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Oldest US watercraft maker celebrates 125 years


America’s oldest watercraft manufacturer, Old Town Canoes, is celebrating its 125th anniversary.

Old Town, a favourite brand among anglers, is now part of the Johnson Outdoors conglomerate, but its humble beginnings lie with the Penobscot, a Native American people who made their boats from birch bark.

And it was this design that inspired A.E. Wickett to start building similar boats as a side business for the Gray family behind its hardware store in Old Town, Maine, fittingly located on the banks of the Penobscot River.

“Back then there was no road system,” Ryan Lilly, Brand Evangelist at Johnson Outdoors, told Forbes contributor, Jim Vinoski. “People got around on rivers in canoes or bateau.”

The company operated under various names before settling on Old Town Canoe. It remained a family business until being acquired by Wisconsin-based Johnson Outdoors in 1974.

“Not many companies make it to 125 years,” said Alex Sherbinow, Marketing Manager Watercraft at Johnson Outdoors. “The reason Old Town has survived is that it’s been constantly innovating. Its gone from wood and canvas to fibreglass to building the first motorised ocean kayaks.”

As new materials became available in the mid 20th century, Old Town began exploring polyethylene and fibreglass, but refused to use aluminium because of the way it looked and the noise it made.

The company also branched out into kayaks. Led by legendary engineer, Lew Gilman, and world-class canoe and kayak competitor, Bart Hauthaway, the project proved hugely profitable.

In recent years, Old Town has partnered with sister brand, Minn Kota, to produce motorised kayaks, which most recently incorporates Minn Kota’s Spot Lock technology that holds the kayak over the fishing position.

Old Town has been part of a kayak fishing boom over the last 15 years, with the days of wood and canvas being replaced by polyethylene plastic. But all of its products are still made in Old Town, Maine, where 150 people, including multi-generations of families, are employed in the 98,000 square foot factory. 

To mark the anniversary, Old Town is offering limited editions of three of its kayak models which, in a nod to the founding Gray family, have been produced in Gray Ghost colour (above).

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