Families and wooden boat building

Interesting Research Related to Maritime Maine
By Charles H. Lagerbom | Apr 01, 2021
Courtesy of: Edward Varney Erlon Varney’s wooden boat is docked at Naples, Maine, in the late 1950s.

It took me aback recently when someone suggested it might be a waste of time for anyone wanting to build a wooden boat. The point he was trying to make was that there were numerous other ways, many of them easier and with much less fuss, to get oneself out on the water. Well … maybe, but I think he is missing something.

I say there is something profoundly rich about a wooden boat, some inexpressible quality that makes them appealing, especially if you build it yourself. From what I have watched and learned, to spend time bending and shaping wood to your particular design, is beyond mere handicraft, it is an expression of art. This process, the use of your hands and tools and wood and imagination, to create a boat is pretty special. It is an appreciation that can be passed down through the generations.

Recently, my neighbor showed me some pieces of a wooden boat his father had built as a young man in Bridgton, where he grew up. The boat had even won a national contest. When I asked more about this boatbuilding effort, one thing led to another and I came across a pretty cool story about small watercraft construction and families.

Research led me to the Bridgton Historical Society. They were extremely helpful in answering questions and assisted me in learning more about a small boat company that operated in western Maine for less than a decade.

In 1946, Massachusetts native Clayton E. Stackhouse started a small boat business in a barn in Bridgton. He called it the Boat and Woodcraft Shop. Stackhouse had long been a boatbuilder, since he had worked for Pitman & Brown Company, of Salem, Mass., while in high school. He continued working there while taking extension courses at Wentworth Institute.

After WWII military service in the Pacific, Stackhouse moved to Bridgton to help his parents-in-law run the Highland Lake Inn. Living in a house on North High Street, he used a large barn out back to start his company.

By 1948, Stackhouse was looking for more space. In October that year, he built a new shop on Portland Road, now Route 302, just out of Bridgton, where the current Hannaford grocery store is located.

In 1949, Stackhouse changed its name to Clay-Den Boat Company. It was then the business took off. Their new name was a combination of first names of Stackhouse and his son Dennis.

In October that year, it was announced in the local Bridgton News that Clay-Den Boat Company had signed a contract to build 200 strip-plank outboard motorboats for Northeastern Distributors Inc. of Boston. The contract called for completion and delivery by June 1, 1950.

Strip-plank construction involves fastening multiple small wood strips edge to edge into a shell, rather than the traditional ribs, and then encapsulating those strips under layers of fabric and glue. In strip-built watercraft construction, this outer shell provides structure and water-tight integrity.

Stackhouse’s boats were 14 feet long, 54 inches in beam and weighed 225 pounds. Constructed of compressed cedar, they were considered durable as well as fashionable. Pace for construction to complete the contract was hectic and Stackhouse hired more than a dozen extra workers for the project.

One of the completed boats was exhibited at the New England Sportsman’s Show in the Mechanics Building in downtown Boston for a week in early February 1950. Clay-Den boats were also exhibited locally in the Bridgton Town Hall and in Portland.

Clay-Den boats were made of sawn lengths of white or brown ash, the wood he often advertised for in the local newspaper. There, he would also advertise sales of their scratch-built Clay-Den boats, or others that came along, such as Old Town canoes and wooden items such as their 5-drawer knotty pine chests.

By the mid-1950s, Stackhouse decided to change things up. He sold the shop on the Portland Road to a moccasin shoe company. In 1956, he moved to Danvers, Mass., and took a top-level job as northeast sales manager for Jamestown Plywood and Veneer Corp. of Jamestown, N.Y. Clayton Stackhouse retired in 1982 to Florida and passed away in 2009.

One employee of Boat and Woodcraft Shop or pre-Clay-Den days was Erlon Varney of Bridgton. He worked for them in high school as well as his first years of college. He remembered building flat-bottomed boats to be used at the Highland Inn. It was from his time there, that Varney made the decision to build his own wooden boat.

He picked plans for an 18-foot cabin cruiser model called Eager Eve. The beam was 6 feet in width and the hull weighed 600 pounds. It could sleep two and was built for extended cruises upon inland waterways, or sports use at the home harbor, for sightseeing or pulling water skiers.

The design called for the motor to be concealed in a well. I like that the plans specified that “from 50 feet away you’d swear that Eager Eve was a luxury inboard cabin cruiser.” Without a heavy inboard engine, it could more easily be transported on a trailer and stored in a garage. Plans called for a cover to hide the 25-hp outboard motor and boasted that the design made “this efficient cruiser fast enough to keep up with or outrun nine out of ten inboards.”

Working in an old chicken coop, Varney, with help from his father, Stewart, started construction. I actually found the plans for this boat on the internet, you can order the 19-page set for $10! According to the plans, in the first stages of construction, the boat was built upside down with extensions from the side frames secured to the floor.

What emerged was a sporty-looking lake watercraft. Varney was 21 years old when he completed it in 1954, the summer before his senior year at the University of Maine. His father, Stewart, purchased a 35-hp Mercury motor for it.

At some point while building it, Varney decided to enter it in a construction competition hosted by Mechanix Illustrated: The How To Magazine. Twenty craftsmen from around the country were awarded the magazine’s Certificate of Merit for their work on homemade wooden boats. Erlon Varney was one of those recognized.

In fact, he and his boat were featured in the April 1955 issue, the only winner to have their photo included. The Bridgton News also featured the achievement. Varney was presented with a golden hammer inscribed with Mechanix Illustrated Workbench Award.

According to the family, the boat was extensively used and moored at Naples. But then details get fuzzy. One story goes the cabin cruiser got destroyed by a hurricane in the early 1960s and pieces of it were then later sold. Another story has it that the boat had started to show some rot in the chines, was cut up and buried in the back yard. Apparently the 35-hp Mercury also had some adventures, remembered as being used into the 1980s on different family boats.

Erlon Varney passed along that appreciation and interest in boat building to his children and grandchildren; there are family photos of them working together on small boat construction. Stackhouse and his son, Varney and his children … the building of a wooden boat encapsulates way more than just getting out on the water. And that is pretty special.

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP US History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He can be contacted at clagerbom@rsu71.org. He is author of "Whaling in Maine," available through Historypress.com.

 

A Clay-Den boat is advertised in the Bridgton News. (Courtesy of: the Bridgton Historical Society)
The design plan for Edward Varney’s 18-foot cabin cruiser. (Courtesy of: Edward Varney)
Varney’s boat is under construction in an old chicken coop in 1952, with the exterior work nearing completion. (Photo by: Stewart Varney, courtesy of Edward Varney)
Erlon Varney was recognized in the April 1955 issue of Mechanix Illustrated. (Photo by: Stewart Varney, courtesy of Edward Varney)
Varney also received an inscribed hammer for his achievement, the Mechanix Illustrated Workbench Award. (Photo by: Edward Varney)
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