by Andreas Jordahl Rhude
According to 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 venture.
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 editing input.