Alexandria Boat Works

Lady of the Lakes:

by Andreas Jordahl Rhude

Boating abounds in Minnesota. It always has and it always will be a major part of life in the region. From the time that humans first arrived here, boat transportation has been vital to the survival and well-being of the inhabitants. Pleasure boating is a fairly recent endeavor in the big picture of humanity. It has not been much more than a century that pleasure boating has made any type of impact on our lives.

There have been a plethora of small, regional boat builders in the Upper Midwest. The “Land of 10,000 Lakes” was a natural for spawning many boat makers. Alexandria Boat Works (ABW) in Alexandria, Minnesota was one such endeavor.

Erick G. Erickson was born in Sweden in 1866 and arrived in American at the age two with his parents. At the young age of seventeen he decided to build a boat for his own fishing adventures. The family lived near Lake Ida outside of Alexandria. It was only natural that boats for hunting and fishing would be a prominent aspect of food gathering in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Neighbors soon asked Erick if he could build boats for their use. With this background he began making boats for resale in 1885 while also working at other jobs. He soon was known as “Boat Erick!”

In the late 1890s he moved his tiny operation into the city of Alexandria and built a small shop. In 1903 he moved to a new location at the corner of what is now Broadway and Third. In the autumn of that year Erickson appealed to the city officials, asking to run a steam pipe from the municipal light plant into the boat shop. He wanted the steam source for use in bending rib stock and other curved components of the boats. He was allowed to tap into the city utility.

In 1906 the plant was equipped with a planer; rip saw; cut-off saw; band saw; shaper; drill press; boring machine; and a rounding device. A six horsepower gasoline engine ran the machinery. Six men were employed in the boat building trade that year with two additional part timers. They had nine gasoline launches plus 100 row boats in stock ready for shipment in March 1906. By 1914 Erickson’s boat shop covered 7,000 square feet of floor space.

Most of the boats were sold within a small radius of Alexandria. Some went as far as Kansas City and Chicago. However, the bulk of sales were in the Minnesota region. The earliest boats were built with lapstrake hulls. Around 1902 Erickson switched to strip built, smooth hull construction. As with most builders of cedar strip boats, Alexandria Boat Works claimed to have invented convex-concave hull strips. Virtually every boat maker using this method claimed they were the first to do so or that they perfected the method.

Sometime in the early days of the Alex Boat Works the name “Lady of the Lakes” was attached to their products. The name stuck and was used as the trade name for their boats for the remainder of their existence. By the early part of the twentieth century launches were dropped from the product mix in favor of outboard powered boats and rowing boats.

Numerous US patents were granted to Erickson including an underslung boat trailer in 1925;boat anchor; his strip-built method of boat construction; self-locking oarlock; and an aquaplane surfboard.

A major factory revision was completed in 1930. The original factory location was sold to a service station and a new L shaped factory was erected wrapping around the corner gas station. Eighty boats were on hand and ready to be shipped in February 1930.

A number of other boat builders got their start at Erickson’s Alex Boat Works. Ole Lind began his career there before venturing out on his own. Parkers Prairie Boats made by Joe Friet was also a spin-off from Alex. Boat Erick was generous with his talents and ideas and he allowed both of these men to use his patterns to get them up and running!

A new generation of family entered the fold in 1919 when Erickson’s daughter Ruby married Clifford Movold. They both joined the boats works, learning the ropes of boat making and the business end. Erick’s grandson Harry Bedman became an owner of the operation in 1935. When Boat Erick died in 1936 at the age of 69, his widow Anna took over the reins. She was active in the running of the business until 1942 when Cliff Movold took over. He officially retired four years later although he continued to participate in the business until his death in 1967. Clifford’s son John took charge in 1946 – the third generation to run the boat works. His brother Mark joined the team in 1962.

