Centennial of the Penn Yan Boat Company
PENN YAN — One hundred years ago, the following brief announcement appeared in the June 22, 1921 edition of the Steuben Farmers’ Advocate [Bath, New York]:
“Charles Herrmann, formerly of Bath, has opened a row boat building and repair plant at Gibson's and is getting more business than he can handle. He turns out good work.”
From that modest beginning in a barn on Gibson Landing of Keuka Lake, would emerge the Penn Yan Boat Company, whose watercraft and that of its successors would became known worldwide and held in high esteem over their 80-year history.
The Boat Company’s history was heavily influenced by the aviation industry that began in Steuben County with the pioneering work done by Glenn Curtiss of Hammondsport, and William and Oliver Thomas of Bath who founded the Thomas Brothers Aeroplane Company there in 1910. Herrmann, the Boat Company’s founder, had purchased a Thomas hydro-aeroplane in 1913 and learned to fly at their aviation school on Conesus Lake.
Ralph Brown, who joined the Boat Company around 1925 and became their long-time designer and eventual president, was also a Thomas Brothers alumnus. Both men had been barn storming pilots in an era when “we flew for ten minutes and took ten days to repair the damage” [Ralph Brown]. Their experience in the early aviation industry undoubtedly taught them how to confront risk and persevere through setbacks.
An example of this occurred after Herrmann relocated his business to a rented facility in nearby Penn Yan late in 1921. The following year he purchased the building, and a few months later it burned to the ground. Always undaunted by misfortune, within a few weeks he acquired waterfront property along the Keuka Lake outlet and built a larger, “fire-resistant” factory which became known as the Water Street plant.
At this point Penn Yan was building boats for rowing and fishing, as well as inboard- and outboard-powered watercraft. Additionally the company became a dealer for Old Town canoes, Johnson and Evinrude outboard motors, and Disappearing Propeller boats (“Dis-pros”) then being built in North Tonawanda. (In 1924 Penn Yan acquired the assets of the bankrupt Disappearing Propeller Co. but soon divested of it as more lucrative projects materialized.)
Late in 1924 Penn Yan contracted with the U.S. Coast Guard to build dinghies for their new fleet of Patrol Boats, commissioned to enforce the Prohibition laws along U.S. coasts. The dinghies were built using the lapstrake process (overlapping planks) and contained no external covering. Penn Yan would become widely known for their line of dinghies which became a mainstay within their product line.
When Brown joined the Boat Company following his employment at the Old Town Canoe Co., he brought the canoe manufacturing technology he learned there to Penn Yan. In 1926, the Boat Company began building a line of canoes and continued to do so into the 1960s. The canvasing technology utilized in canoe building was soon extended to other boats, and by 1927 all watercraft built by Penn Yan were canvas covered, a technology the Boat Company called "Composite Construction."
The Johnson Motor Co. played a significant role in the fortunes of the Boat Company. For many years the company had been engaged in marine engine design and construction. In 1924 they had succeeded in developing a light-weight outboard motor of sufficient horsepower to enable a boat to “plane” (ride on top of the water rather than plowing through it). This breakthrough resulted in faster speeds and gave birth to the new sport of outboard motorboat racing. Outboard motorboat speed increased from was about 11 mph in 1924 to 32 mph in 1926 with Johnson’s new motor. (By 1932 speed records rose to 50 mph as outboard motors manufacturers focused on the attainment of speed.)
As an early Johnson dealer, Penn Yan collaborated with Johnson on the design and construction of early racing boats such as the “Baby Buzz” series. From 1927 to 1931 Penn Yan offered several stock models of racing boats (Ceestepper, Marathoner, Wasp, etc.) which were frequent winners on the racing circuit. The Boat Company soon gained a reputation for producing highly competitive watercraft.
By 1929, Johnson had risen to the top their industry, and claimed that they now produced more outboard motors than all of their competitors combined. The company had long advocated the importance of selecting the proper outboard motor for a boat. They referred to this concept as “matched units.” That year they decided that the best way to achieve the “matched units” goal (and expand sales revenue) was to sell a boating package consisting of an outboard motor installed on a boat that had been developed and built specifically for it. This became known as the Aquaflyer program.
Johnson understood that their unique expertise lay in the development and manufacture of outboard motors rather than boats, and therefore they turned to Penn Yan to supply five boat models for their Aquaflyer program. In October, 1929, Johnson contracted with Penn Yan to supply an initial quantity of 3,000 boats for delivery between January and June, 1930, with the potential for an additional order of 6,000 or more boats.
Herrmann immediately recognized the need for a significant increase in capacity to meet this new requirement, and he attained it with the construction of the Waddell Avenue factory. A local stock subscription drive was launched to maintain the business in Penn Yan, and provided funding to begin construction that November. By February 1930, boat production was underway within a factory said to be the largest one-story manufacturing facility in Yates County. In March, employment at the Boat Company’s two factories reached an all-time high of 325 employees.
There probably could not have been a worse time to launch such a major program. The stock market crashed the last week in October, banks began closing in 1930, and unemployment rose as the economy faltered. Boats were considered a discretionary item, and suffered a greater loss of sales than most other manufactured goods.
Penn Yan reported the completion of their initial order of boats for the Aquaflyer program at midyear, and then greatly scaled back production of boats for their traditional product line. Employment dropped to a skeleton workforce as Johnson placed a hold on any future orders.
In an attempt to offset some of the sales loss, Penn Yan expanded their product line to include boat types not previously offered, including lower priced models. The market for racing boats had faded away, and these were discontinued. As sales revenue tumbled, decreased cash flow resulted in delinquent payment to creditors. In September, 1931, the company went into receivership.
Penn Yan continued to struggle throughout the early 1930s, as did most of the rest of the boating industry. In 1936, unpaid creditors forced the sale of the Penn Yan Boat Company. It emerged under new ownership as Penn Yan Boats Inc.
Herrmann is said to have been instrumental in arranging for that acquisition to ensure that the Boat Company would be sold intact and continue as a boat building enterprise, thereby preserving the industry for Penn Yan. The arrangement stipulated that Herrmann would relinquish ownership and direct control of the business, but would continue as president of the firm for a period of time. In 1939 he was succeeded by Ralph Brown.
Herrmann retired to his home on Keuka Lake, leaving behind a modern boat building factory, a skilled workforce, a strong dealer network and a highly regarded mark within the boating industry. That foundation enabled the company’s successors to continue for another 65 years building a very popular line of boats primarily for the recreational market.
About the author:
Bill Oben is a founding trustee of the Finger Lakes Boating Museum, located in Hammondsport, New York. Long interested in wooden boats built in the Finger Lakes region, he has done extensive research on this subject which he has shared in numerous presentations and publications including Classic Boating and WoodenBoat magazines. His recent book, titled "The Penn Yan Boat Company," may be found at Longs' Cards and Books in Penn Yan and The Finger Lakes Boating Museum.