The Newsletter of the Pacific Northwest Chapter
Antique and Classic Boat Society

December 2007

New board member Bret Kiddey has written an account of the trip he took this summer to visit the Chris Craft cruiser plant in Holland, Michigan. He begins what I hope will become a monthly “member story” segment of our newsletter:

Dick Dow
                                                                                                                                               

 

A Trip to Holland

Some of our members have told me that the club might like to hear about a recent road trip that I took to Holland, Michigan, the site of the former Chris Craft cruiser plant. Well, here is my story:

For some time I have been interested in the factories where our Chris Craft boats and engines were created and have always wanted to tour the plant that my boat was built in.  I wish that I could go back in time and watch, checking out each and every step of the process from selecting the wood to rolling the boats out of the plant, ready to be delivered to the dealers and new owners.  I have this surreal fantasy of being able to go back and see my boat being built and rolling out the door, brand spanking new, ready for delivery and in perfect condition...

So, armed with a little bit of knowledge and a healthy dose of curiosity, this summer I combined a trip back East to visit family with a quest to find the Holland boat factory.

While there were Chris Craft cruisers were built at other factories, including the original home location in Algonac, MI, the Holland plant was the main plant for boats built of the traditional mahogany plank, batten seam, double bottom construction from 25’ to 42’ in length.  It was built in 1939 and was expanded in the mid 1950’s. The end of its boat-building days came in 1989. I think that it is pretty noteworthy that Chris Craft would have built a large factory so far away from their original headquarters in Algonac, MI.  Holland is located all of the way across the state on the Eastern shore of lake Michigan and would have presented a long and somewhat taxing trip by car or truck from company headquarters in 1939.

Holland has a rich history of fine furniture building factories as well as boat building.  Many of the people are of Dutch origin, so you can imagine that their wood working skills and work ethics were well suited to the industries in town.  The local Dutch influence is celebrated in the annual Tulip Festival as well as in the name of the town itself.

I really didn’t know what to expect Holland to be like. I envisioned a small town where the Chris Craft plant would have been the prime enterprise. The town turned out to be a bit bigger and busier than I had imagined, but not too big.  The downtown area was really very nice with an old- fashioned look, but at the same time looking new, perky and well groomed.  Among other things, the town is the home of Hope College and Tiara Yacht, the company of former Chris Craft employee and Slick Craft founder Leon Slickers.
 
When I arrived I was so lacking for local knowledge that I had to stop and ask for directions to the plant.  I was certain that I would be able to find information about it from some of the older folks in town, and it worked out that way with just a little bit of effort.  The exterior of the plant does not actually look like a boat factory to me, with just a row of very large garage doors on the front side. It is now part boat storage location and industrial park with different small shops occupying some of the areas that were probably different departments way back when. But the old water tower with the pre- war Chris Craft logo is still there, - albeit with cell phone antennae panels on it!

(It’s easy to see why Chris Craft noticed and later bought the Roamer steel boat company in the mid 1950’s.  The Roamer plant was located about two blocks from the Chris Craft plant.  The building and grounds are now the home of a paddlewheel tourist excursion boat company.  Back in the day you probably could have seen the Roamer plant from the Chris Craft plant.)

I first arrived at the plant just before dark, and was able to drive right inside through an open door and park next to a guy inside working on his boat. This area was the newer portion of the plant that was added on in the 1950’s, what I call the “high roof” section.  At the Easterly edge of this area was the upstairs office and balcony area where the factory offices were.  From talking with Chris Smith, I found out that his large lofting room was located toward the back of this second floor.

I wandered over to the older section of the plant.  I was amazed at how low the roof was, I guess I expected the entire place to be towering!  And I was stricken with the floor in this area; -it was made of diagonal wooden planks rather than concrete. 
It’s hard to tell what may have changed in all of the years since the plant was in operation, but I found it curious that there seemed to be an almost total lack of full size railroad tracks directly entering the plant.  From the few old pictures that I have seen there seems to be only one rail line heading into the plant.  Evidently truck shipment of new boats was the main transportation method of choice for the company at this plant.
 
I moved around, found a light switch and snapped it on.  I saw U- shaped trolley rails in the ceiling and sliding panel doors that seemed to define departments off to the side.  I eventually found my way up a stairway that led to the second floor.  There I found cubby- holes that looked like paint booth areas and a big hole in the floor that had a matching roof contour.  I could only imagine fly bridges, interior cabinets or other structures being lowered down to the production floor through this opening.

I continued on my second floor journey until I came to a freight elevator.  On the wall I found markings and lettering that signified this was the millwork department.  I imagined the cabinets and fixtures in my boat's cabin and interior being built and finished right in the area that I was standing in.  Man, it’s just an old building, but if it could just talk and tell me how it went all of those years ago!

It was getting late so I decided to leave the plant and go find a restaurant that the guy working on his boat told me about.

