Larson Boats – Part 1

The Boat Works
First in a series of articles on Larson & Crestliner Boats
by Andreas Jordahl Rhude

John T. Monahan has spent his entire life in and around boats. Growing up in Little Falls, Minnesota, early on he grew to have a deep appreciation for boats made by Larson and Crestliner. They were the “home town” brands with which Monahan fell in love. John grew up just a stone’s throw away from Paul Larson’s Larson Boat Works and John’s father worked for Roy Larson of Larson Motor Service. Too many Larsons to decipher? Here’s the enigma device decoder:

Larson Boat Works was founded and owned by Paul Larson of Little Falls. He started making boats in 1915. Larson Boat Works built a variety of wooden boats in her early days, making the switch to fiberglass hulls in the 1950s. Paul’s brother Roy Larson owned and operated Larson Motor Service, a sales and repair service for marine engines. It was smack dab in the middle of the Boat Works complex. The Boat Works had a show room and they sold their own boats factory direct along with selling Johnson Seahorse outboard motors. Roy’s Larson Motor Service sold Evinrude motors. This was an OMC dream – to have their two motor brands being sold in the same town by two well respected dealers!

Back to Monahan… John’s dad, Harold “Bud” Monahan, worked for Roy selling and servicing Evinrudes. He was a meticulous and thorough-minded gent that took great pride in his work. Young John matriculated in the thick of things spending his time zig zagging between the Motor Service and the Boat Works. He spent many an hour “shackled” to a motor learning repair and servicing from his dad.

John also spent hour upon hour “playing” in the showroom at the Boat Works. Nearly every day Paul Larson or his brother Lem would chase John out the door. One day after being in the showroom for quite some time, Paul Larson came up to little John and asked, “What is it you see in here that you like?” John’s reply was “That pocket knife.” pointing to a knife in a display case. Mr. Larson opened up the case, presented the knife to John and then escorted him out the door. John still has that knife.

When John was around the age of four, an old iron ax head was found on the banks of the Mississippi River near his home and the Boat Works. John’s dad took the ax to Larson Boat Works and a wooden oak handle was made on the company’s lathe. That was in 1952. It is believed that the ax head dates to the era of French-Canadian exploration of the region.

In 1965 Harold “Bud” Monahan purchased Larson Motor Service from Roy Larson. John worked along side his father learning the trade. Prior to ’65 Larson Motor Service sold a few boats. After ’65 they jumped into boat sales with full force. They ultimately became the largest Crestliner dealer in the United States and were one of the leading Larson dealers for many years. The latter was a major accomplishment considering Larson sold boats factory direct. His mom and dad worked extremely hard to build up the business and its success can be attributed to their dedication.

John continued to be involved with the family’s business until 1985. He then joined Larson Boats running their service and warranty department where he remained for five years. In 1990 he rejoined the family business. Ultimately he and his brother Tom purchased it from their parents. John in turn sold his interest in Larson Motor Service to his brother in 1999.

John left his family dealership to pursue a lifelong dream of having a museum and library of Larson and Crestliner boats and memorabilia. Just a couple of years later and his dream has become a reality. His newly constructed 11,000 square foot building was opened in the Spring of 2000. He has room for about 50 boats to be on display and currently has 30-40 watercraft in the museum. The museum walls are adorned with numerous busts of big game animals courtesy of Fred Larson, Jr. As John recollects, the Larson factory showroom had several wildlife mounts.

Watercraft vary from wooden duck boats, runabouts and cruisers to fiberglass and aluminum boats. Everything has a strong connection to Larson, Larson Watercraft, and Crestliner. John is a man before his times. It has just recently become fashionable to collect old boating memorabilia. John has been doing it since he was a kid. With such a close and personal association with Paul Larson, John’s been able to amass a great deal of “things.”

He has Paul Larson’s old briefcase and business cards. He has reams and reams of old paperwork that was discarded by the factory. Sales and promotional literature for Larson, Larson Watercraft, Crestliner, Evinrude, and Johnson fill drawers and cabinets. He has an old ledger book and sales invoices from Larson Watercraft (the predecessor to Crestliner) dating to her first year of life. He even has a home movie of the fire that completely destroyed the Larson factory in 1949.

“I love the history of Larson and Crestliner.” John said in a recent interview. “And I want to share this passion with others. That’s why I started this museum.” He says people should come to Little Falls to take a gander at the past boat building heritage of the town and also to pursue the new boats built locally. His brother Tom will be more than happy to sell you a new boat! Both Larson and Crestliner are presently owned by the Genmar conglomerate of Irwin Jacobs.

In addition to collecting and displaying the vintage boats and motors, John does restoration work on boats as well as old motors. “I like fiberglass boats and the weird things too.” He currently is working on a ‘glass Falls Flyer plus several other boats from places such as Oklahoma, Arizona, Florida, and Wisconsin.

He kind of stumbled on restoring glass boats quite by accident one day. He was working at Larson Boats at the time. He came out to the parking lot one day and noticed a guy with a beat up old boat hooked behind a car. Sorta looked like a Falls Flyer. The guy looked a bit displeased so John, always the curious one, asked about the pile on the trailer. The gentleman responded that it was a vintage Falls Flyer that he wanted to restore and he’d come to Larson hoping to get some information and help. The company said they’d be happy to sell him a new boat, but they had little interest in an old boat. Monahan indicated that he grew up using a Falls Flyer and he had a love for the old boats. So…a deal was struck and John began his first restoration project! The glum looking guy who was turned down by Larson was none other than our very own Paul Mikkelson! Monahan has since restored several boats for the Mikkelson Collection.

John tributes his father for instilling in him a fondness for boats and motors. “Dad did it right or he didn’t do it at all.” He realized years later that those work sessions gave him a deep knowledge of the intricacies of working on those old beauties. So…when you are in the neighborhood of Little Falls, stop in and have John give you a guided tour of “The Boat Works” museum. You’ll be glad you did. His enthusiasm is infectious. A fishing museum is also located in Little Falls as is the Charles A. Lindberg home.

Monahan’s museum and restoration business is called “The Boat Works” and it is located just south of Little Falls on highway 10. It is at 14753 Iris Road, one block east of the highway.

(Watch for articles on the history of Larson, Larson Watercraft, and Crestliner in future issues of the BoatHouse.)