Boating Pleasures…at The NH Boat Museum
Story & Photos by Kathi Caldwell-Hopper
I love to wander around the Lakes Region on a September day. With the sun shining, and some of summer’s humidity and heat behind us, it is a glorious time of year to get in the car and explore all the area offers.
It is also a time to stop by some places I just did not manage to visit in the hectic summer months. So it was no surprise to me that my wanderings led me to the doors of the NH Boat Museum. I wanted to see this summer’s exhibit, and I was glad there was still plenty of time before the museum closes after Columbus Day weekend in October.
I visit the Boat Museum every year, knowing the exhibit will be changed from the previous year and because, while I am not a boat owner, I am a sucker for wooden, antique boats.
I find this method of boating fascinating: the care taken to make a wooden boat, the beauty of the designs and the history of the era of Lakes Region boating when things were a bit slower. It brings to mind the Gatsby era, toasting with champagne and living the good life when things were well made and enjoyed to the max.
The NH Boat Museum is located in a former Quonset hut style building (once used by the Allen A Resort for dances, concerts and plays). Today, the half-circular style building is home to the display of all-thing-boating. Each spring through autumn, the museum has a new exhibit, as well as the permanent displays. This year’s exhibit is titled “Rare Boats that Mark Transitions in Our Economy and Culture 1900-1940” and it is a great view of what the title says, showing some beautiful old wooden boats.
I started my tour with that exhibit; I usually try to read all the signs and information to familiarize myself with what I will be seeing, but the shiny wooden boats were so attractive, I just could not help but walk right up to them. When you see a well-kept wooden boat from another time, I dare you to not be mesmerized, to not want to get as close to it as possible.
The first boat, on the left in the big main exhibit area is a Dee Wite all-mahogany pleasure craft. The sleek design and shining wood was the product of Joseph Berry Lodge, who created the Dee Wite company after his job as president of the Dwight Lumber Company and Berry Brothers Varnishes. The boat on display is a Split Cockpit Runabout and is 19 feet long.
Not far away in the room is information on the Gesswein “Sportabout” a 14-foot Runabout built in 1928.
I am used to seeing beautiful old boats in the museum, but it was a delight to see a shiny, deep maroon 1950 Ford on display as well. “They sure knew how to make a beautiful car back then,” I said to myself. The car is on display through the generosity of Jack Armstrong, and well worth stopping at the museum to see how cars once looked. A convertible, the car gleams from its front hood to its back, silver shiny bumper.
In the past, I have interviewed Lakes Region resident Fred Clausen, who collects vintage toy boats. He has generously loaned some of his amazing collection of little boats to the NH Boat Museum for a display. Fred began collecting toy boats as a way to decorate the office of his family’s lodging property. The property, Proctor’s Lakehouse Cottages in Weirs Beach, displayed the toy boats, which became quite a conversation starter with guests. The collecting bug bit Fred and his toy boat fleet grew and grew. His extensive collection focuses on boats you might see on New Hampshire’s lakes, such as runabouts, outboards and race boats. Titled “Big Dreams, Little Boats,” some of the boats from Fred’s collection are on display and a lot of fun to see. Some of the boats are displayed with their original packaging, such as “Fiesta Queen” which sits atop its red and green original box.
Not far from the toy boat area, I was drawn to a huge photo mural of The Swallow (from the collection of Carol Humphrey-Clouter), with men and women aboard. It is a photo taken long ago, and you can tell because the women have long skirts and the men are dressed a lot more formally (suit jackets and white shirts) than we would see boaters dressed today. Nevertheless, it looks like the people in the photo, aboard The Swallow, are having a grand old time, all smiles and casually posed.
Historical information by the display tells us Goodhue & Hawkins Navy Yard, on Wolfeboro Bay, was home to the Swallow from 1898 until the 1960s. It was used as a charter boat and Captain Nat Goodhue once took the Swallow out on a rescue mission in a storm. The mission was successful, but the Swallow was damaged, hauled from the water, but never repaired. Eventually, the boat was burned, but old tales of her heyday and period photos show the fun passengers had on the Swallow once upon a time.
I enjoyed a display in this area of the museum showing the commercial Winnipesaukee steamboat timeline, and old posters advertising rides on the Lady of the Lake steamboat. A wooden replica of the Lade of the Lake shows us, in great detail on a wooden model, what the steamboat looked like and it must have been a thing of beauty when out on the lake.
On the former Quonset hut stage, which is reached by walking up a few steps, a replica of an old boat shop shows us a collection the museum acquired in 2001 from a modest, privately owned boat museum in Maine. With over 15 small marine engines, several outboard, many framed advertisements and pictures, there also were over 500 items relating to the repair, building and maintenance of boats. A small portion of the collection is on display, with mechanics’ and woodworkers’ tools from long ago.
I found a display on the stage relating to the Laconia Car Company to be fascinating. When the old car company liquidated its Boat Department, a bargain was offered: buyers could obtain a 16-ft. Standard SportSter boat, fully equipped, for $200; the regular price having been $369. They could be used with a variety of outboard motors, and the cockpits were comfortable with upholstered cross seats. The steering wheels of the boats was of the motor car type. A real example of a SportSter boat is on display and although showing some of the wear of the years, it is still a thing of great beauty to behold.
Also on the stage, there is information about motors for many boats, including the Johnson Sea Horse motor, among others.
It should be noted that the NH Boat Museum is in the midst of a campaign to build a new museum. Landlocked for 20 years, the museum is now poised to construct a new, waterfront home on Wolfeboro’s Back Bay.
With a new, larger space, the museum will have room to continue and even expand its many programs, from boat building classes to lectures on all-things boating, and of course, display all those wonderful wooden and other boats!
It is certainly time, with the growth of the NH Boat Museum, for expanded, climate-controlled space. The current space limitations, plus lack of an HVAC system, hinders the efforts to bring even more programs and displays to the area. A new museum building, located on the water, makes sense in many ways and will have a Children’s Lake Discovery Center, an exhibit hall, event space and much-needed collections storage space.
Like many who visit or reside in the Lakes Region, eventually I find myself at the NH Boat Museum on a sunny September day, or anytime the museum is open. While I love the exhibits and the unique building, I can only imagine how the display of wooden boats and other objects that take us back to the early days of boating on the lake would expand in a new, roomier museum.
I may not own a boat, but I love this museum that transports me back to the days of Gatsby, of genteel boating and ladies in long skirts and men in straw hats, all enjoying a warm day on the lake. Really, I think to myself at the end of my tour of the exhibits, one needn’t own a boat to relish a step back in time at the NH Boat Museum.
(For information on the NH Boat Museum, visit www.nhbm.org, or call 603-569-4554. The museum is located at 399 Center Street in Wolfeboro and is open Memorial Day to Columbus Day from 10 am to 4 pm Monday to Saturday and from noon to 4 pm on Sunday.)