Mahogany Masterpieces

Classic antique boats hold an allure for all who witness their beauty, craftsmanship and history
travel, lifestyle, history, culture
Written By Patty Jensen
Photography By Matthew Stephan

Tethered to creaking wooden docks, these grande dames of a bygone era gently bobbed in the crystalline river water, the sun playing tag across the bows and sterns of their highly burnished mahogany elegance.

Stunningly beautiful, the gracious vessels seemed the perfect ladies—until their engines roared to life.

With a bone-bumping rumble, the sounds and scents of the sputtering, gurgling, burping engines put to rest their demure status, all the while contributing to the charm and enchantment of these magnificent watercraft—some more than a century old and others new creations modeled after their ancestors—that had assembled for the recent 49th Antique Boat Show & Auction.

Held annually in Clayton, New York, fronting the St. Lawrence River in the Thousand Islands and sponsored by the Antique Boat Museum, this year’s event during the first week in August attracted nearly 100 of the finest wooden boats in the world. Among the watercraft on display were runabouts, speedboats, sedans, cruisers and motor yachts, featuring famous historical manufacturing names including Gar Wood, Chris-Craft, Century and Hutchinson.

CELEBRATION OF HISTORY AND HERITAGE

“The Antique Boat Show & Auction, begun in 1965, is the longest running antique boat show in North America,” says Frederick “Fritz” Hager, executive director of the Antique Boat Museum. “The historic representation of the watercraft displayed at the museum and at our annual boat show is unmatched, and serves as a pathway to understanding the wooden boat experience and allowing all to share in that experience.”

For three days, 6,500 boat show attendees reveled in glorious weekend weather of cool summer days and sun-drenched skies, providing a perfect setting for the show. Among the crowds, conversations ranged from reminiscing about boats from their youth to “oohs” and “aahs” over seeing these classics for the first time.

“The Antique Boat Show & Auction offers a fun and exciting venue for visitors of all ages and interests,” according to Michael Folsom, director of marketing and communications for the Antique Boat Museum. “Whether a novice to the world of wooden boats or a seasoned mariner, we provide a wealth of activities. You can learn about the history and significance of wooden watercraft, take a scenic tour of the St. Lawrence River on one of the museum’s classic boats, participate in classes, lectures and children’s crafts and games, or watch the grand parade of boats from the museum to Clayton’s downtown waterfront.”

The stars of the event were, of course, the antique boats themselves. Many had their heyday in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, and are as pristine as the day they were built. So it was surprising to learn that several of the motorboats that looked “back in the day” are actually new watercraft produced with perfection to emulate the boats of another era. Among the recreations proudly posing at the show were several Gar Woods, including Spur of the Moment, a 28-foot/8.5-meter triple-cockpit custom runabout built to the specifications of the original 1937 model.

GAR WOOD VERSION 2.0

In the pantheon of classic wooden boats, Gar Wood has a noble position. When you picture the race boats, runabouts and cruisers of the 20th century’s early decades, you are likely envisioning a Gar Wood. The company, begun and named after Garfield Arthur Wood, reached its fame and success with the powerful 33-foot/10-meter, three-cockpit runabout “Baby Gar,” developed in the 1920s. The company’s watercraft represented a glamorous time of high society, luxury and wealth. Gar Wood boats quickly became the “must-have” plaything of millionaires and those who desired the finest things in life. During the company’s lifetime, from 1921 to 1947, more than 10,000 boats were handcrafted.

The company’s closing might have ended the successful series of Gar Wood boats were it not for the Turcotte brothers. Residents of New York, home to many classic mahogany motorboats, Tom and Larry Turcotte had a special passion for Gar Woods, but their love for the brand was never intended to become a business.

“It was a hobby that got out of hand,” says Tom Turcotte with a laugh.

Following the family’s history of owning wooden boats, in 1969 the brothers purchased a 1937 Gar Wood “gray” boat, meaning a craft that was in total disrepair. By meticulously taking the old runabout apart during restoration they learned how to make new ones.

“We began restoring Gar Woods to obtain the construction patterns,” explains Turcotte. “We never used blueprints or specs from the original company. Instead, we created one-half scale models and sculpted the lines from those to build new boats.”

The result was Gar Wood Custom Boats. Established in 1984 and located in Brant Lake, New York, the family-owned business specializes in the construction and restoration of classic Gar Wood motorboats. Each year, a limited number of new boats are created, with models held to the same quality and attention to detail as the originals, including specially selected mahogany hulls finished with 16 coats of hand-rubbed marine varnish, top-grain leather upholstery, and triple chrome-plated bronze hardware.

