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Legacy Boats on Lake Erie: Wooden boats once ruled the waters of the Great Lakes

Legacy Boats on Lake Erie: Wooden boats once ruled the waters of the Great Lakes
July 29, 2019 James Proffitt
Photo by James Proffitt

Wooden boats are old-school, that’s a given. On Lake Erie, especially in the Western Basin, the wood vessels that once plied its waters, carrying families and friends at a frenetic pace during summer months, are mostly gone.

 

Many of those ended up moth-balled, burned, cut in half or quartered and sitting in yards with begonias and rosebushes eating up the glory. Thousands were dismantled, and now their components are the backbone of conversation pieces at many a bar, restaurant or home.

 

But not all are gone.

 

Photo by James Proffitt

At the Lakeside Wooden Boat Show, staring is not considered rude, Photo by James Proffitt

It’s not uncommon while perch fishing to see someone roll into a pack of 30 or 40 aluminum and fiberglass boats captaining a classic Lyman—classic because Lyman Boat Works was founded in 1875 in Cleveland.

 

The boats’ hulls are specially designed to cut through the lake’s short chop and are the most popular vintage watercraft in the region.

 

For decades they were built in downtown Sandusky, just a few miles from Lakeside where the Lakeside Wooden Boat Society hosts a wooden boat show and plein air art festival every year, attracting thousands of visitors to the shady Lake Erie shore in Lakeside, Ohio.

 

All wood, all class, it’s likely a boat that’s been in a family for decades. And on East Harbor, Sandusky Bay or the nearshore areas stretching from lower Michigan to Vermilion, Ohio, it’s a keen sight to see a vintage wooden boat whiz by.   

Wooden boats a sought-after commodity

A beat-up, unrestored Lyman can be bought for a few thousand dollars while fully restored boats can fetch from $10,000 up to $50,000 or more.

Chris Palmer of Columbia Station, Ohio, just picked up an old Lyman in Marblehead, Ohio. It’s mostly intact and will be a perfect match for the one he already has.

Photo by James Proffitt

Inside Chris Palmer’s newest Lyman, Photo by James Proffitt

“The problem is I have all the parts, I just don’t know where the hell they all go,” he explained, laughing. “But this one’s never been taken apart, it’s all original. So I can work off this one here.”

Based on the hull numbers, his newest acquisition was one of the 200 boats made by Lyman the same year as the one he has at home. Both were made in 1963.

Palmer said he plans on using it as a blueprint to reassemble the boat, or rather, the massive collection of parts he currently has that will eventually become the vessel it once was. His reason for purchasing the boats and wading into the years-long process of restoration is a familiar refrain: “My dad had Lymans when I was a kid.”

“It’s definitely going back out on the water when I’m finished,” Palmer said. “It’s really about recreating memories.”

Mame Drackett, a founding member of the Lakeside Wooden Boat Society, agrees. She described the show as a match-making event: pairing people with memories.

Photo by James Proffitt

Old wooden boats can never, never be shiny enough, Photo by James Proffitt

“A lot of people who bring boats to the show, it was their grandfather’s boat,” she said. “Or they went out and purposely found a boat that’s just like their grandfather’s boat when they were young.”

A story Drackett likes to tell is about a man who asked about the 1965 Chris Craft boat that her son owned. She connected them, and her son offered the man a ride on the boat.

“When he heard the engines he began crying and said ‘That’s the sound of my childhood,’” Drackett said. “He immediately called his father and said ‘Listen to this, do you know what I’m on?’ and his father knew exactly what he was on.”

The man then sought out a 1965 Chris Craft and purchased it.

“He brings his father up from Florida every year to spend weeks on the boat together,” Drackett said. “We hear about so many wonderful memories. It’s a wonderful way to connect the generations.”

And the boat show in Lakeside isn’t snooty, she said.

“We’re not a juried show, anyone can bring a boat. We had a guy that brought a boat he just bought two weeks ago and he hadn’t had time do a lick of work on it,” she said. “He’s bringing it back next year after he works on it.”

There’s no fee to register a boat in the show and exhibitors receive free Lakeside passes for the show.

“The very first year we had three little wood boats down by the pavilion,” she said. “This year we had 83.”

Featured Image: Dwight King is all smiles sitting in his old Thompson, Photo by James Proffitt

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