Chetek Boat Corporation
Andreas Jordahl Rhude
page 34 in Volume IV of The Real Runabouts by Mr. Bob Speltz, he
purchased a fourteen foot long, 1954 Chetek "Aqua-Flyer"
in August 1976. This boat is currently undergoing restoration by the
Bob Speltz Land-O-Lakes Chapter of the Antique and Classic Boat
Society. It was felt that an article on the history of this boat
company was deemed appropriate, so here goes…
Mr. and Mrs. Vernon and Gwendolyn Larsen of Oshkosh along with Emil
Mix formed Chetek Boat Corporation in 1947. Chetek's L.K. Sherrill
planted the idea of a new boat works for the city in Larsen's head
when he visited the Dunphy Boat Corporation booth at the Chicago
Boat Show in January '47. Sherrill was the local Johnson outboard
motor dealer and he had knowledge of boats and he wanted Larsen to
head a new boat works. Hoping to add to the economic base of the
community, about thirty local citizens helped to underwrite the new
Newspaper accounts from The Chetek Alert of Chetek, Wisconsin in
1947 tell of the formation of a new boat building enterprise that
year. It was headed by Larsen who had been associated with Dunphy
Boat Corporation of Oshkosh prior to coming to Chetek. He had been
vice-president and his father James Larsen had been president of
Dunphy. James sold the company and retired in 1947, therefore his
son needed to find a new job.
Work on renovating an existing barn near Chetek into new factory
facilities began in April of that year. The first boats rolled off
the production line a month later and the first "Chetek
Boat" was purchased by Ed Holten. The company letterhead at
that time declared "It's a CHETEK, by heck", reflecting
the down home attitude of the business!
Vern Larsen was president, Emil Max was vice-president and Gwen
Larsen was secretary-treasurer of the new company. Additional
production facilities were built in 1950, 1952, 1954, and 1955. A 50
x 100 foot woodworking shop and lumber warehouse was destroyed by
fire on 22 January 1963 and later rebuilt. After another fire in
1965 destroyed most of the boat works, a new structure was built.
In 1952, Chetek's most deluxe model was the cedar strip Aqua-Flyer.
It was a mid-decked runabout that could be
factory equipped with windshield and steering assembly. Boats were
being built for Montgomery Ward in 1953. Chetek had to add a 28 by
150-foot building just for storage of boats for Wards. Loren Horton,
now a spry age 74, said that the company made truckload after
truckload of boats for Montgomery Wards which sold them under the
"Sea King" brand name. He began working for Chetek Boats
soon after their genesis in 1947 and continued for a decade.
Horton was a "finisher," fabricating and installing the
decks, covering boards, combing, seats and other interior
accessories. He was head finisher for a period of time. In a recent
interview he said that the first Chetek boats looked awfully close
to a Dunphy or Thompson. Chetek even used the name
"Aqua-Flyer" for one of their models, a name used earlier
by Dunphy Boat sans the hyphen. As years went by, new designs were
introduced, many from the drawing board of Emil Mix.
A 1955 advertisement for Chetek touted their boats as permanently
leakproof with a fiberglass bottom. The mahogany decked and hulled
"Holiday" model had a yellow fiberglass bottom as a
standard feature. All of their boats could be ordered with optional
fiberglass below the spray rails. Like other boat makers of the
time, they offered many accessories such as bow and stern lights,
factory installed steering, cleats and chocks, mooring covers, seat
cushions and pennants. One unusual item was that they charged extra
for providing chrome plated "Chetek" nameplates for the
hull sides. Most other builders included this as a standard item on
their boats. They rode the wave of the phenomenal recreational boom
of the fifties, making nearly thirty boats each month.
In 1957 Chetek built their first lapstrake boat, a 16-foot long
vessel with a beam of 6 foot - 10 inch and transom width of 5 feet.
In late 1957 or early 1958 they offered their first fiberglass boat,
the 15 foot Delray, to the market. She had a flared transom and
airstream fins! They called their fiberglass manufacturing method
"Glastek," however their fiberglass line never took off.
