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Thompson Brothers Boat
Cortland, NY

THOMPSON BOATS - CORTLAND, NY
Written by Robert N. Thompson

The Wooden Boat Era

The Cortland branch plant of the Thompson Bros. Boat Co. was established in 1924. The Finger Lakes had become an important market for the canoes, row boats, and outboard motor boats of the Peshtigo, Wisconsin company and freight carloads of boats were being shipped to the Mayer Boat Co. dealership in Rochester, N.Y., which had built up a Finger Lakes sub-dealer organization.

Cortland was selected because of the availability of a large vacant three story factory, built in the 1890's, for carriage assembly. It was serviced by a rail siding for the two Cortland railroads, the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western, and the Lehigh Valley.


BACKGROUND

At the time of the Cortland start up, the Thompson boat company had been in business since 1904, and five of the original Thompson brothers were active in the business. Two of the younger brothers moved to Cortland.

The family had emigrated from Denmark to Racine, Wis. in 1881. In 1899, the oldest son, Peter, began working, at age 13, in the Racine Boat Co., which was then a well known company. Twelve years later, in 1901, fire destroyed the boat company and Peter went to Algonac, Michigan and worked for one season in the boat livery shop of Chris Smith and his brother, Henry (later to become Chris Craft).

In 1903, Peter rejoined the Thompson family at their new farm in northern Wisconsin near Peshtigo, and in the winter months Peter and his next oldest brother, Christ, built 15 "Anti Leak" canoes in the hayloft of the barn. These were made from farm basswood and sold successfully. During the next fall a separate boat shop was built on the farm and the younger brothers began to be involved. In 1912, a new factory was built in Peshtigo alongside the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad and the boat business became incorporated as the Thompson Bros. Boat Mfg. Co., Inc. and included all six brothers.


TVT's 1927 - 1956

The Cortland operation became well established in the late 1920's and early 1930's. In 1927, the Thompson family had introduced a TVT (Thompson V Type) planing hull design that was softer riding in rough water than the typical hard chine planing hulls of that period. The successful TVT's coincided with the Cortland start up.

The TVT's were built with Western red cedar, narrow
1 1/8"strips, white oak framing and Philippine mahogany transoms. Also, importantly, in 1927, the company had been granted a patent on its compressed seam construction method, a feature that minimized the usual wood boat "soaking up" necessity.

Four key TVT models on two basic hull forms well received in the marketplace were the 14' and 16' open Hi Speed Fish Boat and the forward decked Family Runabout. The center lines of these hulls were 13 1/2' and 15 1/2' long, but were milled from 14 and 16' red cedar planks.

In 1932, optional full length spray rails were standardized on all TVT models. The rails diagonally strengthened the hull sides and deflected rough water spray from climbing the smooth hull sides. Also, in sharp cornering the rudder effect prevented sliding.

Cortland began to experience difficult times as the general depression of the country during the mid 1930's slowed down outboard boat sales generally. In the early 1940's sales improved but in 1942 Cortland's three story factory building burned to the ground with the loss of many boats in process. The employment at this time had reached 75 persons.

A new one story, more fireproof, building was built on the same site with concrete floors and cement block walls, but the 65,000 sq. ft. of floor space of the original building was reduced to about 25,000 sq. ft. Also at this time, World War II was beginning to affect the pleasure boat market. The Peshtigo plant qualified for contracts to build life boats but Cortland, close to Syracuse, was in a critical labor area, and higher priority war time factories took over the labor market. Cortland's employment shrank to 16 persons near the end of the war and boat building materials were almost non-existent. After WWII, in 1946, there was a pent up demand for pleasure boats, but Western red cedar and white oak were scarce. It became necessary to stagger butt joints and end caulk the strip planks as full length cedar was unavailable.

Business improved in the late 1940's and in 1948 the Cortland plant expanded by buying an adjacent 10,000 sq. ft. factory building that had been warehousing overhead doors. It gave straight line access from Central Ave. to Elm St. In 1950, a sprinkler system was installed throughout the 35,000 sq. ft. of production facilities. The TVT product line was expanded from the basic 14' and 16' models to include 12' and 18' hulls in the open fishing and family runabout styles. Factory employment increased to over 100 workers.

In 1952, a 10,800 sq. ft. finished boat warehouse was built on property acquired on the north side of Elm St. The 16' side walls and pitched roof allowed the 14' and 16' TVT's to be stood on end. The capacity was approximately 300 boats. Several years later an additional warehouse on the same property increased the storage capacity to 500 units of hulls up to 20' in length.


LAPSTRAKES 1956 - 1968

During WWII, the West Coast Douglas fir plywood companies had successfully upgraded their plywood for U.S. government purposes and after the war 3/8" - 5 ply - marine plywood with phenolic waterproof resin became available for pleasure boat manufacturers. The plywood manufacturers supplied long lengths by end scarfing 4' x 8' panels to any length needed by boat builders. An early problem was corrected when tight cores and cross bands became standard. Also, the hull strake patterns nested efficiently in the 4' widths.

In the early 1950's, the Thompson factories returned to their boat building roots by changing from strip built to the lap strake clinker construction. The early rowing boats of circa 1910 were all clinker built. These early clinkers were clinch nailed by means of a clinching iron, but the 1950 lap strakes were designed with two small brass 6-32 machine bolts on the laps on 2" centers between each bent frame.

By 1957 the featured catalog models were:

Sea Skiff 14' x 64" 26" depth
Sea Coaster 16' x 67" 27" "
Off Shore 18' x 82" 38" "

The horsepower capacities ranged from 35 h.p. to 80 h.p. and the hull dimensions were more generous and comfortable than the TVT models.

In 1958, the Outboard Marine Corp. introduced a 50 h.p. Evinrude V-4 Starflite engine at the New York Boat Show that proved to be revolutionary. The engine was relatively light weight due to advances in zinc die casting technology. Also the convenience of standard electric starting, separate portable fuel tanks and fresh water flushing after usage in salt water, overcame much of the East Coast skepticism about outboard power.

The 14' and 16' lapstrake models sold well in the Finger lakes region. The 18' model with the 50 h.p. Starflight began to sell well in the salt water markets of Long Island, the Chesapeake and Barnegat Bays. The 38" amidships walk around hull depth appealed to the fishermen.

In 1961, a 19' Club Cruisette, day cabin cruiser matched up with the increasing outboard power options and sold well in the Finger Lakes region and a trailerable 21' Sea Lane model with 8' beam for twin outboards was introduced for the coastal markets. Also in 1961, a new 80 h.p. Volvo Penta inboard-outboard was offered as an optional power addition. These were well engineered, light weight packages and easily installed at the factory and soon became a volume seller.

By 1962, Cortland employment had leveled off at 225 persons and unit volume exceeded 2000 per year.


In 1962, Thompson of New York was acquired by the Chris Craft Corporation. A new fiberglass Corsair plant was built in Cortland in 1963. The Cortland Thompson wood boat production ceased in 1968. After 44 years, fiberglass had taken over the wood boat marketplace and the plant closing marked the end of Cortland's "Wooden Boat Era".

(Editor's note: The foregoing history of Thompson Brothers' Cortland, NY factory was written in December, 2003 by Robert N. Thompson. Mr. Thompson served as General Manager of this plant from 1948 until Thompson Bros. Boat Co. was divided into three separate companies in 1959. At that time he became President of the newly-formed Thompson Boat Company of New York.)

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