Dave Watts – Little Rock Boat Works

by Steve Merjanian

This is the fifth in a series of articles that highlight the restorers who are members of the BSLOL. We don’t endorse any restorer, however we will try to factually report their accomplishments.

Dave Watts was raised in Austin, Minnesota on Spam. (That’s his joke, not this writer’s.) He is a combat marine veteran (1971–1973) and saw combat in NAM in 1972 and 1973.
After returning stateside he won a scholarship to St. Cloud State and earned a degree in Criminal Studies. He then worked as a screw (AKA guard) at the St. Cloud Reformatory.

His life-long love of boats kept calling him to the waters edge. So he bought a small summer cabin on Little Rock Lake near Rice, Minnesota and then things just sort of happened.

His first boat was a home-made eight-foot pram he built with his dad at age fifteen. The second boat was a ten-foot B Class hydroplane with a modified Champion motor.

That made him the fastest water-borne teenager in Austin. The third boat was a 1956 Chris Craft 42’ Constellation that he managed to partially restore before he sold it. That boat sat behind his cabin (he has nice neighbors) and his pet cat adopted the boat as her dry land cat house. The next purchase was a 1955 Chris Craft 26’ Sedan Fly Bridge which he planned to fix up “in a few months.” Five years later it was done and displayed at the LOL rendezvous on Lake Minnetonka. That five-year effort taught Dave the fine points of boat restoration.

In 1986 he left his job at the reformatory and established the Little Rock Boat Works in his garage. The first job was a 1928 Dodge 26’ Water Car triple cockpit runabout with 100 hp Chrysler Silver Dome called “Snoop.” I remember riding in this boat after an LOL rendezvous and admiring Dave’s work. The restorations from small outboards on up to large cruisers have all shown his meticulous attention to detail.

Dave had joined the LOL at this time and actively participated as a board member. After his marriage in 1988 to Elaine, he moved his shop to St. Cloud to get boat parts out of the house. Not that Elaine was “anti-boat” – far from it. As a result of the years spent in Dave’s environment, she has acquired Dave’s skill in assessing a boat’s condition. She’s is usually right by his side when Dave is out looking at boats.

1928 Belle Island
42’ Triple Screw Commuter

At the 2000 BSLOL Rendezvous, a 1929 Dee Wite 16’ outboard with a 14 hp two-cylinder Lockwood won the Judges’ Choice, Skippers’ Choice, and Angie Speltz awards. That same year this boat won Best in Class Award, People’s Choice, and Thunderbird awards at the Lake Tahoe’s Concours De Elegance. That is a commendable achievement for any boat, and an eye-opener when you consider this outboard bested larger boats at these shows. For the same client, a 1956 Streblow 15’ was restored and brought to the 1991 LOL rendezvous. This boat is also the oldest known Streblow.

1942 Century 17’ Sea Maid showing
restored frames and battens

During the summer, Dave keeps a 1956 Chris Craft 33’ Futura with two 413 Chryslers on Lake Superior at Bayfield, Wisconsin. This boat from Little Rock really rocks. Try driving a cruiser that performs like a runabout through a three-foot chop at full speed. It is an awesome experience, especially when this head-turner passes a plastic go-fast boat.

While looking around the boat yards in the Bayfield area, Dave spotted several 30’ Sea Skiffs that were used for fishing and were now retired.

In 2000 he restored one with all varnished ceiling planks, additional cockpit seats, and a small galley. That boat is now on Lake Minnetonka gathering admiring glances. A second boat was brought to the 2002 BSLOL Rendezvous, won the Hagerty Insurance award and was immediately sold to another Lake Minnetonka admirer. A third Sea Skiff is in the Little Rock inventory awaiting restoration. The fine joiner work and finish along with the usability of these boats have earned a major “drool factor”.

1960 Chris Craft 30’ Sea Skiff at the 2000 BSLOL Rendezvous

His current shop is on Highway 10 in Rice, Minnesota. If you listen to Joe Soucheray’s radio talk show, you may have heard him mention “all the woodies on Highway 10.” Dave is one of the guys that can (and does) razz Joe on the air regarding woodies. If you stop by the shop, you just may find his five-year-old son Benjamin helping dad.

1924 Dee Wite 16’ outboard at the 2000 BSLOL Rendezvous – Pete Allen

Dave has about a four-year backlog of work. His co-workers are Jacob Johnson, Scott Bentler and Steve Lively. The shop typically works on five boats a year. Dave believes in maintaining a considerable inventory of restorable boats that includes a 1928 Belle Island 42’ triple screw Commuter, a 1929 Hacker Craft 45’ Cruiser, a 1957 Riva 26’ Tritone, three 1950’s Shepard 27’ runabouts and many more. I believe doing above-the-bar restorations and using the best products available for longevity, are just two factors in the success of the Little Rock Boat Works.

You may contact Dave at:
Little Rock Boat Works
600 Division Street South
Rice, MN 56367

1956 Chris Craft 33’ Futura in Bayfield, WI
[Not visible is yours truly (Peggy Merjanian)
at the helm. Notice the boat is not underway…]