run but I’m planning to do my best to get up to the Saturday show . Hope to track down some of the “characters” that hang out here in the WB lounge then.

  8. Bryguy
    Bryguy says:

    Great review and summary, the Shepherd presentation hit a homerun for me. The one large gap was that the cedar strip crowd from the Peterborough area wasn’t mentioned. Those little boats opened up a large part of Canadian cottage country and there is a great history there. Apart from that the event was well worth being there and if one can make the next one don’t think about just go.

  9. tommyholm
    tommyholm says:

    for Peterborough and such, visit the wonderful Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough. it’s worth the trip.

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