Vol. 91 No. 3

by Lori Nelson


In 1897, an enterprising young man left his hometown in Barrie, Ontario and journeyed west. When he reached Rat Portage, he stepped off the train, set down his bags, looked around, and decided that it was here that he would set up his business.

He unloaded the rowboats he’d brought with him, and hung out his shingle advertising “Boats for Rent”. So successful was his venture that in the fall he travelled east and when he returned he brought with him a railway carload of skiffs. Eventually, he began building boats himself.

The young man was John William Stone. The business he established, the J.W. Stone Boat Manufacturing Company, became synonymous with fine craftsmanship and superior boat building, and was known throughout western Canada as the place to have your boat built.

John (Jack) Stone was born in Barrie, Ontario in 1875 and it was there, on the shores of Lake Simcoe, that he learned his trade as a boat builder. When news of the gold mining boom on Lake of the Woods hit the newspapers, young Jack saw an opportunity and knew that his skills could be put to a good and profitable use in the budding lakeshore community of Rat Portage. His first summer in business proved him right.

He set up shop in a boathouse on the harbourfront, just south of the foot of First Street. Working primarily on his own, Stone built canoes, skiffs and sailboats to rent and sell.

When motor launches made their appearance on the lake around 1900 a whole new avenue of business opened up for local boat builders. J.W. Stone’s business thrived. By 1904, he had five men working for him and even with the increased manpower he was forced to refuse a number of orders from customers wanting a new boat that season. With his crew of skilled shipwrights, mechanics, and carpenters working long, hard hours, his inventory expanded to include duck boats, sailing canoes, ice boats, rowing shells, barges, as well as the new motor launches.

Within a few years, the business had expanded to the extent that larger premises were required. In May of 1906 construction of a boathouse at the foot of Main Street South began. In addition, a paint shop, livery, machine shop, lumber shed, and a building known as the Water Street building were added. In June of that year, the business was incorporated as the J.W. Stone Boat Manufacturing Company.

Black and white photographic portrait of John W. Stone as a young man.

John W. Stone

A year later the company was being touted as one of the leading businesses in town, employing between 14 and 20 men and supplying a market that extended far beyond this area.

The local newspaper applauded not only the company’s growth but also its positive effect on the community as a tourist destination.

The growth of this business has been phenomenal. It is now one of the biggest establishments of its kind in Western Canada and the craft, both sailing and motor, which have been turned out of its workshops has done more to popularize the Lake of the Woods as a pleasure resort than any other single agency.

Black and white photograph of the J.W. Stone Boat Manufacturing Co.’s second location was on the west side of the foot of Main Street.

The J.W. Stone Boat Manufacturing Co.’s second location was on the west side of the foot of Main Street.

Understandably as the company’s reputation spread, their business and production increased. Their output for the 1906-1907 building season was 16 sailboats, 21 skiffs, 5 motor skiffs, 15 gasoline launches, 5 barges, and 21 punts.

The highlight of the 1908 season was the launching of the Lottie Mc. At 45 feet in length with a nine foot beam, she was the largest gasoline launch on the lake at the time. Built of oak from stem to stern, her main cabin could comfortably seat 17 people with another 17 people being accommodated in the aft cabin. The boat was also equipped with a refrigerator and lavatory. Her engine, a 25 h.p. Hunter, carried her along at a speed of 12 mph.

Owner William McVeigh, of the Commercial Hotel in Kenora, wrote the following to Stone:

During the two seasons I have had the Lottie Mc, this boat has run 5,000 miles with little or no trouble. She is seaworthy in every respect and can face heavy seas as well as any of the larger boats. The thoroughness and comfort of her equipment is remarked at by everyone who goes on board of her, and I am pleased to be able to acknowledge that your firm is able to turn out such a creditable example of boat building.

The cost of materials for the boat was roughly $192.00 and that included everything from the oak ribs, planking, and keel to the paint, screws, wheel, and awning. Labour, at 32c/hour, totalled $710.49.

In 1909, George Galt, a Winnipeg camper and noted sailor on the lake, came to Jack Stone with a request. He had drawn up plans for a motor launch and wanted Stone to build it for him. While the request wasn’t particularly unusual, the design of the boat was. Working under the assumption that a fast design in sailboats would work equally well for motor-powered vessels, Galt had designed a launch with a scow-type hull.