Boatwerks is a really cool place!  The restaurant bar is planked like a varnished runabout foredeck with white caulked seams and all.  There is photograph/mural all along one entire wall that is the image of the front of the Holland plant with about half a dozen late 1950’s Chris Craft Constellations of all sizes rolling out of the shop doors of the plant ready to be delivered.  There are wood Chris Craft models over the banquet room entrances and another wall with three antique outboard motors including a Chris Craft and a Johnson, mounted on it above a table.  Over the end of the main dining area an antique, locally built outboard double cockpit boat hangs from the ceiling.  If you like boats, it’s definitely worth a visit to this restaurant.

The next morning I drove over to the plant again and wandered around some more.  Even though it was the Saturday after July 4th, there were a few people working in the machine shops and such that are now part of the building.  I walked into one of these shops wearing a Chris Craft T- shirt and found a fellow who was willing to talk about the place and show me around a little.  He told me I was in the right place with a shirt like that!

We walked around and he explained that he had been told the area with the U- shaped ceiling trolley rail was “the turn- around room”, perhaps where some structure came down from upstairs and was then moved over to a waiting hull?  One can only imagine.  He showed me writing on the walls made by workers pertaining to information on the boats as they passed down the line and told me that there were piled up puddles of old, hardened fiberglass on the floor in certain spots.  He also told me a story about an old plant employee named “Doc” who had been a Chris Craft maintenance department worker and was kept on by the new property managers.  It was said that he knew every department in the plant and where every electrical switch and piping valve was located.  Unfortunately he had passed away about a year previous.  It's a real shame that the resource of his knowledge couldn’t have been chronicled.

Since I was staying an extra day that I hadn’t scheduled, I decided to check out the town Library and Museum.  I was amazed to find about a half- dozen books on the history of Holland, but only found one paragraph pertaining to Chris Craft.  There were drawing/pictures of many furniture factories, but next to nothing about the boat plant!
I also stopped by the office of Geoffrey Reynolds, the Archivist for Hope College.  Unfortunately he was on vacation at the time so I did not get to meet him or talk with him.  Since that time I have talked to him through e- mail and he has told me that he will be having a book coming out that will tell a history of the local boat building companies in the Holland area.
Mr. Reynolds also owns a 1957 15’ Sportsman outboard, a locally built boat by the Skipper Craft company of  one- time Chris Craft employee Jason Petroelje.  This is a great looking boat and this has to be one of the very few companies that ever built boats with a design that is almost identical to the bull nose bows of 1950’s Chris Craft boats.  They even have somewhat of a “Monkey Rail” bow toe rail like a Chris Craft.

While at the plant, I noticed a brick building out behind the water tower.  I asked some workers sanding on a hull mold for a small boat if this building had been part of the Chris Craft plant.  They said they thought it was, and that there were puddles of dried fiberglass on the floor in different locations in this building too.

The plant visit is only part of the story of my trip, but I'll save the rest for next month's newsletter...

After I returned back to the Seattle area, I had a chance to talk with Chris Smith on the phone and ask him some questions about the Holland plant.  He told me that along with the many other years of experience that he had in the family company, he had served a two-year apprenticeship in the Algonac plant and had then gone to work at Holland in 1949.  He ended up having his own lofting room there. Holland was considered a branch and there was a minimum of office work performed there.  The payroll and all material ordering were done in Algonac. 

He also told me that he still lived near the plant and would have shown me around the place. Oh man!  What a missed opportunity!  I wasn’t aware that he lived nearby, and I really regret not having looked him up.  Maybe I will get back there someday and take him up on his generous offer.  He has always been very helpful and gracious in sharing his knowledge and experience whenever I have talked with him.

During our phone conversation, I learned some interesting things:  There were usually nine rows of boats under construction in the factory and usually there would be one hundred and twenty hulls in production at one time!  The boats were framed- in and bottom- planked while upside down and then turned over and set on cradle/carts to proceed down narrow-gauge rail tracks as they went through the plant.  In the high roof section they could build up to 42’ers.
 
And, -according to Chris Smith- the dealers always told him that they thought the Holland boats were the best built of all the company’s products.
  
The brick building was on my question list for Chris, and he told me that before its 1964 introduction they had been preparing to build the 38’ Commander hulls there.  He spent about a year and a half and one million dollars perfecting and constructing the Commander hull molds in that building.   The Commander project was done in secrecy so Chris Craft could surprise the industry with their first large fiberglass model at the New York boat show.

They also wanted to do the Commander hull molding in a different building than the main plant due to their concern about the chemicals and fire.
After the hulls were rolled out of the brick building, they were lined up outside under the water tower area and had their bottoms sandblasted and prepped for bottom paint before being rolled into the main plant for finishing.  I’d say all the effort was well worth it, as those boats are still gorgeous today if they have had even half way decent care taken of them.

Well, it was just an old building, but I really enjoyed finally seeing it and learning a little about how my boat and other cruisers were built.  Maybe someday I can return and take a tour with Chris Smith and hear some great stories and learn even more about what happened there all those years ago.   

Bret Kiddey
                                                                                 
                                                                                                                                  

 

 

 

 

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