Chetek's eighteen foot "Contessa" sold for $1,295.00 in
1958. She had a lapstrake hull, wrap around Plexiglas windshield,
upholstered seats, and a convertible top. The hull was painted
"a handsome Sea Blue" colour. She was very close in size
to the Thompson Sea-Lancer that sold for $1,238.00 similarly
outfitted. However, the Thompson had a mahogany-framed windshield.
Mr. Horton said that the company was a good place to work. He
relayed a story about being paid in silver dollars one pay period.
The company wanted to show the community how much money it
circulated in the Chetek area, so they paid everyone in this unique
form of cash. Horton kept his silver dollars and says that each is
now worth close to $300.00. Donald J. Bruss became sales manager in
1959 and was in charge of establishing dealerships throughout the
country. At the time, lapstrake built boats dominated the Chetek
line. They were built with clear Wisconsin white oak for keels and
steam bent ribs with 3/8" thick marine fir plywood for
planking. Fastening was with brass and bronze screws, stem to stern.
By 1960 they were making a twenty-foot lapstrake cabin cruiser, the
"Countess," with a hardtop cabin.
Although the company was small in comparison with Lyman, Thompson,
Penn Yan, Old Town and others, they managed to advertise in some of
the major publications of the time such as Popular Boating and
Boats. They also had competition just "down the road" with
Shell Lake Boats and Peterson Brothers Boat only 35 miles away.
Vern Larsen retired and sold his interest in the company in 1962.
The company changed ownership twice within a two-month period in
1964. On the fourth of September John Gospodar, a part owner, bought
the remaining shares of stock from Donald J. Bruss and Ray Bennett.
Gospodar, who had been with Chetek Boats since May 1963, became sole
owner. Eight weeks later The Chetek Alert announced that Gospodar
sold the company to Harlie Peterson, Ray Bennett, and Donald Bruss.
Peterson became the major stockholder as well as president and
treasurer, Bennett became vice president and secretary, and Bruss
became a director and advisor. Bennett, of Shell Lake, had worked
for Chetek Boats in the past and had most recently been employed
with Shell Lake Boat Company. The company was working on an order
for 1,500 toboggans at the time, a product added to the Chetek line
earlier in 1964.
On 12 August 1965 a major fire destroyed the company's production
facilities. The factory was rebuilt, a 96 x 146 foot building, and
opened for operations in early 1966. During that time "Chetek
Boat Company" was making wooden toboggans and wooden dog sleds.
They employed 26 workers. Boat production was slated to resume after
the new building was completed. Whether or not they ever made boats
again is not known. By late 1967 another firm, one that made pool
tables, occupied the former boat works. Therefore, Chetek Boat
Company ceased to operate at some point prior to that time.
Like other wood boat builders of the sixties, the company
experienced sluggish sales as consumers clamored for perceived low
maintenance fiberglass and aluminum boats. Those in the wood boat
business withered away. This is what occurred at Chetek Boats. They
attempted to diversify by making wooden sleds and toboggans, but it
was not enough to keep them afloat. Some of the old Chetek factory
complex is still standing although it is only used for storage. Over
the door of the former office building the faded words "Chetek
Boats" painted on the wall can barely be made out, some thirty
years after the company closed. There are a few Cheteks still
running the waters near the city of Chetek according to Loren
Horton. He also knows of several sitting in garages and sheds just
waiting for the right touch to bring them back to sea worthiness.
The Chetek Alert newspaper, Chetek, Wisconsin
Interview of Loren Horton by Andreas J. Rhude,
Popular Boating magazine
State Historical Society of Wisconsin archives
Industrial Commission E-files)
The Real Runabouts, Volume IV
Thanks to Melody Eckerman, editor, The Chetek Alert, Loren Horton,
and the writings of Bob Speltz for providing resource material for
this article. My thanks also to RJG and Fred Pospeschil for their