100 Years and Going Strong at Irwin Marine

By Kathi Caldwell-Hopper

Photos courtesy Irwin Marine

Way back in 1919, did Jim Irwin Sr. have any idea what he was starting? When Jim arrived by train to the Weirs Beach area in around 1914, his focus and passion was music. Trumpet playing to be exact. 

Jim Irwin and his band before Hawaii and Alaska

Jim Irwin and his band before Hawaii and Alaska

Why did a musician who grew up in South Boston end up in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire? In those days, travel was slower and the Lakes Region wasn’t the tourist Mecca it is today. While vacationers rented rooms and stayed at hotels and inns in the area, fewer people had boats or would have known what to do with one if they had a sailboat or other boat. 

Jim Irwin Sr.

Jim Irwin Sr.

Jim Irwin came to the area to play music, it was as simple as that. He knew the meaning of hard work and had an eyes-on-the-prize focus. He had been working since he was a kid in the State Street financial district of Boston as an errand boy, running orders and taking messages from office to office. He saved enough for trumpet lessons and persevered. Eventually, he had the musical skills to form a band and began to play for parties and weddings. The band’s popularity grew in Boston and soon they were traveling outside the area, and found themselves north bound to Lake Winnipesaukee. Jim Irwin played on hot summer nights on the shores of the lake and people loved the sounds he created with his trumpet.

Just because Jim had gained popularity as a musician, it didn’t mean things were easy street. He was around age 25 and World War I was looming. He enlisted in the Navy, and of course, he brought his famed horn with him and low and behold, he formed a band while serving his country. His popularity grew after the war and the band played all over the East coast. But still Jim was drawn to the Lake Winnipesaukee/Weirs area each summer. It was an omen of what was to come: he did not forget the lake and the fun he had playing music there.

Large sold out crowds would attend shows at the Winnipesaukee Pier

Large sold out crowds would attend shows at the Winnipesaukee Pier

Jim was what we would today call an entrepreneur. Back then he might not have put such a fancy name to his strong-work-ethic personality and big ideas. It takes someone like that to succeed, and Jim was certainly a visionary. 

He saw the chance to expand in 1921 and he bought an old music hall at the Weirs. It took courage to take such a financial risk, but Jim never let a little fear stop him. 

Jim’s ability to try new things led him to promote the Weirs area, and he brought musical and other types of acts to perform during the summer. (One such act, the Wizard of the North, was handcuffed to a bicycle on steep Tower Hill and rode a steel wire into the lake, according to information on the www.irwinmarine.com website.)

Jim saw the many opportunities the Lakes Region could offer to vacationers and he wanted to bring it all to the Weirs and surrounding area. He saw the new sport of skiing as a great thing, and then he brought power boats races to the lake for weekly regattas at the Weirs. And he brought a Boston pilot to the Weirs to give airplane rides and eventually started the country’s first air mail service.

There is no doubt Jim sensed opportunities galore on Winnipesaukee. He was interested in boating and bought a boat business and a wharf. When his dance hall burned in around 1925, he had to move his dances elsewhere and the waterfront mammoth boat shed fit his needs to become a music hall. Like so much else Jim Irwin did, the choice of building the dance hall over the huge wharf was visionary. He took the property he had, instead of looking to build or buy elsewhere. He literally put the music over the water and it was an instant success. 

It isn’t difficult to conjure up images of what Jim Irwin Sr. brought to the Weirs and what he did to build the area up in those days. There were dances and top-name bands playing on balmy summer nights. There were moonlight boat rides. To this day, older people speak fondly of meeting their future spouse at an Irwin’s Winnipesaukee Gardens dance or taking a ride in one of Jim’s Miss Winnipesaukee boats. It was pure magic for residents of the Lakes Region and for vacationers.

Back in 1919, Jim started a motor boat business and he had 55 inboard motorboats of around 20 ft. each. The motorboats were one cylinder with 5 hp motors. The boats were rented for $8.00 per week in those days. Irwin’s had a fleet of row boats and a showroom offering marine fittings and motors. Irwins also started building and selling a standardized Winnipesaukee Runabout that was 24 ft. long. 

