The boat builders

From the 1930s until the ’70s when I moved away from Georgian Bay, boats — especially wooden ones — have been one of my abiding interests. So it is reasonable that those built on the shores of Georgian Bay would top the list.

There were many of those. Some were pleasure craft, some were commercial boats. I was fascinated by them all, but my favourites were what I call “Georgian Bay boats”. They were typically round bottom wooden launches, most with sedan type windowed cabins and inboard engines. They ranged from 20′ to 30′ feet in length and mainly carried people (cottagers, anglers) and freight, though a few were customized as day cruisers with galley and berths.

A typical “Georgian Bay Boat” of the 1950s. This one belonged to Orval King of Port Severn.

Following is a list of builders compiled from memory. Readers are invited to correct errors or add commercial boat builders to the list by emailing ancientislander048@gmail.com. This post will be edited as new information and photos are added.

Working clockwise around the Bay begining at Collingwood:

W. Watts & Sons, Collingwood — This enterprise started in Toronto in the 1840s by Irish immigrant William Watts and later moved to Collingwood. Years before the shipyard opemed there, Watts was building wooden fishing boats (Collingwood skiffs/Mackinaws), lifeboats, lighthouse tenders, commercial boats and pleasure craft. The family business continued for a century, winding down in 1946, and Watts boats were known right across Canada. A book about these master boat builders was published in 1997.

Believed to be a former Watts lighthouse tender, Puffin became a cottage “tender” near Parry Sound. (Graham family photo)

Geoffrey Noble, Thornbury — A former aeronautical engineer, he had a one-man shop on the Thornbury waterfront where he custom built wooden sailing craft in the 1960s.

Cliff Richardson Boats, Meaford — Cliff Richardson had built a couple of boats in his back yard in Meaford, and with his father operated A.H, Richardson’s Boat Garage at Pointe au Baril in the summers (see Groskorth, below), a business founded in 1914. In the 1930s, the Watts (see above) persuaded Richardsons to take over a government contract to build 21 boats. The firm was off and running and after World War 2 was positioned to construct boats for work and pleasure on Georgian Bay and elsewhere. Below is a brochure showing some of their craft of the 1950s. The company still operates a marina in Meaford harbour.

Richardson boats, from their brochure of the 1950s

Russel Brothers Limited, Owen Sound — Started by Colin and Jardine Russel as a machine shop and builder of logging “alligator” tugs in Fort Frances, northwestern Ontario, this firm moved to Owen Sound in 1937. Specializing in welded steel boats under its trademark Steelcraft, Russel’s soon made its name known during WW2 building various steel craft, including tugs, for the war effort. It also became an agent for Cummins diesel engines. The company successfully built steel boats, machinery and equipment right up until 1993 when it succumbed to bankruptcy.

Vandestadt & McGruer Limited, Owen Sound — Founded in 1965, this company first imported a line of trailer sailers from the U.S Then it designed and built its own line of ten small fiberglass sailboats ranging from 11′ up to 28′. The firm employed 48 people at its plant on the west side of Owen Sound harbour, and produced several thousand boats before closing in 1987.

Henley Boats, Manitowaning — This company is one of two builders of heavy aluminum boats on Georgian Bay. the other being Stanley in Parry Sound. Started in Picton, ON in the 1970s, the Henley business was purchased by Dave Ham and moved to Manitoulin Island 20 years ago. It now produces around 50 boats a year and claims to be the oldest maker of hand built lapstrake aluminum craft in Ontario. Its product line includes pleasure and custom commercial boats.

Charles Low, Killarney — Now a tourist haven, Killarney, on the north shore, in the early 1900s was a busy commercial fishing village. Charlie Low and family were builders and repairers of the local fishing fleet. The quality of their “Killarney Boats” was noticed by visiting boaters. The photo below shows three Low-built “tugs” that were rescued and restored by Americans familiar with those craft. It might have been Lows who built the Ontario Provincial Police cruiser General Williams in the 1960s. She was stationed in Midland where I lived at the time, and rumour had it she was built in Killarney, but today the OPP can’t verify that.

These three Low-built woodeen fishing boats so impressed American boat lovers they rescued and had them restored.

