Top photo: Adam Osborne
Photography by Greta Rybus
Dave Cyr is one of the last tack spitters. For five years, starting in 2002, his job was to build the wood-and-canvas canoes that for many decades made Maine manufacturer Old Town a household name. Like his predecessors in the trade, Cyr would keep fistfuls of copper tacks—upward of 100 at a time—lodged in his cheek as he worked, plucking them off his tongue and hammering them into cedar planking. Inevitably, the inside of his mouth would get poked.“There’s probably a lot of Old Town canoes out there that have my DNA on them,” Cyr jokes.
His tenure, however, happened to coincide with the dwindling in popularity of boats made from organic materials, as fiberglass and alumininum canoes (and later kayaks) became all the rage. In 2008, Old Town moved a few miles away from the five-story brick building it had occupied in its namesake town in Maine for nearly a century. (The company turned its wooden-canoe business over to an independent craftsman in an adjacent county.) Today, the former tack spitter works at the new factory, producing the polyethylene kayaks that constitute the bulk of Old Town’s current business.
Cyr joined Old Town 25 years ago, after his uncle, who worked in accounting for the company, suggested he seek a job there when he got out of the navy. As almost everyone did back then, Cyr started out in shipping. Although he misses tack spitting, Cyr—who on the day I meet him cuts a lean figure in jeans and a long-sleeve T-shirt—says he is proud to be “associated with something that’s almost global.”
Remarkably, a mill town situated two hours north of Portland, with a population of 8,000, is indeed home to one of the oldest and most respected names in outdoor recreation retail. Old Town Canoe is right up there with L.L. Bean, which is also based in Maine, a state whose economy depends heavily on the industry. (Only in Hawaii and Montana does outdoor recreation supply a higher percentage of the GDP.) And unlike Bean’s, as native Mainers like myself call it, Old Town still makes most of what it sells in-state.
Kayaks make up 75 percent of Old Town’s watercraft business today; canoes make up the rest. Both are manufactured inside a 130,000-square-foot factory, the majority of which is open floor. The faint smell of the place is familiar to anyone who has tossed a candy wrapper into a campfire. A lot of what goes on here is the baking of plastic.
From Powder to Nostalgia
Old Town’s canoes and kayaks begin as powder. Workers remove fine, brightly pigmented polyethylene powder from cardboard boxes by the bucketload and pour it into aluminum molds, like batter going into a waffle iron. The molds then go into massive ovens, overseen by veteran technicians, where they rotate at a temperature of 500 degrees Fahrenheit until the powder solidifies.
Blackened from repeated roasting and spiked with metal rods that keep the heat evenly distributed, the molds have the morbid look of medieval torture devices. Cyr and his fellow oven operators remove them from the heat, pound the edges with a rubber mallet until the unfinished hull drops out, and trim off the ragged fringe of excess plastic, which is sent for recycling. The hull, which at this stage is pliable, is left to cool and harden for roughly the amount of time it spent in the oven. The largest of the factory’s nine ovens, the “Mack Daddy,” produces several single-layer vessels an hour. (Old Town’s higher-end hulls contain a slice of foam sandwiched between two layers of polyethylene, for added buoyancy.)
Leading me on a tour through the factory today is Ryan Lilly, a brand and product manager for the watercraft division of Johnson Outdoors, the Wisconsin-based brand that has been Old Town’s parent company since 1973. “A lot of people, their entry point to our product line is an experience in a canoe—memories of being in a canoe at their grandparents’ camp or at summer camp,” he says. “We’ve reached this Kleenex level [of brand recognition]. An Old Town is a canoe.”
We move away from the ovens, to the assembly line, where seats, gunwales, bungee cords, and other fixtures are installed. Lilly perks up at the staccato hiss of pneumatic tools, and we walk over to watch a woman in jeans assemble electric motors, installing them into kayak consoles and arranging spaghetti-like clutches of wiring.
Lilly emphasizes that for Old Town, this is where the action is. “It’s an arms race of technology in high-end fishing kayaks,” he says. Not for the first time in its history, the 122-year-old company intends to win.
