WAYNE E. REILLY

Bangoreans loved sailing and paddling canoes made locally

Posted Oct. 02, 2011, at 8:15 p.m.
This advertisement for E. H. Gerrish from an old guidebook showed some of the famed canoe builder’s products.
Photo courtesy of Dick Shaw
This advertisement for E. H. Gerrish from an old guidebook showed some of the famed canoe builder’s products.

Bangoreans venerated their canoes and canoe makers a century ago. The motorboat was the newest fad for those who loved speed and the smell of gasoline, but the ancient canoe, invented by Native Americans using native materials, had deeper meaning. By then, canoes manufactured commercially in the Bangor area were famous the world over.

Evan H. Gerrish, described in the Bangor Daily Commercial on June 24, 1911, as “the pioneer canvas canoe builder of the world,” had operated a canoe factory in Bangor until a few years earlier when he sold it. He was still in business at his farm in Cardville. (The Bangor city directory for 1911 says Gerrish had an address in Bangor and a canoe business in Costigan.)

He had recently completed a noteworthy order from the U.S. government. “Carefully sewed up in burlap with large walls of excelsior in between to prevent their being chafed on their long journey, four canvas canoes recently started from Old Town across the continent en route to Alaska. They had been ordered by the United States government for geological survey work,” stated the newspaper. “They are built extra strong, painted a dull slate drab — not unlike the war paint of a battleship.”

Gerrish is credited as “the earliest commercial builder of wood-canvas canoes,” by Jerry Stelmok and Rollin Thurlow in their book “The Wood & Canvas Canoe.” Exasperated by leaky bark canoes, Gerrish, a Brownville hunting and fishing guide, moved to Bangor in 1875 and started a small business manufacturing fishing rods and canoe paddles. He also started experimenting with wood-canvas canoes. By 1884 he was producing 50 canoes annually. Stelmok and Thurlow’s book is a good place to get a few more details about Gerrish and other earlier builders, but much has been lost with time.

I checked the city directories and found several other canoe builders listed in 1911. They included Martin S. Jameson in Brewer, the B.N. Morris Canoe Co. in Veazie and, in Old Town, the Carleton Canoe Co., Old Town Canoe Co. and E. M. White & Co. The Industrial Journal in 1910 mentions another Bangor canoe maker, C.B. Thatcher, who manufactured 10 canvas canoes that year. I’m sure there were many others who didn’t advertise, including Indian builders, whose work inspired the interest in canoeing in the first place.

The Old Town Canoe Co. became the premier manufacturer thanks to the owner’s business acumen and aggressive advertising. A year or two later, the company built four- and five-story additions to its factory, enabling it to produce hundreds of canoes a month, according to Stelmok and Thurlow.

This was the era of exclusive clubs. People formed them for just about any reason so they could celebrate their exclusivity. In Bangor, clubs grew up along the river, celebrating both canoes and motorboats — the Conduskeag Canoe and Country Club in 1900, located in Hampden but intended mainly for well-off Bangoreans, and the Bangor Yacht Club in 1908, located just below the Tin Bridge near the Bangor-Hampden line.

The advent of the sailing canoe, noted in the newspapers around this time, was an example of how the simple canoe was evolving into a more complex recreational vehicle. “Not the least fascinating of the summer sports indulged in by Bangoreans is that of sailing a canoe and scores of those trim little craft may be seen skimming over the surface of lakes and ponds almost any afternoon now,” the Commercial reported on July 13, 1911.

In most instances, a “leg of mutton sail” was used and a “lee board thrown over the side to prevent the canoe from sliding off too much. A paddle is used as a rudder and it is surprising how close to the wind these sailing canoes can be held,” wrote the reporter. “Not much more than a breath of wind is needed to send them skipping along over the glassy surface of the pond.”

Many of the sailing canoes, according to the newspaper, were fitted out with a movable centerboard, “the invention of a Bangor man, John H. Lyon.” I checked out Lyon’s obituary on March 12, 1941, and found he was a member of the “Canoe Club” and ran C.A. Lyon & Co., which sold carpets and draperies. There was no mention of Lyon, the inventor, however.

This centerboard was “equipped with two arms of iron which are bolted through the gunwale and hold the board firmly in place. By unscrewing four nuts and removing a like number of bolts, the centerboard may be removed while the canoe is still in the water.” These rigs would “sail like witches,” but it was a good idea to stay ashore when it was windy, unless the canoeist was skilled. Many sailing canoes were seen on the river as well as in the ponds, but the current, the limited maneuverability and the frequent lack of breeze posed problems.

Sailing canoes were in use by members of the Conduskeag Canoe and Country Club at least as early as 1908 when a Commercial reporter, on Sept. 28, described “a new sport” for which several owners were using “canoes equipped with sails and leeboards.” A new class of sailing canoes called “canoe yawls” was expected the next season. These “yawls” were double-ended, with centerboards and leg of mutton sails and jibs and small cockpits.

The only sailing canoe I’m personally familiar with dates from the time many years ago that my son and I cruised down Chesuncook Lake before a stiff breeze, grasping a second canoe sailing along beside us with one hand and the corners of a square sail with the other. This sail was either a tablecloth or a plastic tarp that carried us swiftly along without benefit of paddling. I’m sure the arrangement wasn’t as technologically sophisticated as the sailing canoes used at the Bangor Yacht Club in 1911, but the experience is fun to remember.

Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears every other Monday. An illustrated collection, “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire,” is available where books are sold. Comments may be sent to him at wreilly.bdn@gmail.com.

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