Larson Boats – Part 4

Larson Watercraft & Crestliner
by Andreas Jordahl Rhude

Fourth in a series of articles about Larson, Larson Watercraft, and Crestliner boats.

Larson Watercraft is a brand name that few know and one that faded into obscurity. It is however, a name that sprang from a noted boat builder and a designation that led to the familiar Crestliner name.

“Larson Watercraft” was a boat building enterprise that started soon after the end of the Second World War. It was formed to use a fairly new boat building material – aluminum. After the hostilities ceased there was an abundance of surplus, inexpensive aluminum. They seized the opportunity to capitalize on the growing recreation field and used new methods and raw materials.

Paul G. Larson and his Larson Boat Works of Little Falls, Minnesota decided to try their luck at making aluminum boats after being introduced to the idea by Robert H. Wold. Wold, an ex-serviceman with experience in aluminum aircraft construction, sought out Larson in the summer of 1946 to present his idea for making aluminum boats. A separate company was formed called Larson Watercraft, Inc., chartered with the state of Minnesota on 08 August 1946 (L.F. Daily Transcript, 09 Aug. 1946). The original aluminum boats were constructed in a portion of Larson’s warehouse. The Larson Watercraft plant was ultimately built adjacent to Larson Boat Works on First Street in Little Falls, just off the banks of the mighty Mississippi River.

Paul Larson was elected president of the new enterprise with Dr. Chester H. Longley becoming vice-president; Wold was secretary-treasurer and general manager; with Dr. C.J. Olsen and Paul’s brother Fred Larson as directors. About twenty Little Falls men invested in Larson Watercraft. Paul Larson designed the first boat using sheets of plywood as a model with the help of long-time co-worker Jack Oestrich.

They were shipping out boats by November of that year. A truckload with forty of their twelve foot “Commanders” was shipped to a dealer in Idaho late that month (L.F. Daily Transcript, 26 November 1946). Twenty workers were kept busy making the new boats.

28 March 1947 found consummation of a contract between Paul Larson and Larson Watercraft. Retroactive to 08 August 1946, it guaranteed Mr. Larson’s full efforts in making Watercraft a success. In effect for a decade, it put assets of Larson Boat Works at the disposal of the aluminum boat plant. It also contained a non-compete clause for Paul. He signed away any possibility of working for other boat firms with the exception of Larson Boat Works.

On 05 December 1951 Paul and Watercraft signed another contract. He was paid 2 ½ percent of net sales for the fiscal year; sales were approximately $564,000.00 that year. In addition he was to receive annual payments of $10,000.00 for ten years. Ed Anderson, office manager in the fifties, recalls writing those checks to Paul (Ed Anderson Interview, 08 February 2002).

While Larson Watercraft-Crestliner was not the first to successfully make aluminum boats, they were one of the leaders of their industry. Howard Lund of New York Mills, Minnesota began making aluminum fishing boats in 1948. Just sixty miles to the northwest of Little Falls, there was undoubtedly some exchange of ideas and technology between Larson and Lund. Aluma Craft Boat Company of Minneapolis was in full production of twelve and fourteen-foot aluminum boats by 1946-47 (Motorboat, May 1947). Harwill, Inc. of St. Charles, Michigan began making their Aero-Craft aluminum boats and canoes in the summer of 1946 (St. Charles Union, 16 May 1946). In June 1959 Aero-Craft advertised that they built the first aluminum boats in America (Boats, June 1959).
According to a June 1959 article in Boats magazine, one out of three pleasure boats in the United States was aluminum (Boats, June 1959, p. 16). This is proof that Larson and fellow founders of Larson Watercraft-Crestliner were wise in their decision to use this medium.

The earliest Larson Watercraft models were small, open fishing boats with plank bench seats. Painted red decks and bottoms and natural finished aluminum colour schemes were typical. The early promotional flyers stated that the Larson Watercraft’s were “first of a series of
aeronautical inspired aluminum watercraft…the family boat with an aircraft heritage.”

In 1948 additional capital was needed to keep the company afloat. Little Falls businessman Loiel S. Ryan, Sr. was asked to help. He agreed with the condition that he gain fifty-one percent interest in the company and that his son L.S., Jr. be named manager. Wold was forced out and the younger Ryan, “Pete,” became general manager. 800 boats were made that year. By 1954-1955 the trade name Crestliner was adopted for all products. On 16 September 1957 the company name was unceremoniously changed from Larson Watercraft to Crestliner, Inc., a name to which many fisherman became familiar. The moniker Larson Watercraft went the way of the Passenger Pigeon and was forgotten.

Paul Larson indicated that one reason for the name change was the continual confusion amongst dealers and customers between Larson Boat Works and Larson Watercraft, not to mention Larson Motor Service. All were located in the same area of Little Falls.

The “Ply-A-Lume” model was introduced in January 1952. It was made of sheets of marine grade plywood that were joined by aluminum strips. The wood-aluminum combination boat was in response to material shortages due to the Korean War. In March of fifty-two, Larson Watercraft employed sixty workers; as many as were on the payroll of Larson Boat Works. By the spring of 1953 about fifteen percent of their production were Ply-A-Lume models.

A new, large factory was opened for production in the summer of 1954. Built on the north edge of town, it is today’s site of the Crestliner facility.

On 15 April 1955 Larson Watercraft announced the opening of a branch assembly plant at Strasburg, Virginia. Business was booming and the expansions at Little Falls could not keep up with sales. There were 230 employees at the Little Falls plant at that time. The Virginia facility assembled components that were made at Little Falls into finished boats. Robert Price became plant manager at Strasburg (L.F. Daily Transcript, 15 April 1955).