Albert Desmasdon, Pointe au Baril — I have read somewhere that Desmasdon was born near the mouth of the Moon River, perhaps even on a houseboat. I knew him for a couple of summers in the Fifties when he was maintenance supervisor at the Ojibway Hotel. He had built a couple of their inboard utility launches, including my iceboat, and probably others for area cottagers. Like many men of the Bay, he knew his trade intimately. His family name continues today at one of the east shore’s best known marinas — Desmasdon’s Boat Works at Pointe au Baril.

Croswell Brothers Boat Works, Parry Sound — John and William were from a pioneering family at Ahmic Lake, inland from Parry Sound. In the 1920s and ’30s they built motorboats for cottagers. Among them were slim, long-decked craft typical of that vintage. Several are featured in the book Island Odyssey by the Sans Souci Association. One 22-footer owned by the Phillips of Sans Souci still survives and after a rebuild is now on Pacific salt water in Washington state. In early spring of 1969 I was prowling around a boatyard in Parry Sound and noted a pair of that type, but with square-ish cabins, stored beside a waterfront building. I wonder if they were Croswells?

Groskorth, Parry Sound — Carl L. Groskorth owned Sound Boat Works in the 1950s and ’60s. He also was involved in the former Richardson marina at Pike Bay, Pointe au Baril (see Cliff Richardson above). Using a British design by motor torpeedo boat (MTB) builder Hubert Scott-Paine with cold-moulded diagonal planking, he built several extremely sturdy inboard boats. One of them was my father’s Quest, a Chrysler powered 24′ cruiser built at Parry Sound:

Quest built by Groskorth of Parry Sound in the 1950s.

Stanley Aluminum Boats, Parry Sound — Like Henley on Manitoulin Island, Stanley has a product line of pleasure craft and custom commercial boats of welded heavy aluminum. Stanley started in the 1980s, employs 48 people in its plant at Parry Sound, and ships its boats to world-wide markets.

Harold Rourke, Sans Souci — A member of the Rourke/O’Rourke family featured elsewhere in Sweetwaters, Harold’s light has been “hidden under a bushell”, it seems to me, when it comes to his boats. I know of only one design attributable to him but it was the epitomy of a practical, seaworthy launch for carrying people in Georgian Bay. They were about 24′ long with a windowed cabin to keep out bad weather and a spacious cockpit for anglers. I only know of four that he built and they were all for fishing guides: Guy Hebner, Midland; Allan Trudeau, Manitou; Lawrence Longlade and Tom Hewitt, both of Honey Harbour. Sometimes they were pressed into service as water taxis for summer camps.

A fuzzy photo of Allan Trudeau’s guide boat built by Harold Rourke, Sans Souci.

Kings, Go Home Bay and Honey Harbour — About all I know of this family is that they built some motorboats, probably first of wood and later fiberglass, for local cottagers and a summer camp. In the 1980s they opened a boat repair shop in Honey Harbour.

Port Carling Boat Works, Honey Harbour branch, later Honey Harbour Boat Works — Founded in 1925 at Port Carling, Muskoka, this firm built SeaBird wooden runabouts, rowboats and canoes. Recognizing a market among Georgian Bay cottagers, they established a branch plant in Honey Harbour. Production was interrupted by World War 2 when this facility turned out nine Fairmile B patrol boat and two wooden minesweepers. When war ended, they returned to building mahogany runabouts and several water taxis to serve local cottagers. Port Carling sold the faclity and it became Honey Harbour Boat Works operated by the Milner family. Today it is the Honey Harbour Boat Club marina.

Paul Macey, Honey Harbour — Before and after World War 2, Paul Macey custom built boats for cottagers (make-and-break powered double-enders, and inboard launches), also water taxis and utility boats.

Emery O’Rourke, Honey Harbour — You can read about Emery here He built his own water taxi fleet and custom built boats for his marina clientele.

Lawrence Barron, Port Severn — After learning to build wooden boats with Emery O’Rourke in nearby Honey Harbour (above), Lawrence Barron set up his own shop in his native Port Severn, western terminus of the Trent-Severn Waterway. With his two sons, over 40 years he built and repaired wood and fiberglass craft there. But wooden boats were always his favourites, he told a writer for the Toronto Star in 1994.

