This collection preserves classic boats and recalls the lake resort lifestyle of the past century.
By Richard Bauman
Though it’s called the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” Minnesota actually has nearly 12,000 of them. It’s no wonder, then, that more than 800,000 watercraft are registered in the state and 36 percent of Minnesota households own a boat.
The Minnesota Lakes Maritime Museum in Alexandria, Minnesota, is the place to discover more about boating, its history, and America’s love of water-related activities. The museum has sleek speedboats, handcrafted pleasure craft, and numerous specialty boats. If it’s done on or around water, from hunting and fishing to sailing and speed boating, you’ll find examples of it at this museum
The museum’s architecture is reminiscent of popular lakeside resorts of the early 1900s, and the first gallery is an eclectic collection of early boating and waterfowl hunting memorabilia. The hunting displays include bog shoes. These odd contraptions, more than seven feet long, are basically little boats that attached to one’s feet. Hunters wore them to slog through marshes and shallow waters while stalking ducks. They’re awkward-looking, but apparently some hunters used them successfully.
A few feet away are display cases loaded with a functional art form — duck decoys. Hand-carved, often from a single block of wood, each decoy has fine details imitating feathers and coloring of various species of ducks. Each decoy creator employed specific techniques for creating realistic-looking fake fowl. For example, Ole Gunderson, one of the best decoy makers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, used a burlap rag to apply paint to many of his decoys. By dragging it over the back of the duck while the paint was still tacky, he created the illusion of feathers.
The Alexandria Boat Works exhibit traces the history of boat building in the region. Erick G. Erickson built his first boat in 1883, at age 17. His neighbors nicknamed him “Boat Erickson,” and he became the area’s boat builder. The Alexandria Boat Works exhibit has examples of Erickson’s tools and machinery, along with historic photographs.
The main gallery is the museum’s largest room and holds a collection of boats that depict the evolution of boating from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. It shows the transition from simple, hand-operated craft and low-powered outboards to sleek and elegant powerboats.
Most pleasure boats were made from wood until the 1950s, when fiberglass became all the rage. Fiberglass boats were small, lightweight, and inexpensive, and they flooded the market. Lee Wangstad, a fiberglass-boat collector from Nisswa, Minnesota, estimates that at one time there were perhaps 1,000 fiberglass boat manufacturers in the United States and Canada. Most produced only a few boats and then folded up shop. The process turned out to be labor-intensive and not very profitable.
The design of these early fiberglass boats emulated cars of the era in color and design. They commonly included molded headlamps, tail fins, hood ornaments, and other automotive flourishes.
When we visited the museum, a snazzy little skimmer, the Glass Slipper, was front and center in the gallery. The Marlin Marine Division of the 13 Corporation built it in the late 1950s. The company’s imposing name belies the fact that it had just three employees and built only 20 Glass Slippers.
As soon as I saw it, I thought of a 1956-’57 Ford Thunderbird. From its turquoise and white paint scheme to its tail fins and round (but fake) taillights, the similarity is plain to see. It could zoom around using a 60-horsepower Flying Scott outboard engine. This rare boat is one of only two to 10 Glass Slippers known to still exist, according to various sources.
The Glass Slipper seated four, but many of the fiberglass boats, such as the Crosby Aeromarine Company’s Sweptfin and the Chris-Craft Cobra, contained a single bench seat and could accommodate just two or three people. But they were fast. The Sweptfin had a 78-horsepower outboard engine, and the Cobra’s inboard engine produced up to 285 horsepower.
An example of a fine wooden powerboat from 1950 is Uncle Bob. It’s 17 feet long and was built by the Higgins Boat Company of New Orleans. Made from mahogany plywood, it is also trimmed in elegant mahogany inside and out. Like cars from the 1950s, it has a lot of chrome — its windshield frame, spotlight, and tie-down have mirror finishes.
The boat lacks tail fins, but the car comparisons continue with a steering wheel on the left side, which is the opposite of most boats. Its automotive-style dashboard has gauges encased in chrome bezels. A large aluminum accelerator pedal is on the floor, and the steering wheel even has a horn ring. Fewer than 100 of these boats exist today.
