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Penn Yan Boat Company
Penn Yan, NY

A Brief history of the Penn Yan Boat Company
The Wooden Boat Era


The Penn Yan Boat Company was founded by Charles A. Herrmann in 1921. Born in Germany in 1877, Herrmann immigrated to the United States where he became part of the fledgling aviation industry in the Bath-Hammondsport area. During WWI he was employed by the US government in aviation design at Hampton, Virginia and Dayton, Ohio.

After the war, Herrmann returned to the Keuka Lake area. Legend has it that he built a small rowboat for himself in a barn at Gibson’s Landing. Shortly thereafter, additional boats were being built for neighbors. He soon realized that boatbuilding represented a potentially lucrative business.

In 1921 Herrmann moved to Penn Yan and established a boatbuilding business in the former Beach Roller Skating Palace on Champlin Avenue.  This business was incorporated as the Penn Yan Boat Company the following year.  By 1923, the business employed 15 people. In June, a spark from the boiler ignited wood shavings, and the factory burned to the ground along with several adjacent wooden structures. Twenty-seven boats were lost in the conflagration, including one valued at $3,000 belonging to Glenn Curtiss.

Champlin Avenue Plant

Within two months, Herrmann purchased land from Paul Garrett and initiated construction of a two-story concrete (“fire proof”) building between Water Street and the outlet, below the Liberty Street bridge.  This site had formerly belonged to the steamboat company. By January, 1924 production was in full swing at the Water Street Plant. A newspaper article indicated that a large variety of boats was being manufactured using red cedar from California, mahogany from the Philippines, cypress from the Gulf of Mexico, and oak from West Virginia. All boats were manufactured using the “Composite” technique, which consisted of a double-planked wooden hull covered with an external layer of filled canvas. (Some historians believe this wood/canvas technique was patterned after the construction methods employed in manufacture of early aircraft,)

Water Street Plant

Outboard motor boat racing became a popular sport in the latter 1920s, and Penn Yan built several record setting step-hydroplane models. Between 1926 and 1928, the record speed doubled from 20 to 40 mph. In September, 1929, a Penn Yan Ceestepper set a new world’s record. The following month, Charles Herrmann received a contract from the Johnson Motor Company of Waukegan, Illinois to build 3000 boats for distribution by them during the 1930 season. He returned to Penn Yan and announced the need to construct a new boat factory to supply this greatly increased demand. Although several surrounding cities, including Geneva, attempted to lure the expansion to their communities, the Penn Yan Chamber of Commerce succeeded in persuading Herrmann to build the factory in Penn Yan by pledging to buy over $100,000 in preferred treasury stock issued to finance construction.  Land was acquired along the outlet adjacent to Waddell Avenue, and construction of a 60,000 square foot facility began in November. By February, construction was complete. This new factory was the largest building under one roof in the Yates County. The Company held a “house warming” for the community one evening, which was attended by over 3,000 people. Amos and Andy were brought in to entertain, the “Penn Yan Maid” was crowned, and two orchestras alternated playing music for dancers who reportedly took full advantage of the newly poured “glass-like” concrete floor until midnight.

Waddell Avenue Plant

Demand for boats decreased dramatically during the depression years of the early 1930s. By 1936 the Penn Yan Boat Company had gone into receivership. The business was purchased by a group of businessmen from New York City. Charlie Herrmann stayed on as President until his retirement in 1938. He was succeeded by Ralph Brown, a colleague from aviation days who had joined the business as chief designer in 1924.

During WWII the company converted to wartime production, producing utility craft for the Allied army. Penn Yan boats were used in the crossing of the Rhine River during the European campaign. In 1945, the company was given the coveted Army-Navy E award for its efforts in support of the war.

Penn Yan’s line of boats expanded rapidly after WWII. In the early 1950s Penn Yan introduced the famous Swift, perhaps the fastest and most popular stock wooden outboard racing boat ever produced.  By 1955, the Company offered 167 different models including inboards, outboards, canoes, dinghies, and sailboats.  Many boats were available in several construction configurations including Composite, Monowood and Striplank. Striptite construction, introduced in 1950, was followed by Dynamold in 1955 and Plaston in 1957. A 20,000 square foot addition was added to the factory in 1956.  In 1958 the Company began manufacturing clinker planked boats using marine plywood. This represented the final construction method employed in wooden boat manufacture. In 1966 the last wooden boat was built, and production was converted entirely to fiberglass.

The Penn Yan Boat Company enjoyed a world-wide reputation as an innovator and manufacturer of fine wooden boats over a 45-year period. Surviving examples are highly prized by collectors today.

(The author is indebted to Idelle Dillon and the staff of the Yates County Genealogical and Historical Society, and John Creamer and the staff of the Penn Yan Public Library for assisting with research efforts for this project -Bill Oben)

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