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The 1912 peak of canoe manufacturers in Maine

Discussion in 'Research and History' started by Benson Gray, Mar 26, 2021.

  1. Benson Gray

    Benson Gray Canoe History Enthusiast Staff Member

    Sam's recent question about Rushton's open gunwale Indian Girls and the 1915 catalog from "J. W. Rushton" got me wondering about the changes in J. H. Rushton's canoe business after his death in 1906. Dan's page at provided a broad outline and he kindly filled in the details during a phone conversation last night. We discussed how difficult it must have been to run a canoe company during the early 1900s up through the First World War. It reminded me of some research I did several years ago but had never gotten around to publishing as shown below.


    This gives an indication of how competitive things were during this period by showing the total number of companies building canoes in Maine alone. Much of this information was drawn from advertising but I also stumbled into a series of regular reports from Maine's Bureau of Industrial and Labor Statistics. These included the number of employees in the larger shops. The totals ranged from 152 in 1910, to 210 in 1912, and 126 in 1966 even though the number of canoe building companies had dropped to ten by then.

    The various build records and estimates provide a glimpse of the productivity for some of these builders. The Kennebec Canoe Company reported 20 employees in 1910 and produced about 850 canoes. This works out to around 43 canoes per employee overall. Carleton also reported 20 employees and made about 800 canoes for a similar productivity of 40 canoes per person. Old Town reported 50 employees with 2300 canoes for the high score of 46 canoes each. Morris must have had a tough year with 31 employees and an estimated 875 canoes or 28 each. Most canoe builder's employees were highly seasonal so these totals probably varied widely over a year.

    Therefore, it is not surprising that J. H. Rushton's descendants struggled to keep his canoe business going after his death and B. N. Morris wasn't able to get his business rebuilt after the fire in 1919.

    Last edited: Mar 26, 2021
  2. MGC

    MGC Scrapmaker

    That's pretty interesting. It may also show how much of an effect the war and automobiles may have had.
    A takeaway (for me) is that the productivity numbers could be used to provide a Kentucky windage summary of canoes built per manufacturer even without built records....given a headcount number.
    We need to get Dan to write that book about the New York builders. I think there is an interesting story there that Atwood didn't tell.
  3. 1905Gerrish

    1905Gerrish Loves Old Maine canoes

    Very interesting chart. Your statement regarding Morris having "a tough year" caught my attention. Most of us regard Morris as being the best of the best in the game. Wondering if the quality of Morris came into play in the equation?
  4. OP
    Benson Gray

    Benson Gray Canoe History Enthusiast Staff Member

    These overall numbers are clearly missing a lot of details and can easily be distorted by a number of different factors including quality. Morris probably was selling more top grade canoes than everyone else. Pricing and quality were certainly a concern as shown on the page below from his circa 1910 catalog. The state report acknowledges that "the number of employees given represents the industries when in full operation." If this period of "full operation" for Morris was different from the other builders then that would also distort the productivity calculation. We have the least detailed build record information for Morris so this can also have an impact.


    Last edited: Apr 7, 2021
  5. OP
    Benson Gray

    Benson Gray Canoe History Enthusiast Staff Member

    Zack recently asked me about Herbert D. Walton who took over the canoe business from Evan H. Gerrish. This sent me off down another interesting rabbit hole. The Bangor page of the 1880 census shows Evan H. Gerrish and listed his occupation as a "Fish Rod Maker" so his canoe business was still fairly small at that point. He was first listed as a canoe builder in the 1881 issue of the Maine Register. This was dropped in 1882 and then came back from 1883 to 1908. His name shows up in a number of other published sources during this period. He was also included in the Directory of the Sporting Goods Trade from 1911.

    The Sporting Guide to Nova Scotia from 1909 listed “The Gerrish Canoe Co., H. D. Walton” in Costigan. Herbert D. Walton from Greenbush was listed as a canoe builder in the Maine Register from 1911 to 1919. It is certainly possible that he continued to build canoes into the 1930s but on a scale which may have been too small to be listed in something like the Maine Register. The Greenbush page of the 1920 census shows Herbert D. Walton and listed his occupation as “Patrolman” on the “State road” so his canoe output was probably limited. His World War One military records from 1918 list his occupation as “State Road Patrolman.” He was living in Greenbush during the 1910 census and listed his occupation as “Canoe Builder” at a “Canoe Shop.” He was living with his parents in Greenbush during the 1900 census and listed his occupation as a part time “Canoe Builder.” He married Flora E. Alexander in Old Town on October 6th, 1900 and appears to have listed his occupation as “carpenter.”

    The “Olamon, Greenbush” area was also home to canoe builders named J. M. Francis and T. Ranco as listed in the New England Business Directory and Gazetteer from 1887. These were probably Penobscot bark canoe builders. Joseph Ranco’s father was named Augustin but he seems to have gone by Tuester. This was often spelled Tueskr or Toaster. See for more details.

    It is interesting that Herbert Walton and Joseph Ranco were both master canoe builders who had moved on to other jobs by the 1920 census. This further emphasizes the consolidation shown in the table above.

    1905Gerrish and JClearwater like this.

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