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Joseph Ranco, canoe builder

Discussion in 'Research and History' started by Benson Gray, Mar 7, 2020.

  1. Benson Gray

    Benson Gray Canoe History Enthusiast Staff Member

    Joseph Ranco's name as a canoe builder has been showing up in a number of posts here so I thought that it might be useful to consolidate what is known about him in one place and put out a call for any new information. His canoes often had heart shaped decks, spruce root or cane wrapped on the deck tips, removable bow seats, three closely spaced ribs at the end of the stems on each end, and a planking pattern that flared out to fill the turn of the bilge after the tenth rib (counting from each end). Many canoes from other builders in the Kennebunkport, Maine area also have these characteristics. Please respond here with pictures if you have a canoe with some of these features to see what we all can learn.

    It appears that Joseph Ranco was born in April, 1865 based on census records and died in April, 1943 according to his obituary. I believe that his parents were Augustin Ranco (1813-1913) and Louisa Polis Ranco. Augustin seems to have gone by Tuester although it was often spelled Tueskr or Toaster. He was probably the canoe builder listed in the 1887 issue of the New England Business Directory as T. Ranco in Olamon, Greenbush, Maine near Old Town. This means that Joseph could have learned to build canoes from his father.

    Joseph Ranco was first listed as a canoe builder in the Old Town newspaper on April 28th, 1888 saying "Joseph Ranco has fitted up a shop on the Island where he intends to make to order all kinds of birch bark and canvass canoes." The same paper reported on August 18th, 1888 that "We received an order for business cards this week from Mr. Joseph Ranco who is summering at Kennebunkport, Me." Other sources list him as a canoe builder in Old Town during 1889 and 1893.

    Joseph Ranco advertised his services in Kennebunkport as shown below during the late 1800s. John R. Williams and several other Kennebunkport boat builders started advertising canoes around 1896. It is very difficult to distinguish one Kennebunkport area builder's canoe from another without a tag. This is similar to the situation with the Charles River area builders and probably for the same reasons. The ten other Kennebunkport area builders were advertising similar canoes at various times from 1886 to 1915.

    The Profiles of Maine book from 1976 by Lynn Franklin quotes Nick Ranco saying “It was Joe Ranco, My uncle, who founded the Old Town Canoe Company. He worked with a man named Wickett and they had a small shop, just big enough to hold one canoe. They sawed out their cedar ribs and planking themselves.”

    Alfred Wickett first learned to build canoes from Edwin M. White as described at in 1895. He was also involved with the new and unnamed canoe company which first appeared in 1900 as shown at in the newspaper. This became the Indian Old Town Canoe Company. Their first catalog identified the I. F. model as shown at as being “planned by one of our Indian workmen” so that was probably a reference to Joseph Ranco. The initials may have stood for Indian Fishing canoe. This model is still being built and sold today as the Guide.

    The Penobscot Canoe Company was known for their unusual decks as described at and the St. Louis Meramec Canoe Company had a similar one as described at for example. Both of these companies were run by Alfred Wickett so I had always assumed that he invented this. However, some recent research into the Penobscot "NOTACRACK" model described at led me to the patent at which confirms that this deck and more were invented by Joseph Ranco.

    Joe listed his profession in the 1920 census as a "Teamster" in the "Trucking" business so he probably stopped building canoes commercially after the Penobscot Canoe Company failed. He also was known as Chief Tomekin when he dressed in native clothing with his family for a photographer as shown below.

    Please add any more information to build on this. Thanks,


    Close-ribs.jpg Deck-cane.jpg Ranco-3.jpg Rib-10a.jpg Rib-10b.jpg IMG_3592.JPG H919-1.jpg Indian Landing.jpg Indians Canoes Cape Arundel.jpg
    Last edited: Mar 15, 2020
    JClearwater and MGC like this.
  2. JClearwater

    JClearwater Wooden Canoes are in the Blood

    This is great stuff. Thank you Benson for putting this together.

  3. 1905Gerrish

    1905Gerrish LOVES Wooden Canoes

    No specific's here on Ranco but a good photo of a few canoes at the time.

    Attached Files:

  4. OP
    Benson Gray

    Benson Gray Canoe History Enthusiast Staff Member

    This is a great postcard and I appreciate your sharing it. Old postcards can be a wonderful source of information like this. The Kennebunkport Historical Society has also been a great help and generously shared many similar images including several of the ones shown below. They have also located a Kennebunk Star article published on 4-24-1936 saying "Indian Village to be torn down by John Peabody. They once occupied land on both sides of Ocean Avenue. Ranco settled first near Picnic Rocks 1878. The Mitchells set up camp on Emery Point the following year. Both families later camped at the mouth of the river along with the Shays, Neptunes, and the Nicolas, who came for the first time in the summer of 1882. Louis Francis and Joseph Ranco, both Old Town Penobscot Indians, made birch bark canoes every summer near Government Wharf. Ranco is credited for making the first canvas canoe. Kennebunkport was considered a canoe-making center by Native Americans and by local white boat builders in the early-1900s."


    Cleveland Trott.jpg highlighted 1888 map Indian Camps.JPG Kennebunkport-club-house.jpg Kennebunkport-Indian.jpg Picnic-Rocks.jpg Kennebunkport-canoe-race.jpg Kennebunkport-postcard.jpg
    Last edited: Apr 1, 2020
  5. Murat V

    Murat V LOVES Wooden Canoes

    Not a photo of Joseph Ranco, but here is an image cited as Tuester Ranco and Jo Francis with a bark canoe and paddles. Taken by Frank Speck when he was doing research on the Penobscot.

    Source link is here.

    The postcard image you posted of the overturned canoe and tall paddles has a caption mentioning Kennebunkport as the location...

    ...but the Maine Historical Society mentions the image is of Athian Lewey of West Grand Lake, taken in 1898.
    Benson Gray and Rob Stevens like this.
  6. OP
    Benson Gray

    Benson Gray Canoe History Enthusiast Staff Member

    This is great and I appreciate the background. Postcard companies were famous for recycling images and attributing them to different locations. Thanks,

  7. OP
    Benson Gray

    Benson Gray Canoe History Enthusiast Staff Member

    Steve Cayard has generously shared some pictures of a bark canoe built by Joseph Ranco at the Peabody Essex Museum as shown below. Their records have it dated as 1895 but it may be older. This is what Steve and Castle McLaughlin from the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University call the "Transitional Penobscot River" style since it has elements of canvas canoes which are not normally found in bark canoes. This one has a stern seat that is very similar to the White style for example. Steve also said "The 'Indian Canoe Landing' in Kennebunkport is definitely a place of interest, which appears to have been a gathering place for canoe builders, possibly where ideas and techniques were shared. Another birchbark canoe builder who summered there was David Moses Bridges' Passamaquoddy great-grandfather, Sylvester Gabriel."

    PEM E67.588 Bow.jpg PEM E67.588 headboard.jpg PEM E67.588 Stern.jpg PEM E67.588.jpg

    Joe is probably the person on the right at leaning on the railing of the Old Town Canoe Company's front steps in the early 1900s.

    Last edited: Apr 3, 2020

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