Mildred Erickson Wallin, Erick’s daughter recalled one snowy winter. She remembered one evening that her dad said “In the morning I’ll have to get the men up on the roof and clear it off. The snow is pretty deep up there.” At about 3 AM the family, living across the street, heard a horrible crash. “There goes the roof.” said dad.

By the 1950s the company not only built and sold her own line of boats, they also sold boats made by Chris-Craft and Feathercraft; Grumman aluminum canoes; Evinrude outboard motors; in addition to accessories such as water skis, cushions; life jackets, anchors, batteries, and sporting goods.

By 1952 Alexandria Boat Works had constructed 15,250 boats in her 67 year life-span. Twenty-one different models were being built that year. The same year a new, modern facility was constructed east of town to house the evolving company.

Planking of the wood strip boats was in western red cedar, Port Orford cedar, cypress, or redwood. Keels, ribs, and other structural components were made from white oak and sometimes mahogany.

The boat works decided in 1954 that building wooden boats was not the means to remain in business. They saw the wave of the future towards non-wood boats. With this in mind they ceased production of their own boats and they became a retail and wholesale dealer for several other boat lines. They also sold and serviced outboard motors and other marine items.

A deal was made with Bowman Boats of Little Rock, Arkansas in 1956 for ABW to become a fabricator of the Bowman line of fiberglass boats. The fiberglass hulls were manufactured by Goodyear Aircraft of Akron, Ohio. The process utilized match steel dyes and great pressure to make hulls of uniform thickness (much like the V.E.C. system of Genmar in the 21st century). Bowman then took the blank hulls and fitted them out with decks and seats and other interior features. Bowman wanted a northern fabricator and distributor and ABW became that operation.

It was anticipated that ten boats per day would be “assembled” by ABW. They, like Bowman, would install wooden decks and seats along with hardware on the fiberglass hulls. The arrangement with Bowman lasted only a year or so.

Alexandria Boat Works became the first distributor of newly formed Standard Glass Products aka “Glastron” in February 1957. Glastron was unable to obtain booth space at the Chicago Boat Show so they arranged to display one of their boats on a trailer in the booth of Moody Trailer Company. Glastron was only a few months old and they were looking to expand distribution. An entire truckload of boats was ordered by ABW for immediate delivery. A distribution arrangement was consummated. ABW was the sole distributor for Glastron boats in Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa, Wisconsin and into Canada. Any marine dealer wanting to take on Glastron had to work through ABW. This arrangement lasted for many years and ABW continued to be one of the largest Glastron distributors into the 1970s.

ABW held a dealer meeting at Lake Darling outside of Alex in September 1959. One hundred dealers attended to inspect the 1960 Glastron and Texas Maid boats and Little Dude trailers.

Sno-Jet snowmobiles were added to their wholesale and retail lines of products in the late 1960s. ABW sponsored a racing team for a number of years – promoting the sport with Mark Movold heading the winter sports efforts.

The Glastron distributorship brought great amounts of work to ABW. Truck load after truck load of basic boats arrived from the Texas factory. ABW did all the final fitting out and would then ship them back out to dealers in the five state region. It was a lucrative portion of their business. When Glastron decided to eliminate regional distributors in the 1980s, ABW lost the majority of their income. It was not long before they closed their doors and held a liquidation auction.

ABW was still in operation in 1983, a century after Erick “Boat” Erickson made his first vessel. The company was still a family enterprise. The legacy of the “Lady of the Lakes” thrives today at the Minnesota Lakes Maritime Museum in Alexandria. They have devoted a great deal of their exhibit space and energies to the local builder. Old boats of all size and make will be celebrating once again at the annual antique and classic boat show at Alexandria on 08 July. It is sponsored by the Museum, which can be contacted at www.mnlakesmaritime.org

 

Thanks to the Douglas County Historical Society at Alexandria, MN for providing access to their archives ( www.rea-alp.com/~historic/).

 

 

 

 

 

A Chapter of the Antique & Classic Boat Society 

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