While adhering to the tradition of excellence set by Garfield Wood himself, these exacting reproductions do not ignore the technological passage of time. Amenities such as hydraulic power steering, audio entertainment systems, high-performance engines and even cup holders are added to enhance convenience and provide a 21st century boating experience while embracing the elegance of the Golden Age of watercraft.

“These boats are not museum pieces—they are meant to be used,” states Turcotte. “We incorporate the style and beauty of the 1930s into each one, but also add elements that help owners use and enjoy them today.”

In the pantheon of classic wooden boats, Gar Wood has a noble position.

MUSEUM OF MAHOGANY AND MORE

Serving as the backdrop for the 49th Antique Boat Show & Auction was the Antique Boat Museum itself, the “premier freshwater nautical museum in North America.” Its 4.5-acre campus hugs one of the most beautiful harbors on the mighty St. Lawrence River and includes exhibit buildings, docks, boatbuilding facilities, a library and a gift shop. The site’s 1,500 feet/457 meters of shoreline provides the perfect setting for the museum’s collection of more than 320 historical and unique boats, several hundred inboard and outboard engines, and thousands of artifacts, all representing the history of these nautical types of transportation. While the abundance of antique motorboats on display with glossy, silky-smooth mahogany finishes and big engines grab much of the attention, the museum offers a spectrum of watercraft.

“We have a vast variety of boats, from a birch-bark canoe and 7-foot dinghy to a nearly 42-foot commuter yacht, a 1924 Gold Cup race boat and a 106-foot houseboat,” says Michael Corrigan, watercraft conservator for the Antique Boat Museum.

As part of the museum’s activities, Corrigan and his crew of volunteers can be found working on boats from the museum’s collection at the E.J. Noble Historic Stone Building, built in the 1800s and the oldest building on the property. Within the cool confines of the massive gray blocks of stone, visitors can observe the craftsmanship that goes into creating, restoring and repairing these timeless wooden boats. Just gazing at the array of woodworking tools—many of whose purpose is almost forgotten—is a fascinating glimpse into the past and present art of boat building.

The stated mission of the Antique Boat Museum is to collect, preserve and celebrate boats in order to help advance understanding of boating’s importance to the cultural history of North America and the St. Lawrence River. Education is one important aspect of that mission, according to Harold B. Johnson II, chairman of the Board of Trustees. Throughout the campus, numerous classes and workshops are taught, with educational offerings to appeal to students of every age. Courses include boat building, youth and adult maritime and decorative knot tying, teen kayak building, sailing and boater safety.

Certainly the highlight of any trip to the Antique Boat Museum is the chance to ride in one of the museum’s speedboats. Visitors are invited to take a 45-minute run through the islands aboard Miss 1000 Islands II, a 30-foot/9-meter triple-cockpit mahogany runabout built in 1999 that faithfully replicates the big runabouts of the 1930s. With her gleaming varnished decks, blazing speed and brilliant chrome hardware, visitors experience the boating thrills of a bygone era.

BOATLOADS OF MEMORIES

While the architecturally pure design, luxury, performance and beauty of antique wooden boats cannot be denied, the true magnificence of these watercraft is found in their personal history.

“The magic is in the memories,” claims Anthony S. Mollica Jr., a noted author and speaker who writes about North American boat builders and is a member of the Antique Boat Museum Board of Trustees. “Both cars and boats are significant in someone’s lives, and associated with fond memories. We remember the first time we saw a boat or car, went on a ride or took a girlfriend out. They are etched in our memory.”

Classic wooden boats become part of a family’s history, and the reason for their continuing existence is often the commitment of the next generations to maintain and care for the watercraft. Teddy McNally, a descendent of the family that started the Rand McNally map company, is a fourth-generation owner of classic wooden boats, summer resident of the Thousand Islands, and member of the Antique Boat Museum’s Board of Trustees. He spent his youth each summer on La Duchesse, a magnificent 106-foot/32-meter houseboat constructed in 1903 for self-made millionaire George Boldt. With its nine bedrooms, five full bathrooms, two working fireplaces and a stained glass skylight, the houseboat is an elegant example of the gracious lifestyle of that era. Eventually, La Duchesse was donated by the McNally family to the museum.

“I remember growing up each summer on the houseboat—swimming, fishing, boating and having a wonderful time,” says McNally. “It was a touchstone for our family. We had several classic boats, but it was the little boats where we learned how to navigate, put out the bumpers, land the boat and find out where the rocks were.”

As McNally motored on the St. Lawrence recently in his 1932 Gar Wood runabout, he waved to his grandchildren, the sixth generation, content in the knowledge that they will carry on the family’s heritage and keep the magnificent memories—and their Thousand Islands antique wooden boats—safe for generations to come.



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