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Rollin Thurlow of Northwoods Canoe Co. The canoes, which had two rowing stations, were stable, rowed nicely and could carry a large load. This boat had been in steady use at a summer camp in Maine for 70 years. Many of us grew up with canoes like these. Wood-and-canvas, dark green on the outside with worn, stained interiors; big enough to hold a small team of campers and some waterlogged, canvas-covered portaging rucksacks.
They were commonplace at summer camps in Maine, northern Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Hundreds of thousands of them were produced, going back to the s and the early heyday of recreational paddling.
White, B. Morris, and E. Gerrish, to name some of the more prominent builders. Those companies are either gone or no longer produce wood-and-canvas canoes. But today in northern Maine, wood-and-canvas canoes are still being built by hand by two craftsmen in the tiny town of Atkinson, where Rollin Thurlow and Jerry Stelmok, old friends and former business partners, have shops three miles apart.
White canoe built by Jerry on the Allagash and fell in love with that as well.
I ordered a foot guide canoe from Jerry and paddled it on lakes here in San Diego with my daughter and friends naming it Chesuncook. My daughter graduated from college and moved away, so I needed a solo canoe. The canoe is 38 pounds and the canvas is filled with ambroid glue to save weight. It is perfectly balanced so I could pick it up and place it on my Volvo sedan. On each side of the road, crusty snow is piled four feet high. At last, using dead reckoning, I find the entrance to Northwoods Canoe Co. Here, Rollin Thurlow works out of a post-and-beam barn that he built from wood harvested by his dad.
I open the door to the woodshop and am hit with the smell of cedar and shellac. Thurlow, an energetic 71, greets me amid a few rows of boats in various states of restoration. He gives me a tour of the shop, where they build or restore about 25 boats a year. There are century-old canoes in various states of restoration and new canoes in progress. White and other builders hang in the rafters—a new canoe can literally be built around these forms. Dozens of parts of other molds, or forms, are stacked under workbenches. In the painting room, a fresh coat of yellow paint cures on a restored canoe.
On one workbench there is a catalog of color schemes and des authorized by Old Town Canoe Co. Under cover outside the barn are racks for drying wood. On the opposite side of the barn a dozen canoes are stacked on racks in a massive carport-type space. Even as legions of DIYers flock to Instagram and other social media sites to post their own canoe builds or boatbuilding efforts, Thurlow has resisted the call of social media.
She called Thurlow to see if she could come work with him one summer. Thurlow, who graduated from Orono High School and then Maine Maritime Academy, was an officer in the Navy, and served on an ammunition resupply ship in the Tonkin Gulf. After the Vietnam War, he wanted to return to Maine. Fondly recalling childhood afternoons paddling canoes of all kinds, he longed to get back to wooden boats. His eventual business partner, Jerry Stelmok, a native of Auburn, Maine, was enlisted in the Naval Reserve, serving two years of active duty in an operations office in Newport, Rhode Island.
He, too, wanted to get back to Maine. Thurlow and Stelmok became friends through their wives, Andrea and Debbie, who had been college friends. Stelmok has since remarried. In the early s, Stelmok and his wife and then later Thurlow and his wife headed to Lubec, where the budding canoe builders studied at The Boat School, which was housed in an old lifeboat station at the time.
The school taught wooden boatbuilding techniques at a time when both the canoe industry and the larger boatbuilding industry had already converted to fiberglass boats, which were billed as lower maintenance and more affordable. We had dreamers and hippies. There, in Lubec around Thurlow and Stelmok made the connections and decisions that would guide each for the next four decades. The canoe in front is a new build, based on an Old Town OTCA scaled model that salesmen would take around to show potential customers.
It was built by Jerry Stelmok. Through Tuttle and other school connections they met legendary canoe builder Mick Faheyas well as Garrett Conover and Alexandra Conover Bennett, Registered Maine Guides who led canoe tours in Maine for decades. Also at that time, they met Charles FitzGerald, an entrepreneur and business owner who at one time owned more than a dozen Bowl and Board stores, selling hand-crafted wooden products from Bar Harbor to New York City. Today, the store in Bar Harbor is known as Into the Woods.
Events conspired in favor of the young canoe builders. Tuttle came into school one day bearing two magazines. One was the very first issue of WoodenBoatwhich launched in and was being published about two hours away, in Brooksville, Maine. But FitzGerald, the entrepreneur, was buying up abandoned farms in Atkinson. He agreed to let them live in a couple of old farm houses in exchange for fixing them up.
The two couples, the Thurlows and the Stelmoks, moved to Atkinson. They started building a range of canoes, including des from E. They built a customer list, many of whom were recommended by the Conovers, including Barry Moskowitz, the judge from San Diego, who has become a lifelong customer and friend.
Wood-and-canvas canoes of the s were commonly decorated with Native American or wilderness motifs. At bottom, the basic framework for a wood-and- canvas canoe relies heavily on a lightweight material, northern white cedar. Photo by Donnie Mullen. Both couples by now had small kids—Thurlow has two children and Stelmok has three. Island Falls Canoe went dormant for a time while Thurlow worked building houses.
He built spice racks, he wrote, and pursued artistic interests. Both their wives supported the families with teaching jobs. They have since published other books on canoes. Eventually, they were able to return full-time to building canoes, but decided to work separately. They were helped by a grassroots interest in historic canoes, as evidenced by the creation of the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association, which also published the magazine, Wooden Canoe.
Traditional guides used the E. White canoes I built. There was some publicity, but it was mostly word-of-mouth. I built 30 canoes a year at that point. At Northwoods Canoe Co. Gerrish canoe that dates to The workshop, which smells of cedar, resin and woodsmoke, has a range of restorations and new builds in progress. Snowshoes and deer antlers line the wall.
There are racks with Old Town canoes stacked to the ceiling. Thurlow and Stelmok have separate shops several miles from one another. Each builds or restores about 25 canoes a year. Each has one full-time employee. Each wants to scale back his work and spend more time on other projects—for Thurlow, traveling, for Stelmok, writing and pursuing his artwork. Stelmok is 72; Thurlow is Neither has a succession plan or a clear idea of what will happen to his business. Each claims the other is a better businessman and more likely to keep things going. Stelmok laments that their core customers are getting old and are no longer buying canoes.
And likely will remain unresolved for the time being. Can't get to the store to buy your magazine? We deliver the stories of Maine's coast right to your inbox. up here for a digital edition. Stay in touch with the coast. Search form. She and her husband, a school teacher, have made their home here in northern Maine. Jerry Stelmok Founded: S. Cooking on a Boat.
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Two Traditional Canoe Builders