Chris-Craft And Gar Wood Boats
Just two boat manufacturers — Chris-Craft and Garwood Industries — are the focus of the museum’s 5,000-square-foot rear hall. Chris Smith and Garfield Wood built their respective companies with quality powerboats. To know about these two companies is to understand much about America’s boating history.
Garfield “Gar” Wood, whose father ran a ferryboat on a Minnesota lake, was a self-trained engineer and successful businessman. His passion was powerboat racing, and his company, Garwood Industries, was fueled by a personal need for speed. Wood dominated powerboat racing in the 1920s and early ’30s. In 1931 his Miss America IX was the first boat to reach 100 mph. His next design, Miss America X, topped out at 124.9 mph.
The gallery features several Gar Wood boats, including a pristine 28-foot triple-cockpit runabout and a 1947 16-foot Ensign. From trim to engine, nearly every bit of the Ensign is the same that left the factory nearly 70 years ago.
Examples of Gar Wood engineering and craftsmanship are shown in various displays, including a massive V-12 Liberty marine engine. Such engines powered many Gar Wood boats; the museum has strong examples of wooden powerboats and runabouts of the early- to mid-20th century.
Chris-Craft is an iconic brand in personal boating to this day. The company was started in Michigan by Christopher Columbus Smith, who, at 13, built his first boat. In 1927, the company introduced the Cadet, a 22-foot runabout. It was the company’s first mass-produced boat for middle-class enthusiasts and was sold on the “installment plan.”
Gar Wood and Chris Smith knew and assisted each other. Chris Smith designed and built boats for Wood for a few years.
Chris-Craft consistently ran full-page magazine ads during the 1930s and well into the 1960s. Thus, when people thought of personal boats, Chris-Craft usually came to mind. Even during World War II, when the company produced only military equipment, its ads promoted buying war bonds. Of course, this was patriotic, but it also hinted that the bonds were a way to save for that future boat. After the war, a new line of boats solidified the Chris-Craft name with personal boating. Today the company is based in Sarasota, Florida.
Floor-to-ceiling displays of product photos, magazine ads, and Chris-Craft boats and boat equipment tell the company’s history.
In the late 1800s, little Alexandria, Minnesota, became a resort area thanks to a newly established train service, as well as its beautiful lakefront location. Visitors wanted to fish, boat, hike, and relax, but they also wanted their accommodations to be comfortable, if not elegant. It didn’t take long for lakeside resorts to blossom throughout the area and in other parts of Minnesota.
The museum’s Grand Hotels & Resorts exhibit uses furniture, décor, and photographs to offer a glimpse of the elegant resorts of a century ago. Descriptions and photos take visitors back to resorts such as the Dickinson Inn and the Hotel Blake. The Blake featured screened porches that formed a 190-foot promenade overlooking the water. It had traditional hotel rooms, but also several private cottages with catchy names such as Bluebird, Wren, and Hummingbird.
Near the Grand Hotels & Resorts exhibit is a boat from that era. The Dungeness is a prime example of craftsmanship. It served as the tender for Andrew Carnegie’s family yacht from 1894 to 1900. Its open cabin and deck are polished to near mirror finish. It’s easy to imagine a crewman at the boat’s brass steering wheel as passengers and supplies were taken to and from the yacht. The tender is still seaworthy, and its long life is attributed to the cedar, white oak, and teak it’s made from, as well as the copper rivets in its hull.
You don’t have to be a boating enthusiast to enjoy the Minnesota Lakes Maritime Museum. It’s a place to learn some history, enjoy the craftsmanship that’s an integral part of many boats, and discover how watercraft went from playthings for the wealthy to a leisurely pastime for the middle class.
Minnesota Lakes Maritime Museum & Gardens
205 Third Ave. W.
Alexandria, MN 56308
The museum is located near Interstate 94. It is open 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday-Saturday and noon to 4:00 p.m. Sunday from mid-May to November 1. Admission is $8 for adults, $7 for seniors, $5 for children ages 5 to 17, and free for children under 5.