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A War (Canoe) Story

Posted: Monday, January 30, 2017 at 3:11pm

Author: Benson Gray

The phone call from Rollin Thurlow in early September of this year was a pleasant surprise but his message was a bit of a shock. The 34-foot long Old Town war canoe form was available but neither of us had a place big enough to store it. Our fear was that it would be cut it up and burned if no one could collect it within two weeks.  It had been in a small museum for many years but the owner/manager died a few years ago and his widow was trying to get everything back to their proper owners.  The factory kindly agreed to take it back temporarily while we tried to find a new home for it.  We agreed that a message about this opportunity in the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association (WCHA) forum was probably the best way to see if anyone else wanted to help.  I also contacted the Penobscot Marine Museum, the Old Town Museum, and a few others to see if they might be interested. 

The response was great.  Several members of the WCHA came forward with offers to help move, store, and use the form.  One of the first was from Dylan Schoelzel, who runs Salmon Falls Canoe with his wife Emily.  He agreed to contact the factory and make the arrangements to get it from Old Town, Maine, to their shop in Shelburne, Massachusetts.  He said: "My intent in acquiring this form is to save it from destruction, continue the tradition of building canoes off it (yes, we plan to build a canoe or two on it), and to be the custodians of this form, ensuring its survival and safe passage through time until it is someone else's turn to look after it."

War Canoe 1919 InventoryI did some research and found that the 34-foot war canoe model was listed in Old Town catalogs from 1906 to 1936.  The earliest known build record for one is number 4034 that was started in 1905.  This has detailed notes on the back side about who worked on it and for how long.  Some of their best master builders like Alfred Wickett and Joe Ranco spent a long time on this one.  The factory form inventories from 1905 to 1936 have been preserved and most of these include a 34-foot war canoe form. The 1905 inventory identifies the 34-foot war canoe form as a “Skeleton” which was worth only $6 as compared to the more common forms that were identified as “Ironed” and worth $25 each.  The 1918 inventory only shows one 34-foot form but the 1919 one shows two with a note that the second one was from 1918.  There are two gaps from 1911 to 1915 and 1922 to 1927, but I don’t believe that this form was actually missing during those times.  You would think that a 34-foot form would be hard to miss during a very detailed factory inventory that includes every broom and box of screws.  It seems likely that these forms were being stored off site, which caused them to be inadvertently overlooked. It is not clear if the current form is the one from 1906 or 1918.  What happened to the other 34-foot form is also a mystery.  Many old forms were taken to the dump and burned during the 1960s and 1970s, so it probably went with the others at that time. 

Everything seemed to be moving along well until Halloween of 2016 when Dylan found that he was "just too busy in the shop with commitments and delivery dates" to be able to spare a few days to go collect the form.  Several of the people who had offered to help previously also found that they had new conflicts that limited their ability to help.  I spoke with my brother Seth about using a boat trailer and he suggested that we could borrow a flatbed tractor trailer instead.  This took another month to arrange.  It was much easier to load, secure, and support during the trip, and unload than any other alternative that I had available. My next best option was a 24-foot pontoon boat trailer that would have left a lot of the form hanging out in the wind on each end. This form turned out to be much more flexible than had I expected. 

War Canoe Form PhotoThe war canoe form was looking a bit forlorn when we arrived at the factory on December 9th, 2016, to pick it up. Jeremy Smith, Jeremy Shepard, Drew Pierce, Adam Bishop, Billy Taylor, Kevin Gerrish, Justin Neal, Andrew White, all from the Old Town Canoe Company store and distribution center, cleared off the snow along with a cubic foot of water that had inadvertently collected and frozen inside one portion of the form. We easily lifted it on to the truck.  It seemed ironic to have a Gerrish, a White, a Neal, and two Grays involved in this effort since those names are commonly associated with a variety of wooden canoe builders from Maine during the early 1900s.  The form was then moved to a warm and dry warehouse while we waited for a good day to deliver it to Massachusetts. Thanks to Seth Gray, Alex Gray, and Production Services of Maine for the help with the truck and storage as well as to Joe Cyr's crew for getting it to the factory.

The form finally headed out to Shelburne, Massachusetts, well before sunrise on the morning of December 21st, 2016. Dylan and Emily were able to easily unload it before noon. It is now tucked in for the winter. They have kindly offered to build a new canoe on this form if anyone is interested. 

War Canoe Flatbed Shot

War Canoe Form Transport







TAG(S): Old Town History

Comments (11)

  • YANK ROWAN says:

    Posted: Wednesday, February 1, 2017 at 10:12am

    With so many items being abandoned and forgotten about I have to applaud the efforts made to save this gem! Well done !

  • Tony Arnold says:

    Posted: Wednesday, February 1, 2017 at 10:44am

    Love stories like this about the history of paddling. Any chance of posting pics of the museum?


    Posted: Wednesday, February 1, 2017 at 10:48am


  • Doug says:

    Posted: Wednesday, February 1, 2017 at 10:56am

    Thank you to everyone who took the time to save this piece of history. In a world where everything seems to be disposable it is really refreshing to see so many people make a coordinated effort to preserve this canoe form. Being 34-feet long, it could have been very easy to decide it was too much of a hassle. I'm glad you all made the effort and hope to be able to come see it at some point.

  • Ilan says:

    Posted: Wednesday, February 1, 2017 at 3:44pm

    When I went to Camp Mooween in Gilman, CT back in the mid 1950's, we had a wonderful Indian war canoe. The game was always to try to tip it when it was loaded with campers. Took lots of campers. I remember it was wonderfully painted but I don't recall the design. What a magnificent canoe.

  • Ed Stubbs says:

    Posted: Wednesday, February 1, 2017 at 7:35pm

    Thank you for sharing and saving another piece of American history. So much history is lost today. Last year, another gem was lost, 18th Century-Willowbrook Museum in Newfield Maine. As part of its display it had a boat-shop, now its gone. I'm so glad you're preserving this Canoe form!

  • Russ Padden says:

    Posted: Thursday, February 2, 2017 at 10:34am

    Thank you to all involved in saving this piece of History. Bravo Zulu.

  • Zandy Gray says:

    Posted: Saturday, February 4, 2017 at 3:46pm

    What a worthwhile rescue. Would love to see a new Old Town design war canoe on a body of water again! Good job everyone, especially Seth and Benson!

  • Nancy eaton says:

    Posted: Sunday, February 5, 2017 at 11:57am

    Thanks to all involved for helping preserve this important piece of Maine and American history. Truly inspired by the fact that so many Old Town descendants participated. Please keep us posted about this war canoe.

  • Marshall Gray says:

    Posted: Sunday, February 5, 2017 at 6:00pm

    Hooray Benson and all the others who helped save this piece of family history!

  • John Deans says:

    Posted: Friday, March 17, 2017 at 5:20am

    I'm very glad and thankful for all involved in helping save this canoe. Being from the South, I've never seen a canoe in the water over 20 ft. long. Hope to see it in person someday!

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