Help support the WCHA Forums by making a tax-deductible donation!

A ‘heads-up’ For Smart Collectors …

Discussion in 'Scale and Miniature Canoe Models' started by Roger Young, Jan 4, 2019.

  1. Roger Young

    Roger Young display sample collector

    Unique opportunity to own an iconic piece of early Canadiana. 30” sample canoe of cedar plank with bark veneer covering, made by John S Stephenson, ca. 1890 (possibly earlier).

    In the Peterborough, ON, area of the 1850’s, John S Stephenson was one of the foremost innovators of commercially-made ‘board’ canoes. Along with others such as Thomas Gordon, Wm. English, Strickland and Dan Herald, Stephenson innovated technological advances which led to factory-produced wood and, later, wood-canvas canoes, and the development of an industry for which the area became known world-wide. Later on, he patented yet further inventions and processes before selling his creative rights to the Ontario Canoe Co. in 1879. When that enterprise later burned, it was replaced by the Peterborough Canoe Co., in 1892. Old John S Stephenson is often referred to as the ‘grandfather’ of the world-renowned Peterborough canoe. One of the greatest innovations of this ‘canoe genius’ was the vertical rib canoe, patented just prior to his sale to OCC. It was THE ultimate, elite watercraft of its day, expensive both to build and to buy. Sold over the years by OCC and PCC, one was specially made as a wedding gift from the people of Canada to (then) Princess Elizabeth on her marriage to Prince Phillip. While not a ‘vertical rib’ model, the sample herein is important in other ways.

    Very few ‘display sample’ canoes are currently known to have been made by the early Canadian factories. Unlike the US, where ‘samples’ by Old Town and Kennebec show up reasonably frequently, only a handful (or less) by any single Canadian maker are known. The Stephenson model pictured here is one of only four currently identified – one remains with descendants of the family; one is in the Canadian Canoe Museum collection; a third is in my hands. This fourth example has just come to light. It will shortly be coming to public auction – an iconic piece of Canadiana by an iconic, historic figure who helped create the ‘Canadian canoe’; something the CBC has termed “an 8th Wonder of Canada”.

    The sample is approx. 30” in length, 7” in width and 3” in depth amidships. Documentary evidence exists to show that, circa 1890, John Stephenson distributed several of these models amongst family members; at least two can be traced back, through family, to nieces - children of his sister, Hannah, who married his business partner, John Craigie. Stephenson also wanted to present one to his invalid daughter; nothing concrete is known today of its whereabouts – could this be it? The four known Stephenson samples are identical in size, shape and construction, with one exception: mine lacks a birch bark veneer covering. All are of wide, cedar plank construction attached to closely-spaced, broad, flat ribs. They have one-piece decks with coaming; this sample has boldly grained ash (?) decks. Each has wide, flat outwales of curly maple or flame birch. While I have not examined this piece ‘in hand’, it appears from photos to be in very good condition with a slightly worn or scuffed/scratched exterior. I expect the appearance of the bark exterior could be greatly improved by the application of some new varnish. That would not, to me, be a grave ‘sin’; older canoes are routinely re-varnished. But that is a decision for its next caretaker.

    One might ask: “why the bark veneer covering?” There may well be a highly significant answer. Early board canoes were notoriously leaky, whether of the ‘wide-board’, cedar strip or ‘vertical rib’ design. Wood canoes need several days of immersion in water each spring, in order for the dry wood to ‘take up’ moisture, swell up and thereby close the seams or gaps. Efforts were made to try to assist this process, using various textiles and ‘filler’ compounds. Eventually, the wood-canvas canoe resulted, for which men like Evan Gerrish and other early New England builders are often credited with the first such “commercial production”, circa 1890. It is not so widely known that as early as the mid-1870’s, in Peterborough, John Stephenson was experimenting with just such canvas/textile coverings, along with bark veneers, all in aid of preventing leaks in wooden canoes. This model, therefore, can be looked upon as an example of Stephenson’s truly inventive, innovative mind at work. At least one Stephenson descendant states that family lore holds Old John S made these models as examples of the very earliest canoes proposed for construction by PCC in 1892. I am not personally aware of any full-size PCC canoes closely resembling the samples, though.

    One can speculate that these models may possibly have been made in the 1870’s, perhaps as test or patent models, and later given to family as mementos. However, that is pure supposition, to be sure, and far from established fact. One does have to wonder, though, whether old John’s son, George (who had worked for him but left Canada following the sale of Stephenson’s canoe works to OCC, and went south to New York/New England in the company of J R Robertson), took many of the old man’s ‘trade secrets’ and intellectual property with him, and introduced these ideas to the American builders he met and eventually worked with/for in those areas. It is said that Old John steadfastly refused ever again to acknowledge or speak to George, after he went south. Did he feel betrayed; his secrets misappropriated? Does John Stephenson deserve more credit?

    John S Stephenson was one of the most central and important figures in Canadian (and possibly American) canoe-making history. His known ‘sample’ models are extremely scarce (only 4 known), and highly desirable in many culturally historic ways. This piece will be offered at public auction on Feb. 9, 2019, by Miller & Miller Auctions, New Hamburg, ON.

    Disclaimer: I have no personal proprietary interest or involvement in this sale; in fact, I do not even know the consignor. I have been consulted by Ethan Miller for background. I have written this piece simply because I love sample canoes, greatly admire the work of John Stephenson, and believe others should feel likewise about history. I haven’t yet decided whether to involve myself in the bidding. I own a Stephenson sample; I don’t need another. I’d really like to see another collector(s) share in the joy of having one to take care of for a while. However, I’ll certainly be watching; if interest lags or it goes under-appreciated ….., well???

    At this point, I’m simply making available to everyone, equally, the best background info of which I’m aware.

    Good luck to all.

    Roger Young
    Jan. 2019

    Attached Files:

Share This Page