From Stem to Stern: A Brief Survey of Wooden Canoe Collecting

From Stem to Stern: A Brief Survey of Wooden Canoe Collecting

Exploring Antique Technologies
by Kary Pardy

From exploration and travel to pleasure cruising, racing, and romantic excursions, canoes have a long and storied history and offer an equally rich collecting base. Their connection with adventure and outdoor traditions make them strong presentation pieces and lovely, functional antique canoes can still be had if you prefer to take one out on the water. But where to start? This article offers an overview of some of the popular types for collectors and some advice for those looking to begin their own watercraft collections.





Canoes 101

Canoes originated with indigenous peoples around the world, including the traditionally bark canoes that tribes in the Americas built and stretched over wood frames. Europeans recognized the agility, stability, and ease of canoes when they traversed shallow waterways and heavily used them in exploration of the American continent and for pleasure back home. The success of canoes in the Americas and abroad meant longevity, and though canoes faded from frequent transportation use during the industrial revolution, they remained popular for recreation and sport.

Canoes invoked a sense of freedom and nostalgia, and were seen as vessels to escape the modern industrial world and get back to nature. Ironically, their history and build closely mimics manufacturing trends through the years. In the 19th century, new construction techniques and bark scarcity spurred North American makers in New York and Maine to popularize Canadian techniques, including vessels made from longitudinal wood strips. The late-19th and early 20th centuries saw all-wood give way in popularity to cheaper construction methods, including stretching a waterproofed canvas shell over a more simplistic wood frame. As synthetic materials appeared throughout the 20th century, canoes followed suit to fiberglass, aluminum, Kevlar, and Royalex constructions. We will focus on the wooden and canvas examples in this article and canoes from the late 19th and 20th centuries. In the wake of synthetic canoes, the earlier craftsmanship in wood offers collectors a nostalgic escape into fine lines and handmade wonders, and the excitement of outdoor exploration.

Types of Canoes

When thinking of a canoe, one immediately comes to mind with two pointed ends, an open body, and a few bench seats. This construction falls into the standard recreational category. There are several variations on this model, but two, sailing and courting canoes, are particularly popular with collectors.

John MacGregor brought canoe sailing into the public consciousness in the mid-19th century. The Scottish explorer, author, and philanthropist designed a two-masted sailing canoe based on Native American examples and named it Rob Roy after the notorious Scottish outlaw and his ancestor. He sailed his canoe around inland Europe and wrote extensively about his experiences to captivated audiences. Due to popular demand, MacGregor founded the British Royal Canoe Club in 1866 and the American Canoe Association in 1880. Canoe sailing was a hit, and examples can still be found on the market to use and or to add to a display collection. Expect to pay in the high hundreds to low thousands for early- to mid-20th century sailing canoes in functional condition and higher for earlier models.

In contrast to the sleek sailing canoes ultimately adapted for speed, what became known a courting canoe was all about comfort. The Victorian equivalent of driving out to Lover’s Lane, courting canoes were all the rage at the turn of the century and filled up urban rivers such as the Charles in Boston with couples and luxury riders looking for diversion. Courting canoes had beautiful lines and decoration, often with gold detailing, and had long mahogany decks giving way to open center cockpits with benches, though women sometimes sat in the center amongst piles of pillows. These pleasure cruising vessels were filled with things like picnic baskets and phonographs and were so popular that policemen patrolled the rivers in canoes watching out for indecent behavior and even issued a fine, according to the Boston Herald in 1903, for a couple kissing while boating near Riverside, MA. There is little wonder that the tongue-in-cheek term “canoedling” was thrown around. Courting canoes are sought after collector’s items and can be found for a few thousand dollars or less, depending on condition.





Famous Names

As you dip your toes into the waters of canoe collecting, here are some names that will be referenced frequently:

J. H. Rushton

John Henry Rushton’s canoe business, based out of Canton, NY, lasted from 1875-1917. His top-notch craftsmanship made his Rob Roy style sailing canoes popular and according to the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association (WCHA), he built the Vesper canoe that went on to win the first American Canoe Association International Challenge cup for Robert Gibson. Though best known for his all-wood canoes, Rushton did offer a few canvas-covered models. Canvas-covered models (only about 5,500 were built) should be marked with serial numbers, and all-wood canoes built from 1906-1917 will be branded “J. H. Rushton, Inc.”

Stephenson, Gordon, and Herald

Peterborough, Ontario and surrounding areas produced multiple talented canoe makers, but innovators Dan Stephenson and Thomas Gordon have been credited with the initial use of cedar and basswood in canoe designs. Stephenson made several other improvements and variations from the theme and canoe makers in the area followed suit. Dan Herald of Gore’s Landing is credited with officially patenting the cedar Rice Lake canoe. The Peterborough or Rice Lake canoe is a well-known style to canoe enthusiasts today and was described by author Jamie Benidickson as “smooth inside and out, [the canoes] have no ribs, being constructed with double skins or planking.” Canoes from this region and period are especially collectible.

Willits Brothers

Earl and Floyd Willits’ canoe business was based out of Tacoma, Washington from 1908 to 1962. Willits canoes are double-planked all-wood canoes and are prized for their superior craftsmanship and rarity. The brothers made fewer than 1,000 canoes and as referenced by collector Patrick Chapman, their 1935 catalog promised “for utility and service, our canoes are decidedly superior to the canvas covered canoes.” At a time when other companies were branching out and moving away from the costly all-wood style, the Willits brothers stuck with one revered model for almost sixty years. With such superior craftsmanship and so few known examples, Willits canoes are hot items on the market.

Old Town Canoe Company

No introduction into canoe collecting would be complete without Old Town Canoes. The Maine company, which opened its doors in 1902 and is still in production today, may be the best known maker of canoes. Old Town has made over 200,000 wooden canoes and is known for its prolific production, distinctive deck style, use of diamond head bolts after 1920, and sequential serial numbers marking all of its pieces. Serial number references survive as far back as 1905 and can be found through the WCHA forums.

Old Town also absorbed several smaller canoe companies in the nearby area, such as E. M. White Canoe Company and Carleton Canoe Company. Their early canoes were fine wood models, though Old Town had great success with the cheaper canvas covered canoes and continued to update and streamline their production process and style as new canoe making technologies were discovered.





Where to start

Does the allure of paddling through an inland waterway or cruising down the Charles River appeal to you? If you are interested in starting your own collection, there is a canoe for you, no matter what your style preference. Mark Neuzil, author of Canoes: A Natural History in North America, prefers the look of an antique wood canoe and the functionality of a modern offering and chose a “stripper,” or an early 20th century cedar strip canoe covered in fiberglass. If you want the real deal, Old Town’s all-wood or canvas covered canoes from the early- to mid-20th century are a great place to start and can run anywhere from the mid-hundreds to low-thousands depending on the condition and materials. Once you get your feet wet (or don’t, because of your love for canoes), eBay and Craigslist are good places to look for antique canoes, as are the WCHA’s Classifieds, which come with a helpful bonus of informative member forums filled with collecting advice. You can also always reach out to us here for further information. Best of luck on your journey!

For more information:
Wooden Canoe Heritage Association,
Canadian Canoe Museum,
Canoeroots Magazine,
Roger Young’s Antique Model Canoes,
Photos courtesy of Dr. Michael S. Grace

From Stem to Stern: A Brief Survey of Wooden Canoe Collecting