Lake Shore, Minn. – Minnesota has a deep and storied boating history, and a new and fascinating chapter is being written in the Brainerd Lakes area.
This lake-rich part of the state has become home to dozens of the finest antique and classic wooden boats in the world. These craft — stunning statements of style and speed — are the jewels of several collectors who are preserving and sharing this unique slice of boating history.
“I have been to every part of the antique- and classic-boating universe,” said Matt Smith, publisher of Woodyboater.com. “There are great collections in Michigan, Lake Tahoe, the East Coast and elsewhere, but none compare to those of Lee Anderson and John Allen. What they have in the Gull Lake area is in a whole different league.”
Minnesota boating historian Bruce Olson agrees. Olson is the executive director of the Legacy of the Lakes Museum in Alexandria. “Over the past 20-plus years Minnesota has become the mecca for antique wooden boats. No other place has such extensive collections,” said Olson. “We aren’t talking about individuals with two, four or 10 boats. We are talking about collections of 20 or more, and each boat being significant.”
Allen, a Twin Cities commercial real estate developer, is perhaps the most public of these private collectors. Fascinated by boats since childhood, Allen is an articulate and ardent advocate for cabin culture and wooden boat history. He was a driving force in bringing the international Antique and Classic Boat Society wooden boat show to the shores of Gull Lake last year. He is chairman of the international advisory council of Antique Boat Museum (in Clayton, N.Y.), which features more than 300 beautifully restored boats and thousands of artifacts.
“My interest is in recovering the past and presenting it to the future,” said Allen. “The roots go back to when I was a kid watching wealthy Chicagoans run their boats on the Eagle River Chain of Lakes in northern Wisconsin. The sound of the engines. The shine of the chrome. The varnished mahogany. It was all so alluring and worth preserving.”
From another era
Today, Allen owns more than 20 wooden boats. His collection comprises mostly those built between World War I and World War II. These are the beauties America’s elite cruised around in during the Roaring ’20s and beyond. These are the craft that sparked America’s fascination with power boating.
“There’s such nostalgia in that era,” Allen said. “It was a time of bootlegging, jazz clubs, flapper girls and Gatsby-like guys ... pleasure was the color of the time, and the boats reflected that.”
Sadly, Allen said, many of that era’s wooden boats were destroyed or abandoned starting in the 1950s. That’s when manufacturing advancements drastically changed boat building. Out went wood. In came fiberglass, which builders could easily mold into contemporary — often automobile-inspired — designs. Customers liked fiberglass too because it was a breeze to maintain. Buyers had little interest in wooden boats again until the 1980s. That’s when rarity began to catch collectors’ eyes.
“Thankfully, the pendulum swung back,” said Allen. “People such as Lee Anderson, who I admire, began to preserve and restore them. ” In Minnesota, Kermit Sutton, Brian Mark and Charlie Underbrink are among other notable collectors in the Brainerd area. Carl Mammel of Alexandria also has a premier collection. Anderson is owner and chairman of APi Group, a multibillion-dollar construction conglomerate in the Twin Cities.
Allen’s collection contains just one Chris-Craft, the company that revolutionized wooden boat production and thereby made it affordable for the masses. His lone Chris-Craft is a speedy 18-foot Cobra from 1955. Only 50 or so were ever made. The Cobra was the first Chris-Craft to incorporate fiberglass into its body, and its unique fin made for a daring design of the time. Yet as special as this Chris-Craft is, Allen owns mostly the rarer works of Herb Ditchburn, Garfield “Gar” Arthur Wood, Earl C. Barnes and other top-end custom designers. These men and their companies produced far fewer boats in exchange for greater elegance and top-end speed.
Wood spent part of his young life in Osakis, where his father was a ferry boat operator. He had “an amazing passion for building the fastest racing boats,” said Allen. “He fitted them with surplus World War I airplane engines that delivered high output for their weight. They were crazy fast, and the Holy Grail of them all was called the Baby Gar. There are only eight left in the world. I have one and Lee Anderson has four others.”
Dave Bortner, founder of Freedom Boat Service in Mound, has seen first-hand the rising interest in wooden boats. A businessman who began restoring boats with his dad as a way to earn money for college, Bortner now employs five shipwrights and one mechanic who work full-time restoring boats.
“Part of what’s driving interest in wooden boats is investment potential,” said Bortner. “No one should sell their gold and buy a boat unless they love it, but wooden boats do maintain their value better than the ski, pontoon and fishing boats of today.” He said a no-frills 1950s Chris-Craft can cost $20,000 to $30,000. Antique boats from the 1920s or 1930s typically cost $200,000 to $500,000. The rarest and best of the best are worth $1 million or more, he said.
For Olson, the Legacy of the Lakes Museum director, Minnesota’s wooden boat collections have been a valuable asset for the museum and its visitors. “We are fortunate that so many wooden boat owners want to share what they own rather than hide what they have,” said Olson. “Their hearts are in stirring old memories and creating new memories for future generations, and that’s been great for us.”
Currently, the museum has five Lee Anderson boats on display. These and other exhibits help tell Minnesota’s boating and lake culture history, including some of its extraordinary innovators. Among them is the iconic boatmaker Wood, whose penultimate wooden boat was Miss America X. This 1930s “madman’s dream” was powered by four 1,800-horsepower Packard engines. The boat set a speed record of 124.9 miles per hour (or two miles per minute).
Wooden boat culture
Smith, the publisher, said he sees something unusual happening in Minnesota. While many parts of the country have vibrant wooden boat cultures, he called Allen and Anderson “catalysts of a cultural change.” He said the depth of Anderson’s collection and breadth of Allen’s interest in getting wooden boats before the public is a rare combination. “Not only do they have the finest of the finest, they are ambassadors of a culture that is often misunderstood. They are reminding people you can get into wooden boating for $25,000.”
Many of Minnesota’s best wooden boats will be on public display at the eighth annual Gull Lake Classic Boat Show Aug. 27 at the historic Bar Harbor Supper Club at Nisswa. Allen owns this lakeside club. It is where he and many other members of the Antique and Classic Boat Society will display and run their boats.
“This will be a particularly interesting show as it will feature six or seven boats that have never been seen Minnesota,” said Allen. “Lee Anderson’s Baby Bootlegger will be among them. It’s a Gold Cup-winning race boat, one of the most-prized racing boats ever.”
A history minor in college, a law degree holder and chairman of the board of Northland College in Ashland, Wis., Allen is keenly aware of who he is and what he wants to accomplish. It comes through in his voice, which flows seemlessly from historian to businessman to educator. Said Allen: “There’s an old cabin saying that it’s your duty to leave the wood pile a little higher when you leave, and that’s at the heart of what I am doing.”
Freelance writer C.B. Bylander lives near Baxter, Minn.