Brodeur Brothers, Waubaushene —

Folmer Nielsen, Port McNicoll and Honey Harbour — This skilled Scandinavian boat builder set up shop at Port McNicoll where he built a twin-screw cabin cruiser for a cottager and a cruising sloop for a Midlander, among others. He later moved his shop to Honey Harbour, and unfortunately died far too young. One day I was heading back to Midland in my small cedar strip, and when I hit a wave the oak transom under my new 18 hp. Johnson crumbled. I limped to Nielsen’s dock and he replaced it with a solid mahogany transom for a ridiculouly reasonable price.

Vic Carpenter, Port McNicoll and Parry Sound — “I’s da bye who builds da boat, an’ I’s da bye who sails her” That Newfoundland ditty could well have applied to legendary sailboat designer and builder Victor Carpenter who, with his wife Hazel, in 1964 moved from Michigan and set up shop in the CP basin at PortMcNicoll. Vic’s mother was a Newfoundlander who married a Michigander. He was an advocate of wood/epoxy boat construction and custom built sailing yachts of the highest quality. Avid sailers themselves, Vic and Hazel and some of their boats were familiar to racers in the annual Mackinac event. They moved to Parry Sound in 1993 and became sailing and building legendss there too. After several strokes, Vic died there in 2012 at the age of 82.

Great Lakes Foundry & Machine Company, Midland

Midland Boat Works, Midland — Although officially known by that name only since 1945, this enterprise has roots going back to the early 1880s. That is when a canoe builder named “Pops” Smith set up shop on Midland’s waterfront. W.H. Hacker bought it, named it Midland Boat and Canoe Company, built houseboats there and rented them out to people living among the islands. Capt. John G. Gidley was the next owner and after World War 1 he sold it to Ganton Dobson. In 1922 N.K Wagg and the Honey Harbour Navigation Company bought the small craft portion of Dobson’s business, adding the rest — Georgian Bay Shipbuilding and Wrecking Company — in 1941. During WW2 this operation built 7 Fairmiles (one played a role in the surrender of a German submarine at Newfoundland), 2 minesweepers and numerous smaller military craft. After changing its official name to Midland Boat Works, it was ready for the post-war consumer boom, developing a versatile product line. See brochure below. (The foregoing facts are credited to my former employer the Midland Free Press whose archives now belong to Huronia Museum of Midland, and to the Georgian Bay Heritage League.) The name has since been attached to restaurants on the site, but there is a marina on the waterfront there.

Midland Boat Works brochure. The 18-footer was popular, called by some the Sea Jeep.

Gidley/Grew Boats, Penetanguishene and Owen Sound — First there was the Gidley Boat Company Limited founded in 1874 at Penetang. They started by building rowboats and canoes, and after 1900 motor launches, including Orville Wright’s Kitty Hawk. According to an old Grew brochure Gidley was a father-to-son business and built boats famous for their quality. Some designs were so popular, Grew continued to custom build them when they bought the business in 1939. Then with WW 2, Grew went flat-out building vessels for the war effort, including 8 Fairmiles, 2 minesweepers, and various wooden military craft. Post-war, Grew built some custom police and patrol boats, but focussed on the consumer market for wood and later fiberglass pleasure boats. After ownership changes and a relocation to Owen Sound, the company closed around 2011, after the owner died exchanging gunfire with police: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grew_Manufacturing

Grew boats of the 1940s, “50s and “60s, from their brochure at that time.

Norse Boat and Ski, Penetanguishene — These inboard launches built by the Ulrichsons of Penetang, like those of Harold Rourke, above, were well designed for Georgian Bay conditions. Of the dozen Norse craft, from 18′ up to 40′ that I can remember, all were sturdy and very seaworthy. One husky utility version was used by Ontario Hydro to go out in almost any weather from Penetang to service island cottages In 1971 when I was “between jobs” I had the privilege of skippering a 24′ Norse — almost identical to this one http://antiqueboatamerica.com/Boat/28387 — for Ogilvie Flour’s customer fishing trips out of Midland. The Mary Bea was a beautiful boat.

Blondins, Lafontaine — My first boat was a 13.5′ cedar strip outboard built by Blondins, located just outside Lafontaine. I know of only two other Blondin boats, both small outboards, one custom built in the early 1970s, although I’m sure there must have been many more. Apparently, Blondins also made nice rocking chairs and even dogsleds– obviously skilled woodworkers.

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