In around 1945, after World War II, Irwin Marine was built on Union Avenue in Laconia. It was a large operation from the beginning, with a boat plant covering two acres under one roof and about 40 boat wells, according to an article titled “New Hampshire Boat Company Celebrates 45th Anniversary”. 

A capacity crowd at the weirs in the early 1960s

A capacity crowd at the weirs in the early 1960s

Jim Irwin Jr. had been around boats all his life and it was natural that he work alongside his father in the boat business. When Jack Irwin got out of high school, he attended Boston College but soon the Korean War loomed. Jack and some college buddies enlisted in the Marine Corps. When he got out in the 1960s, Jack returned to the Lakes Region where his father was, of course, running the thriving boat business. It was natural for the Irwin kids, now grown up, to work with their Dad as they had always done. When most people were winding down and contemplating retirement, Jim Irwin Sr. was working in the thriving boat business. 

He told his sons that he knew there was a fortune to be made in boating. He wanted to go into boating with his sons but he warned that they would have to be willing to take on a lot of the work. Of course, they were willing and today, the Irwin name in boating, storage and cars is among the most recognizable in the area. 

It would be interesting, from the perspective of our modern-day world, to sit down and chat with Jim Irwin Sr. Unfortunately, Jim passed away some years ago, but he left a family and a legacy; his story and his work and impact on the Lakes Region lives on.

The closest we can come to speaking with Jim Irwin Sr. is to chat with his son, Jack, who has been working in the family businesses since he was a kid. Jack and his family built Irwin Marine into a multi-store operation with locations in Lakeport, Alton, Alton Bay and Hudson, NH, with lots of winter boat storage.

Jack speaks fondly of his father when recounting the Irwin story. Jack learned his strong work ethic from his father, helping out in the business from a young age. If you are an Irwin, it seems, you cannot be afraid to get your hands dirty with axle grease, your feet wet when towing boats and your outlook expanded to do whatever is necessary to get the job done.

“We lived in Laconia when I was a kid,” Jack recalls from his office at Irwin Marine on Union Avenue in Lakeport. “My Dad told me he was going to be fixing up a boat, so he needed me to drive the boat and fill it up with gas and take it back to the boat slip. It was one of the old Laker boats. I was 7 or 8 years old,” he laughs at the memory.

Certainly things were different back then in the 1930s and 40s. Boat traffic was not heavy and there were fewer restrictions on who could drive a boat. And the Irwin kids were comfortable around boats and the water, because they grew up that way. Indeed, Jack recalls that he used to swim off the Pier at his father’s Winnipesaukee Gardens.

He remembers the music at the Gardens. “We had some really great musicians like Duke Ellington and Harry James. I used to run a spotlight at the Gardens when I was a kid. The dances in the summer were Tuesday through Friday nights and they ended at midnight.”

He paints an image with words of the hard work that seemed more like play because it was so interesting and fun. (What kid wouldn’t have wanted to grow up around a dance hall and famous musicians, as well as power boats and daring acts?) 

“In 1929, we had the Miss Winnipesaukee speedboats because my Dad had the Chris Craft franchise. But then the stock market crashed and people couldn’t afford boats any longer. My Dad took back the boats that people could not afford to keep.”

Suddenly, Jim Irwin had six or seven boats and, never short of new ideas, decided he could recoup any losses by offering Miss Winnipesaukee speed boat rides at the Weirs. “They were 26 to 28 foot boats, and they were numbered; people said boat number 5 was the fastest so everyone wanted to ride that boat. People would wait in line for a ride and we ran the boats seven days a week,” Jack recalls.

Jim Irwin Sr. had been around boats since the day he stepped off the train, ready to carve out a career as a musician. He may not have known, way back then, what he was starting and how his talents would shape the area he came to call home. But he saw the boats here and there on Winnipesaukee and he heard the excitement as vacationers talked about being out on the lake in a boat.

And he likely knew that, no matter what happened, from stock market crashes to war to good times, boating was here to stay.

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