Regaining the Title
In 1898, George and Herbert Gray added canoe making to the handful of businesses the two brothers already ran in Old Town. Their first canvas-sheathed wooden canoes modeled after the birchbark paddlecraft that the region’s Penobscot tribes had used for centuries—were built in a shed behind their hardware store. Lumbermen and sporting guides were their initial clientele, but they also had their eyes on the canoeing craze in Boston and other urban points south. Business soared, and less than a decade later, the Grays were selling their Maine-made canoes as far afield as Europe and South America.
By the time of Old Town’s next local expansion, in 1916, the company boasted the largest canoe factory in the world. Its primary raw material, the Eastern cedar used for ribs and planking, was floated down the Penobscot River from the North Woods by Maine’s legendary log drivers and delivered more or less to its front door. Old Town canoes traveled to retailers around the country on railroad cars; even Macy’s carried them. In 1927, the company’s annual sales surpassed a half-million dollars.
The market for speedier vessels grew during the postwar years, and Old Town poured resources into sailboats and sport boats. The trend in canoes was for light, durable aluminum, but the Grays’ descendants thought aluminum canoes were loud and ugly and refused to build them. The company’s canoe production sank to 200 a year. When fiberglass came along, Deane Gray, George’s grandson, balked again. A sign on his desk read, “If God wanted fiberglass boats, he would have made fiberglass trees!”
A builder named Walter “Bub” King helped change his mind. When Old Town’s first fiberglass canoe hit the market in the mid-’60s, King’s revolutionary design—with its molded keel and seats and its foam-sandwiched polyurethane hull—won awards, and not just in the world of watercraft. Builder Lew Gilman’s subsequent work with Royalex, another synthetic material, produced a new generation of more rugged and easily transportable canoes and kayaks that arrived right on time for the whitewater trend of the ’70s.
The company’s most notable innovation came in 1984, with the launch of a reasonably priced canoe model that excelled at everything from wilderness expeditions and whitewater runs to family excursions. Old Town named it the Discovery, for the space shuttle, and a year after it hit the market, overall sales leaped 27 percent.
Regaining the title of world’s largest canoe maker in the mid-‘80s was no doubt gratifying to Samuel Johnson Jr., chairman of S.C. Johnson and founder of Johnson Outdoors, a publicly traded company which had acquired Old Town from the Grays 10 years earlier. His original business was a family company as well, one that had been around even longer than Old Town.
Johnson, an outdoorsman, had owned several Old Town canoes, and in 1973 had begun amassing a portfolio of outdoor recreation brands, including Eureka! (the maker of camping tents) and SCUBAPRO. His daughter, Helen Johnson-Leipold, has been chairman and CEO of Johnson Outdoors since 1999.
By that time, user-friendly kayaks had drawn even in the market with canoes, Old Town’s main source of revenue. The arrival in 2013 of the company’s Predator kayak series—which now includes paddle, motorized, and pedal-propelled models—proved to be yet another turning point.
Paddling with the Times
The recent evolution in the company’s offerings reveals a parallel story of the changing nature of American recreation. The materials have gone from organic to man-made, the process from handcrafted to semi-industrial. Old Town’s fleet is at once lighter, more portable, and more technologically advanced than ever.
Unlike canoes, kayaks and kayak hybrids (like Old Town’s Discovery 119 Solo Sportsman) are designed for individual use. With no paddling partner required, they are easier to squeeze into a demanding work schedule. “We’ve given people a whole new way of being on the water,” says Larry Baab, group vice president of watercraft and camping at Johnson Outdoors, adding that many of his fellow boaters nowadays are “busier than we prefer.” To this end, the latest Loon kayak models come with a cupholder and a front console for securing a smartphone and portable charger.
Old Town’s current target audience is the fishing crowd. The latest Sportsman line includes seven kayak models designed to appeal to the tournament angler, the fair-weather novice, and everyone in between.
The line’s flagship is the Old Town Sportsman Auto-pilot, a motorized craft that uses Bluetooth-connected GPS to hold its spot in wind, tide, and current; in July it was awarded Best of Show at the iCast 2020 New Product Showcase. Johnson’s 1973 acquisition of Minn Kota, a Minnesota-based maker of trolling motors, is looking smarter than ever. “This is a massive initiative for us—the biggest new product-line launch in our recent history, really,” Baab explains.