In February 1956 some of the employees in the newly renovated painting department at Little Falls were Anthony Szczodroski; Ivan Bucholz; and Norbert Armstrong. Their supervisor was Louis Anders. When the company added 10,000 square feet of production and warehouse space in the summer of 1956 L.S. Ryan, Jr. was still at the helm. The expansion allowed consolidation from three to two locations in Little Falls. By that time their main facility had been moved to the north edge of town and the plant covered 50,000 square feet of
production space. 310 workers were on the payroll in July 1956 and Crestliner was the largest employer in town (L.F. Daily Transcript, 14 July 1956).

A new model in 1957 was the 21-foot Vagabond Cruiser. It included a flying bridge; sink, stove, and freshwater storage; toilet; portable icebox; and sleeping bunks. In response to the increased demand for more luxurious models Larson Watercraft introduced several models with full upholstery and two-toned green and white painted hulls. The firm had 25 models in their 1957 line-up. (L.F. Daily Transcript, 24 January 1957).

Three hundred Crestliner workers went out on strike on the ninth of January 1958. Union president Art Jelinski stated that wages were the principal sticking point that caused the breakdown of contract negotiations (L.F. Daily Transcript, 10 January 1958). Federal mediator Charles LaValley of St. Paul was called in to assist in the talks. The picketing ceased on 17 February, nearly six weeks after it commenced and the workers went back to the production line.

Crestliner added a line of fiberglass boats in 1958. They also, around 1959, started making hulls from U.S. Rubber Company’s “Royalite” sandwich material. Royalite was a five-layer composite that was quite flexible. Test were conducted wherein a bullet was shot through the hull and the resultant hole closed itself up. The material proved to be too flexible and hulls deformed under their own weight and with sun exposure. Thompson Royal-Craft, Inc. of Cortland, New York was another builder to use Royalite for a number of years. Have any of these hulls survived?

By the fall of 1959, the company had opened its third manufacturing plant and one in Canada was in the pipeline. The Morrilton, Arkansas plant got underway that fall and a newly created entity, Canada Crestliner, Inc. was chartered for operation at Waterloo, Ontario. They had 450 employees in the two American plants in 1958. 1,300 dealers were selling in excess of 15,000 boats annually (L.F. Daily Transcript, 29 September 1959). Pete Ryan was chairman and sales manger with Edson Williams holding the position of president at that time.

Bigelow-Sanford, Inc. purchased Crestliner in 1960. At that time, Paul Larson was a member of the board of directors. The Ryans ceased their association at Crestliner with the sale to Bigelow-Sanford. A plant was opened at Thompsonville, Connecticut which operated for only one year. The 1962 model line included a twenty-foot fiberglass cuddy cabin boat called the Viking Deluxe (Motor Boat, January 1962). On 02 March 1964 the firm was sold again, this time to Molded Fiber Glass Body Company (MFG) of Ashtabula, Ohio. MFG was a major builder of fiberglass boats and they moved Crestliner’s fiberglass production from Little Falls to Virginia after their purchase.

For a short period, Crestliner boats were being made at Como, Italy under a licensing agreement.

Crestliner continued to build both aluminum and fiberglass boats and both lines were broadened throughout the sixties. They were sold in May1970 to North American Rockwell Corporation and became part of their marine division alongside Hatteras Yachts and Whitehouse houseboats. Sale of the company took place in late 1972 to AMF. AMF also obtained Hatteras at that time. The AMF Crestliner name was applied to hullsides during this period.

With the economic slow down of the late 1970s and early 1980s, AMF desired to divest itself of the aluminum boat building operations. Eighteen prospective buyers looked at the Little Falls business. Most would have moved the plant operations out of town. At the eleventh hour a number of employees with the aid of local banks and the Minnesota Department of Economic Development purchased the plant. The new enterprise, Nordic Boat Company was headed by Del Smith, president. After production ceased for a short time, it commenced again in May 1981 with 50 workers. (L.F. Daily Transcript, 15 June 1981).

Features of the revitalized Nordic line claimed as superior to competitors were the welded aluminum construction and acrylic baked enamel paint. The company also revised a full line of fiberglass boats.

In May 1988 Genmar purchased Nordic and the name reverted to Crestliner, Inc. Genmar also owned cross-town rival Larson Boats. A year later the fiberglass line was dropped and all energies went into the aluminum boats.

There are plenty of classic aluminum boats on the waters today. They deserve the same respect as is given to classic wooden vessels. Many folks have a great deal of interest in the old aluminum boats, those that were built for the common man.

For additional information on Crestliner, see the Lee Wangstad article “A Family Classic: Crestliner Voyager” in Boating World magazine and an article on the Crestliner Jetsreak in the September 1998 issue of the same publication. A Crestliner owner’s group exists and it can be accessed via a webpage:

© Andreas Jordahl Rhude 2002

Little Falls (MN) Daily Transcript
St. Charles (MI) Union
John Monahan, Little Falls, MN
Ed Anderson Interview, 08 February 2002
“My Early History and What I Remember of It” by Paul Larson, unpublished, manuscript
Morrison County Historical Society
American Dreamboats: An Illustrated History of Larson Boats – The Company, The Boats and Their Times by Laura Sommers, © 2000
Minnesota Manufacturers Directories
Boats magazine
Motor Boating magazine