Boats and Boat Building In Wahkon MN


Donald L. Robbins has been gathering historical information about Wahkon for several years. The following history of boats and boat building in Wahkon prior to 1906 was taken from newspapers published in communities surrounding what was to be Wahkon. The information from 1930 on, is in part, his recollection. Robbins was born in Wahkon and his father built rowboats and launches in connection with his building construction business. It was a way to keep his business going during the winter months. As a boy, Robbins helped his father build rowboats, fishing launches, private launches and at least one sailboat.

In the beginning Boats and boat building were big the first 50 years of Wahkon’s existence, Robbins says. First, boats were used for transportation; logs, milk, and people were moved around the lake when the ice was out. Later, it supplied the resort business that followed the arrival of the railroad and the building of roads. Wood boat building died out shortly after World War II (about 1950) when aluminum and fiberglass replaced wood in boat construction.

The first reference to a boat in Wahkon Robbins knows of, was when an article in 1895 reported, “Captain Case says he will be at the Lawrence dock with a steamer on the morning of July 4th to take all who wish to attend the celebration at Cove and return them for 50 cents each for the round trip.” The steamer referred to was probably used in the transportation of logs to the Rum River for floating down the river to the nearest saw mill, Robbins noted. “It is not difficult to understand that some of the early boats for fishing and pleasure were sail boats,” Robbins said. “Except for wood, getting fuel to the lake would have been difficult.”
The new boat, Amphitrite, was launched the week of Aug. 22, 1901, by M.E. Rutherford and his son, Capt. Wade. The Amphitrite was about 30 feet long, finished in Georgia pine, cherry and red oak, with dark green velvet cushions and nickel trimmings. It carried a pennant bearing its name ‘Old Glory’ at the stern, life preservers for all the guests, and carried 26 guests on the initial trip. The boat made a run to Hennepin Island, Bit Point and beyond, about 16 miles in 1 hour, 20 minutes. “We are all proud of her, for now Lawrence claims the best wharf and boats on the lake. The boat was hauled from Mora in one day by Matttson’s expert teamster, Mr. Guy Wilson, who deserves great praise for landing her at the wharf with scarcely a scratch,” the newspaper account related. The Amphitrite was probably one of the first boats on the lake designed for hauling passengers and materials around the lake, Robbins noted.

On May 21, 1904, a new 60 foot launch, the largest in the state, was due to be launched from the Westlake boat factory. L.T. Grady of Foley was the owner and A. Westlake & Son the boat builders. It was the latest torpedo model with full cabin consisting of pilot house, main and aft cabins. Power was supplied by a 40 hp gasoline engine. This launch was not only the biggest on the lake in 1904, but probably the biggest ever on Mille Lacs. It is interesting to note that the launch was constructed in Lawrence by a Minnetonka boat builder, Robbins pointed out. One of the first outboard motors used on Mille Lacs was one P.M. Morneau obtained in July of 1908, which he clamped onto the rear of his rowboat.

Later years
An August 9, 1917 newspaper account reported, “At a special meeting of the village council last Tuesday evening, Chas. E. Lucas was granted a permit to erect and maintain a bath house and boat livery at the foot of Main St. on the location now occupied by the boat houses belonging to A.J. Wagner, D.E. Emmons, P.M. Morneau and D. Blythe. The action of the council insures to Wahkon a boat service that will be adequate to supply all needs, something that has been lacking for some time. Mr. Lucas….. agreed to put in 15 or 20 rowboats at the beginning of the season next year, and more if needed ……. This new move ………… will give Wahkon a boat service second to none on the lake.” The Feb. 28, 1918 issue reported that the Wahkon Boat Works “is turning out some fine rowboats which Manager Lucas will use for livery purposes. He does not propose to be caught short if he can help it.” Robbins notes that this is the first mention of a boat-building business in Wahkon. It appears Lucas was mainly building boats for his own use in his boat rental business. The Wahkon Boat Works under Lucas, continued to build boats until the late 1920’s. It was reported that during the
year preceding 1924, it built 54 boats and another 96 were built by contractor, O.A. Robbins, making a total of 150 constructed in Wahkon during the winter months.

“This was probably the banner year for rowboat building in Wahkon,” Robbins said, adding his father, O.A. Robbins, went into the boat building business in 1920/21 shortly after he purchased the defunct Bridgeman-Russell Creamery for a shop. He continued building rowboats and later launches until 1950 when his health failed.

The last boats

Guy Hill’s new boat, the EllenRuth was launched at Wahkon on May 14, 1933. This boat was built by the Minnetonka Boat Works on Lake Minnetonka. In the spring of 1938, Hill completed a 26-foot cabin boat he named the “Sloppy Sal” as a little sister to the EllenRuth. This boat now adorns Main Street in Wahkon as a reminder of bygone days.
In 1930, O.A. Robbins built a 40-footer driven by a Ford V-8 engine and several new rowboats. From 1934 until 1949, except for about three years during World War II, Robbins built several dozen launches. They varied in length from 26 to 40 feet, some equipped with cabins, others had a small enclosure to serve as a toilet. One was built with a glass bottom for use in seeing the fish in the lake. It served its purpose well until the early 1940’s when it broke loose from its mooring and blew into shore. It was restored to service without the glass bottom.

Another launch was designed as an excursion boat used in Lake Okoboji, Iowa. Still another had a cabin finished with toilet, bunks and kitchen and was purchased by an executive of the Onan Co. Several 20 footers were built for use with outboard motors or could be rowed; one was equipped for sailing as well.

Other points of interest
noted by Robbins

During the mid-1930’s, Paul Lang, a highly respected resort owner, built a launch for his resort business in the unusual granite polishing plant building in Wahkon.

Also during the 1930’s, Sam Vivant, who operated a blacksmith shop and a resort, built rowboats for his use and for sale.

In 1942, the Robbins Boat Works, in partnership with the then owner of Izatys Resort, built four wood boats to Navy specifications. The adventure proved unsuccessful.

There were wood boats built for use on Mille Lacs Lake after 1950, but as far as Robbins knows, none were built in Wahkon.