While the boat was under construction it was the object of much interest and considerable derision by those accustomed to the more traditional lines of a motor launch. But when the boat was launched in mid-August, its trial run put to rest any doubts about its design. In a letter to J.W. Stone, Galt wrote:

The launch you have built for me upon somewhat novel lines is a complete success. It surpasses my expectations, being the fastest pleasure launch on Lake of the Woods.

That summer Galt won the Bryan Cup, awarded to the overall winner in a series of motor launch races sponsored by the Lake of the Woods Yacht Club.

Stone-built sailboats were also successful on the race course. Perennial favourites in the regattas were Freya and Bubbles, both built by the Stone Boat Company, and both regular leaders of the fleet.

For the next 20 years, the boat building company continued to provide for its loyal customers. The same names appear time and time again int eh company’s records – one year ordering a sailboat, the next a family launch, or a dinghy. There were often references to a customer wanting a boat just like one Stone had built for so-and-so.

Black and white photograph. The Stone-built launch, Atus, with some of the members of the Stone family aboard. The boat is at Bush Island with the townscape in the background.

The Stone-built launch, Atus, with some of the members of the Stone family aboard. The boat is at Bush Island with the townscape in the background.

Jack Stone encountered a setback though. In the early hours of the morning on February 19, 1928, a disastrous blaze broke out in his boathouse. Fanned by a 20 degree below zero blizzard sweeping in from the north, the fire made short work of the building and destroyed a number of plans and patterns. A new launch near completion was destroyed and practically every rowboat and canoe owned by the company was in the part of the building consumed by the blaze. If that wasn’t discouraging enough, while efforst and attention were directed at extinguishing the fire, thieves took advantage of the situation and raided the machine shop, making off with valuable tools and equipment.

Stone, however, remained undaunted and quickly recovered from the fire. Construction of a larger building began in March and was completed in mid-April. While the re-building was in progress, construction of a 40′ launch and a 30′ launch proceeded in one of the other buildings.

Black and white photograph showing several launches under construction at the J.W. Stone Boat Manufacturing workshop.

Several launches under construction at the J.W. Stone Boat Manufacturing workshop.

Two years later, the company produced its crowning glory, the Minniwawa.

In the fall of 1929, Stone returned from Winnipeg after securing an order for a cruiser from E.W. Kneeland, president of the Kneeland Grain Company. Since it was the largest boat ever to be built by the company, a new slip with a steel cradle and wooden enclosure was built to accomodate it.

The boat was 69-1/2 feet in length, with a 13-1/2 foot beam, and was driven by two 175 h.p. Scripps twin engines. Its cruising speed was 15 mph. The frame was built of heavy white oak with 1-1/2″ cypress planking and an oak deck. The luxurious interior boasted two elaborately furnished in mahogany and white enamel. There were sleeping accommodations for 16 plus crew, three heads, and a large galley equipped with a gas range and spacious refrigerator. When the $40,000 yacht was completed it was described as “absolutely the last work in luxury and boat construction.” On May 31, 1930, the boat was launched and christened Minniwawa.

J.W. Stone’s service to lake people extended beyond boat building and repair. He was often asked to report on lake levels, attend to grocery deliveries, and even accept delivery of new boats from other companies. In addition, his business involved real estate, tourist promotion, camp construction, a boat livery service, and the Star car dealership.

Jack Stone played a prominent role in the community as one of the town’s leading businessmen, a town councillor, and a member of the Board of Trade. But it was for his boats that Stone was best known.

When he died in 1932 at the age of 57, the business stayed in his family. The company expanded its holdings, purchasing the Anderson Boat Company in 1933. Finally in 1953, the building and property of the Stone Boat Company were purchased by Gordon Hollinsworth who fromed the Hollinsworth Marine & Machine Company.

The end of the J.W. Stone Boat Manufacturing Company marked the beginning of the end of the wooden boat industry in Kenora. Nevertheless, all these years later, the name Stone is still synonymous with fine boat building on Lake of the Woods.

Did you know?

There is archaeological evidence of people living on the Lake of the Woods for thousands of years.  Radiocarbon dating places humans at the north end of the lake as early as 200 B.C.