A Passion For Boats

Filed in Destinations by on January 14, 2014

5791521790_eb025eb143_z“Boat” Erickson left his mark as an innovator and a builder

Alexandria Boat Works was a family business that flourished due to craftsmanship and a passion for boats – a deep appreciation of the buoyant vessels that gracefully slide across the water’s surface.

During its 100-year history, Alexandria Boat Works grew from a teenage boy building a simple fishing boat to the design, creation and legacy of more than 15,000 watercraft.

Boats from lake country

5791521844_49c7656a49_zIn Alexandria, there’s a lake everywhere you look. In the late 1800s it was lake country living at its finest – a lush landscape dappled with clear, cool lakes. Erick Erickson was a product of that environment, so it only seemed natural that Erickson would go on to establish the successful venture of Alexandria Boat Works.

At age 17 Erickson built a boat to get out on Lake Ida and do some fishing. Neighbors soon asked if he’d build boats for them. From there, he went on to build and sell boats as a hobby and earn the nickname “Boat” Erickson.

In 1885, Alexandria Boat Works was well on its way. Erickson worked out of a small shop until 1903, when he moved the business to downtown Alexandria. He tapped into the town’s utility line and had a steam pipe extended into his boat shop, using the steam to bend boat ribs and other wood boat components. Erickson used wood-strip, smooth-hull construction for his company’s boats. The strips often were crafted from western red cedar, cypress or redwood. Keels, ribs and other elements were made from white oak and mahogany.

Eight boat builders worked for him and, two years after he set up shop, Alexandria Boat Works had crafted hundreds of boats including gasoline launches and row boats, all in stock and ready for shipment.

A very good businessman

5790962995_abd5095e38_z“He did make a very good living for his family from 1885 until 1936, so I am assuming he was a very good businessman,” says Robin Niedenfuer of Alexandria, Erickson’s great-granddaughter.

 

Old ledgers show Alexandria Boat Works sold 606 boats from 1900 to 1905. Prices ranged from $22 for a 12-foot duck boat to $400 for a 20-foot launch. By 1930, Erickson had numerous patents including those for an underslung boat trailer, boat anchor, strip-built boat building method, self-locking oarlock and even an aquaplane surfboard, according to a local chapter of the Antique and Classic Boat Society. “He was a very creative person when it came to building boats,” Niedenfuer says. “My most fascinating memories were probably when they were still building the wood boats at the downtown Alexandria plant. My father would take me with him, and I would watch the men building boats.”

The next generation

Erickson died in 1936 at the age of 69. His widow, Anna, took over the business. After World War II, the family enterprise stayed the course as Alexandria Boat Works evolved into a major distributor of fiberglass and aluminum boats and other marine products, including trailers, boat lifts and accessories. In 1956, Alexandria Boat Works was appointed as the first national distributor for the then-unknown brand of Glastron Boats of Austin, Texas. That relationship would prove to be the core of the family business for the next 30 years.

Niedenfuer explains, “Basically, Alexandria Boat Works started out as a boat builder, and when wooden boat sales started to give way to fiberglass, Alexandria Boat Works became a major distributor with a territory of seven Midwest states.”

5790962857_26c460271f_zIn the late 1980s, a century after Erickson started his business, Glastron eliminated regional distributors such as Alexandria Boat Works, and the family made the decision to close and liquidate. Looking back, Niedenfuer says she’s most proud of the fact that Alexandria Boat Works was a family-held corporation from beginning to end.

Asked what her great-grandfather would think of the advances that have been made in boat building, Niedenfuer says, “I am sure he would be amazed, but he was a pretty progressive thinker. All of the old classic boats being restored now still take the attention to details that he put into all of his boats.”

The classic wood boats built by Alexandria Boat Works were works of art, sleek and fast on the water, and Erickson’s craftsmanship and vision live on. The legacy of Alexandria Boat Works is displayed at the Minnesota Lakes Maritime Museum in downtown Alexandria. Niedenfuer sits on the museum’s board of directors, working to preserve the rich history of boating.

“Seeing the museum as it is today, I think we have accomplished that goal. However, there are many more families whose collections and pieces should be preserved before they disappear,” Niedenfuer says. “I guess that is the goal of any museum, to save the history for the next generation.”

 

 

Amy Chaffins is a writer from Alexandria. 

Originally printed in the June/July 2011 issue of Lake and Home Magazine.