A Minnesota Institution
by Andreas Jordahl Rhude,
Second in a series of articles on Larson, Larson Watercraft, and Crestliner boats.
Minnesota has been and is home to numerous boat builders and one that has made a reputable name for itself is Larson. Larson Boats has managed to survive the quirks of the tumultuous boating industry and has thrived in recent years. Wood, fiberglass and even aluminum;
buyouts, mergers; bankruptcies; failed endeavors into making snowmobiles and ping-pong tables; wars; peacetime; boom and bust; fire; Larson has been through it all.
It all goes back to around 1905 when Paul G. Larson built his first boat at his parents home near Little Falls, Minnesota. He was only eleven years of age at the time and he used his boat on the waters in the area. Scrap lumber and nails salvaged from the fire of a nearby farm home were utilized to build the boat. By the age of 19, in 1913, he sold his first boat. It was a 14-foot long double-ended duck boat that weighed 80 pounds. Paul used steam bent white oak for the frames and clear Minnesota white pine for the hull planking. The cockpit was 9 feet in length and 28 inches wide and could accommodate two men.
He built the duck boats in his spare time during the winter months using nothing but hand tools no power tools. He sawed the planks and drilled the holes by hand. Paul worked at various jobs in the summertime when it was available. About 1915 Larson earned enough profits from fur trapping to purchase his first power woodworking equipment. This really put me in the boat building business for it had jointer, rip saw and band saw. he wrote in a remembrance of his business genesis (Paul Larson letter).
With his new multi-purpose tool he started making 14 and 16-foot boats for lake cottages. They were built for use with the outboard motors such as Evinrude, Koban, and Caille; the heavy one cylinder outboard engines. His first major market were cottage owners on Lake Alexander, about 22 miles northwest of Little Falls.
He constructed his first shop, a small 18 x 24 foot [432 square feet] building, in 1915. Compare that to Thompson Brothers Boat Mfg. Company of Peshtigo, Wisconsin which had a three story 60 x 120 foot building encompassing 31,600 square feet of floor space as early as 1913 (Peshtigo Times, 27 June 1912). World War I raged in Europe and the United States became entrenched in the conflict in the summer of 1917. Larson was struggling through its earliest years during this period.
In March of 1922, Larson and fellow Little Falls resident, Sherman Levis joined a group of sports-persons on a 150 miles dog sled trek through northern Minnesota. Amongst the team were State Game and Fish Commissioner Jay Gould and a few wardens. He struck up a friendship with the wardens and this resulted in Paul selling a few boats to them for use in their assignments. Paul designed a special lightweight vessel he called the Game Warden Special for them. Constructed of cedar strip planking over white oak ribs, she was covered with canvas below the waterline. Many years later he commented that it was some of the best advertising he could ever have dreamed up.
Larson made a coup in 1922 when he became the first dealer in the state of Minnesota for Johnson outboard motors. He packaged boat and motor making one stop shopping for consumers. This marriage enabled Larson to grab a strong market share for the boating world in central Minnesota. In those early days Larson made wooden strip-built fishing and rowboats. By 1925 a larger factory was built, 24 x 40 feet, along the banks of the Mississippi River. Their cedar strip boats were typical of the era. They were similar to those made by other builders such as Shell Lake Boats; Thompson; Alexandria Boat Works; and Penn Yan.
In the twenties Paul began racing his boats. He made the race circuit in Minnesota and Wisconsin making a name for himself and his boats. He was seriously injured in a crash during a race at Red Wing, Minnesota on 24 August 1929. His boat was named the Spirit of 770 and was sponsored by the local Elks Lodge No. 770. Aviator Charles Lindberghs Spirit of St. Louis inspired the first portion of Pauls boat name! Lindbergh was a long time Little Falls resident. This Lindbergh connection continued to be a part of Pauls boating career for years to come.
More deluxe models that came with decks, windshields, running lights, and upholstered seats were added. Larson Boat Works did make a few inboard utility models in the 1930s and 40s. The hulls were made of strips of mahogany similar to those used in the manufacture of
fishing boats. This was lieu of wide planks as was commonly used by Chris-Craft and others. A fully restored one sits in John Monahans Boat Works museum in Little Falls.
The stock market crash of October 1929 effected Larson. Paul had to obtain a $1,000.00 loan to survive. That was a large amount at the time, especially considering the depressed economy. Things looked brighter by the end of the thirties as manufacturing space was doubled.
The 3,000th Larson boat was built in January, 1939 when the firm had twenty woodworkers on the payroll. Over the companys first 26 years, this averaged to 115 boats annually. Contrast this to Thompson Brothers Boat that was building over 2,000 boats each year during the same period (Marinette Eagle Star, 22 July 1937).
