OLD TOWN, Maine — The historic hub for one of Maine’s most recognizable brands faces an uncertain future, but the legacy of the Old Town Canoe factory thrives in the memories, stories and photographs of former workers and descendents of its founders.
City officials say it’s likely the Middle Street Old Town Canoe factory will be demolished and the site redeveloped, possibly to serve as headquarters for James W. Sewall Co., another business with deep ties to the city.
Ruth Gray, the 96-year-old granddaughter of one of the men who laid the groundwork for the company around the turn of the 20th century, said she spent a lot of time in the factory as a child.
Ruth’s grandfather George Gray, who owned a hardware store in Old Town, hired Alfred E. Wickett in the mid-1890s to build canoes as an extra means of income. The business grew and around 1900 it moved into the Middle Street factory that had been home to Keith Shoe Co.
The early years of the canoe company were erratic, with names and players changing year to year. The factory ran under the names Indian Old Town Canoe Co. and Robertson & Old Town Canoe Co. before the familiar “Old Town Canoe Co.” was painted on the building around 1903, according to photographs of the site.
Ruth’s father, Sam Gray, took over the company after graduating from Bowdoin College.
Sam Gray spent many Saturdays and Sundays hard at work in the factory, especially as the company grew larger. Ruth found ways to entertain herself and her friends during their hours in the building.
In those days, factory workers used ramps rather than stairs to move between floors because ramps made it easier to transport canoes from one floor to the next. Those ramps were great entertainment for a kid growing up in Old Town, she said.
“We used to think that was great fun to run up and down those ramps,” Gray said.
Sam Gray was a heavy promoter of his company. Old Town Canoe did something that was rare for a company of its size in the early 1900s — it reached across the country and overseas to spread its product. Ruth Gray said her father frequently opened his home to Europeans who traveled to Old Town to pick out a canoe. Old Town Canoe eventually became a nationally and globally respected brand.
“He put Old Town on the map,” Gray said.
Euclide “Joe” Lavoie, a 90-year-old lifelong Milford resident and World War II veteran, spent 20 years working at Old Town Canoe before retiring in 1987. Prior to that he spent 20 years at White Canoe Co., which Old Town Canoe bought in 1984.
“They never told me what I was [at Old Town Canoe],” Lavoie said. “I did a little bit of everything.”
He made his first rowboat when he was 14 years old. To this day, he never tires of building boats. In his garage at his home on Bradley Road in Milford, he still builds scale-model canoes in much the same way he did for 20 years in the Middle Street factory.
“That’s what keeps me going,” he said.
He spent many early mornings and late nights in the old factory, and said he’s convinced it’s haunted. He always walked a bit more briskly through the building when he was alone at night, he said.
“I’ll bet you any amount of money that if you would stay in that building overnight … you’d wish to hell you was out of it,” Lavoie said.
In the next few years, the building that is home to these memories and many more could come down.
In 2009, Old Town Canoe relocated from the Middle Street factory to a new facility on Gilman Falls Avenue, leaving behind the vacant shell of a downtown landmark. There has been little action at the site since.
The facility’s design hasn’t lent itself well to modern manufacturing industries or office space, so interest in the site was limited, according to David White, the city’s economic development director. The old factory also needs extensive, expensive asbestos and soil contamination remediation work.
The city bought the property for $1 in November 2011 and began weighing its future. Officials considered remodeling the factory to create apartments or repurpose the building for another use, but the town already had new apartment complexes and renovations would have been too costly, according to Town Manager Bill Mayo. Another proposal would have turned the property into a park.
On May 24, Mayo received word that the U.S. Environmental Protection Association awarded Old Town a $600,000 grant that will allow the city to move forward with plans to remove asbestos and other hazardous wastes from the site. Mayo said he expected the cleanup work to start in the fall.
After that, the 260,000 square-foot former factory may be demolished to make way for another century-old Old Town business, James W. Sewall Co.
Founded in 1880, Sewall is an international forestry, mapping and engineering firm that provides consulting to clients on natural resources, energy and infrastructure.
David Edson, president and CEO of the company, said Friday that Sewall is is looking to relocate from its Center Street headquarters to a more modern, efficient, better-connected facility.
Edson said Sewall would like to start with a clean slate, designing and building a new headquarters for the company, complete with up-to-date technology that will allow it to efficiently connect with its regional offices and employees across the globe.
About 70 percent of Sewall’s business is conducted outside the state, including projects as far away as Romania and Africa, according to Edson.
Edson said the Middle Street location appeals to Sewall because of its location and its designation as a brownfield site. He said the property deserves to have new life again.
Sewall and the city haven’t committed to a deal yet, but Sewall remains the most interested party so far.
Gray and Lavoie said they wouldn’t be too bothered if the factory came down.
“Times go on, you can’t live in the past,” Gray said.
She said that as Old Town Canoe evolved, the old factory outgrew its usefulness.
Wisconsin-based Johnson Outdoors purchased Old Town Canoe from the Gray family in 1974 for $1 million.
She said she’s glad her family got out of the canoe business when it did — before “glob and glue” materials replaced wood and canvas as the ingredients of a canoe.
“They just pour gunk into a form,” Gray said with a chuckle. “It shoots out five minutes later as a canoe — or what they call a canoe.”
She said she appreciates modern canoes made of composite materials, which have survived memorable tests, such as being thrown off the roof of the factory she spent so much time in as a child.
Still, “There’s really nothing like the good old wooden canoe,” Gray said.