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
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
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
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/).