by Larry Quinn/Yvonne Duperon
Two years ago I purchased a sturdy 14′ cedar strip rowboat. The date 56 was stamped on the cast aluminum oar lock, and the previous owner said that it was built by Peterson Brothers Boat Works in Shell Lake, Wisconsin. With that information, I began my search for more information about my boat and the boatbuilders. What I discovered was that the Peterson family continue to operate a manufacturing company at the same location. Also, that a family friend, Mabel Lanars, or Mabel Peterson (her maiden name), was a sister of the boatbuilding brothers.
On a visit to Shell Lake, Wisconsin I met with Howard Peterson, the only surviving family member with first-hand knowledge of the boatbuilding operation. Howard’s father Albin Carl Peterson and his uncle William Adolf Peterson started the boatbuilding company. Howard was delighted to talk to me about the boatbuilding days. We also talked about his late aunt Mabel, for whom we both shared great fondness. As a youngster I remember hearing about Mabel’s brothers the boatbuilders, but I was only 6 years old by the time they stopped building boats altogether.
The two brothers Albin and William Peterson met and married two sisters Alfield and Axeline Anderson from Shell Lake, Wisconsin. They worked for the Shell Lake Boat works in the 1920’s, but after the stock market crash of 1929 they were laid off. The young and eager brothers didn’t take this as a defeat, but rather as a great opportunity to start their own boatbuilding company. So with some land they inherited and money they had saved they started their company. They had oak and cedar milled and began building boats in a pole barn on the west shore of Shell Lake.
The boats that the Petersons built were primarily cedar strip rowboats, from 12 to 18 feet. The boats were constructed of full-length 1/2″ by 1 1/4″ cedar boards over white oak ribs. The boards were concave on one edge and convex on the other which made for a tight fit. The keel, stems, gunwales, deck beams and transom were made of solid oak. The boats were set up with two sets of oar locks for rowing but also had a notched transom to accommodate an outboard motor. Thousands of these small rowboats were built by hundreds of boatbuilders during this era. Unfortunately, most of these boats were left on shore to rot or were turned into flower planters when aluminum and fiberglass boats arrived on the scene.
The Petersons also built a runabout with a covered deck and mid section. They built wood boats from 1931 – 1956 or 57. After that they built fiberglass boats for a year or two. A huge fire burned most of their equipment molds and records, and that spelled the end to the boatbuilding days. Currently the Peterson Company manufactures fiberglass tanks for transporting sharks and other aquatic species.
The Peterson Brothers Boat Works was a small operation in comparison to Thompson, Larson or even Shell Lake Boat Works. But what is important is that they were a family-run company that put out quality boats. Boats that the average working Joe could afford and enjoy. The Peterson boat that I now own was built when I was 3 years old, and it took me the next 43 years to find out about Mabel Peterson’s brothers, the boatbuilders.