During World War II the company built 26-foot long training rowboats for the Navy along with a few inboard boats used for shore patrol. They even made wooden beer cases; beer being considered an essential war staple!
One of the most unique of all Larson models ever made was the Falls Flyer. Designed and later patented by Paul Larson, the first Flyer came off the production line in 1939 (patent number 126,588 dated 15 April 1941). It first appeared in the 1938 Larson catalog. The early models had cedar strip planking over white oak framing. The exterior was covered in canvas, similar to a wood-canvas canoe. The red, cream white, and black paint job was also a departure from conventional boat design. In 1954 they made their first fiberglass Falls Flyer. In the early 1960s the model was dropped from the Larson line after major redesign occurred circa 1958.
Soon after the cessation of hostilities of the Second World War, Larson was involved in the formation of Aluminum Boat Company, which made aluminum fishing boats. The name became Larson Watercraft, Inc. in 1948 when Loiel S. Ryan, Sr. and Jr. took over management of the operation. One of their models was called the Crestliner, the name the company adopted as its identity on 16 September 1957.
Pauls brother K.L. Lem Larson joined the firm and was a long time vice president. In 1948 some of the employees with at least ten years tenure included: Iver Nelson; Elmer Byllemos; John McGuire; Jack Oestreich; Leonard Ring; Arnold Nagel; Leonard Smith; Conrad Sunstrom; Howard Barden; and Lyle Tuller. At that time nearly 100 workers were employed by Larson Boat Works and Larson Watercraft (the aluminum boat builder). They made about 1,700 wooden boats each year and close to 800 aluminum ones.
Disaster struck on the thirteenth of December 1949 when fire demolished the entire Larson facility. It was a total loss with forms; inventory; equipment; and records being destroyed. Sadly, one dedicated Larson employee was lost in the fire; night watchman Jake Ringwelski. He went back into the burning building several times in an attempt to save materials. The factory was ultimately rebuilt on the same spot. The fire did not affect the Larson Watercraft plant, adjacent to the main Larson Boat Works facility.
The destruction of records lends to the mystery of the early era of Larson Boat Works. Very little is known of early models, employees, and production statistics.
In 1953 the company offered a fiberglass coating on the bottom of several of their strip built models as an option. They called it armorglass. By the following year they made their first molded fiberglass hull, a Falls Flyer. Larson quickly made the metamorphosis from wooden to fiberglass reinforced plastic construction. The new Laker Line of glass boats soon came to dominate their output.
1956 was a pivotal year at Larson with the introduction of the All American fiberglass model. Larson used that particular model name into the 1990s. Their earliest fiberglass boats had plastic hulls but wooden decks and covering boards over the gunwales. By 1957 when the company was incorporated, ninety percent of their production was in fiberglass. Sales were increasing in the decade and additional financing was needed to help build more production space. A local industrial development corporation was established to sell shares to raise capital for Larson. They built a new plant on the west side of the Mississippi River in 1958-59.
Larson was one of the first fiberglass boat builders to use the Rand chopper gun fiberglass spray method of building up hull thickness. There were 300 workers at the Little Falls plant by 1959. Larson Boats were being built at Ontario, California; Nashville, Georgia; Casper, Wyoming; and Cornwall, Ontario, Canada under various licensing agreements with other builders. A nation-wide dealer network was well established by that time.
Paul G. Larson was born in Chicago on 10 January 1894 and he died at the age of 89 in Little Falls on 20 January 1983. His Swedish born parents brought the family to Minnesota while Paul was just shy of five years. Growing up near the forests, streams and lakes, and the Mighty Mississippi it was no wonder that he grew to love the outdoors. He became an avid sportsperson and making boats fit in well with his genre.
Larson Boat Works started out as a humble, one man operation and became a major force in the boating industry in the United States and Canada. It made a successful transition from wood to fiberglass, a much more smooth switch than other builders. Minnesota is lucky to have two privately funded maritime museums dedicated to Larson Boats: The Mikkelson Collection at Willmar and The Boat Works at Little Falls.
Continued in the next issue.
Paul G. Larson letter, undated (from files of Shirley Hanson, daughter of Paul Larson)
The Real Runabouts by Bob Speltz
Peshtigo (WI) Times w Marinette (WI) Eagle Star
Little Falls (MN) Daily Transcript w John Monahan, Little Falls, MN
Paul Mikkelson, Willmar, MN w Larson Boats history, undated, unpublished timeline
American Dreamboats: An illustrated History of Larson Boats The Company, The Boats, and Their Times by Laura Sommers