The motorized, pedal-powered, and paddle fishing craft in the 2020 Sportsman collection may one day join the pieces on display at the low-lying brick building on the Old Town campus that houses a seasonal factory store and museum. Owners of Old Town dinghies, wooden canoes, and painstakingly constructed lapstrake boats have over the years sent these precious heirlooms back to their maker—out of a sense, Lilly explains, that Old Town will take good care of them.
Meanwhile, next door, vertical rows of brightly colored canoes and kayaks await shipment from the factory floor. These seem to hail from a different world than the museum pieces, but the kinship runs deep. All of them conjure outings on rivers, ponds, lakes, and seas, making Old Town a nicer place to work in the depths of the Maine winter—when only the bravest product testers take boats out onto unfrozen patches of the Penobscotthan it might otherwise be.
“That feeling of freedom you have on the water,” Baab says, “is really hard to match.”
MAINE, THREE WAYS
For the Paddler
Back in 1857, Henry David Thoreau canoed down the Allagash River and documented his experience in The Maine Woods. “Here was traveling of the old heroic kind over the unaltered face of nature,” Thoreau wrote, and he’d be happy to know that not much has changed. The Allagash, Maine’s only designated National Wild and Scenic River, is still perfect for seasoned paddlers or families looking to escape completely from modern civilization.
The easiest way to explore the more than 92 miles of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway is to book a guided tour with Allagash Canoe Trips. During the four- to seven-day journey, you’ll test your skills on Class II rapids, spy moose and eagles, fish for trout, hear the thunder of Allagash Falls, and sleep under the stars. (Oh, and eat really well: pancakes and maple syrup, steaks cooked over an open fire, strawberry short- cake … don’t worry, you’ll paddle off those calories in no time.)
But before you spend a week sleeping on the ground, book a stay at The Lodge at Moosehead Lake, a rustic yet beautiful bed and breakfast in Greenville.
For the Foodie
You can eat well all over Maine—just try to find a bad lobster roll at any of the numerous shacks that dot the coast—but if you really want to get down to business, go to Portland. The oceanfront city seemingly has a farm-to-table restaurant, natural wine bar, or high-end oyster shack for every one of its 66,000 residents.
The scenic Old Port District alone will leave you overwhelmed with choices: There’s Fore Street, chef Sam Hayward’s James Beard Award–winning mainstay; Central Provisions, a small-plate purveyor mixing local ingredients with international flavors; Eventide Oyster Co., an update on the classic New England oyster bar; and Portland Hunt + Alpine Club, a stunning cocktail bar that serves one heck of
Between your (many) meals, explore the city in style aboard one of Portland Fire Engine Co. Tours’ vintage fire trucks, and take in the Winslow Homer collection at the Portland Museum of Art. Rest your head at The Francis, a 15-room hotel in an 1881 building in the city’s West End Arts District.
For the Classic Mainer
Maine tends to conjure images of lobsters and rocky coastlines—and a road trip through the state’s idyllic seaside towns is a great way to make those visions a reality.
Start in Ogunquit, where you can build sandcastles and enjoy a scoop of blueberry-pie ice cream at Sweet Pea’s. Retreat to the luxurious Cliff House, in nearby Cape Neddick, and fall asleep to the crashing waves.
Next, head north to Rockland, stopping for lunch at McLoons Lobster Shack on Spruce Head Island and then for a pale ale at Rock Harbor Brewing Co. Spend the night at the LimeRock Inn, a turreted Victorian mansion with a postcard-perfect wrap- around porch.
The following morning, take a slight detour down the St. George Peninsula to Marshall Point Lighthouse (the endpoint for Forrest Gump’s cross-country run) on your way to Bar Harbor. Order a pot of steamers at Trenton Bridge Lobster Pound, and take a schooner sail with Downeast Windjammer. Unwind at the Balance Rock Inn, where a swim in the pool overlooking the ocean is the perfect way to end the trip.
Next-Up: The best date night spot in Maine