Excerpt from Grace & Speed

Chapter Five

Fine work from a small shop

As the sun rose higher, a beam of light entered Julius Borneman’s workshop on the shores of Gull Lake. He frowned slightly as the light illuminated the dust specks dancing in the air, the last thing he wanted to see as he put the final coat of varnish on his latest boat. He’d been varnishing since first light, making the most of the lack of dust in the early morning air, and he hoped the final coat would soon be dry.

This much varnish on a boat didn’t seem right to his eye. Perhaps he was old-fashioned, but he preferred the traditional look, a cypress hull painted white, with varnish limited to the topsides and interiors. But the Miller family had wanted the entire boat built of mahogany and varnished, and customers had to be catered to. Particularly customers who lived on a grand estate up on Lake Rosseau. Particularly customers who were buying boats so soon after the war.

The Great War hadn’t been kind to Julius, his younger brother, Herman, and their cousin Abe Wishman who worked alongside him in the boatshop.

The Great War hadn’t been kind to Julius, his younger brother, Herman, and their cousin Abe Wishman who worked alongside him in the boatshop.

Most of their neighbours in Gravenhurst remained as friendly as they always had been, recognizing that the Bornemans, the Wishmans and other German families had been born and raised in Canada and had no love for the Kaiser and his army.

But there had been a few mutterings against them and the other families from Germania, the hamlet a few miles outside town where Julius’s grandparents had staked out their farm in the 1880s. And as the death tolls from Europe rose higher, the voices grew louder.

Still, the war years had been boom years in Muskoka, particularly in the years before America entered the war – travel to Europe was impossible, so more Americans chose to come north for their holidays – and boat builders across the district had been busy. Over on the other side of town, Herb Ditchburn was doing so well that he’d built a new, brick factory in 1915 when the old wooden shop burned down.

Julius had changed locations too, moving a few yards inland in 1914 to turn the town’s old power plant into a boatworks. He and his brother had been on Gull Lake since 1908 when they built a two-storey boat livery at the foot of Brock Street. It was a good location from which to rent canoes and rowboats, and even with a competing livery right next door their business had thrived. In the summer as many as two dozen canoes and rowing skiffs bobbed at the dock in front of the workshop, waiting for local residents and summer tourists to rent one for a few hours of fun. When the lake froze over and the tourists went home, the brothers built more canoes and rowboats.

They learned the skills from other boat builders in the area and by copying other boats they’d seen. They were meticulous workers with a good understanding of how a boat should come together, and it wasn’t long before people started asking them to apply their skills to build something larger, to build a motor launch just like those Mr. Ditchburn was producing.

The Bornemans were happy to oblige. One of their first boats was a slim, 18-footer built for Pete Kohn. Not even wide enough for two people to sit side-by-side, equipped with a small motor mounted on the floor and a rope tiller for steering, it slipped quickly through the water, bringing envious glances from the rowers and paddlers. That same year, 1909, they built something a bit more ambitious, a 23-foot motor launch named Ruth. They had no way of knowing it would be one of the few boats of theirs that would survive into the next century.

To build these ever-larger and more complex launches, the Bornemans simply did what they’d always done, what most of the small builders around the lakes did: they studied what others were building, copied what they liked and innovated a way around features they didn’t care for. Nobody seemed to worry about copyrighting a hull shape, and above-the-waterline design elements were varied enough that each builder retained his own unique look, even if the distinctions were subtle. Since Ditchburn was the largest boat builder in town, it wasn’t surprising that Julius and Herman mimicked his designs.

The early motor launches from both shops had a pronounced deck crown that was carried through to both the oversized engine hatches and the arched windshields. But this was 1919, and styles had changed.

The early motor launches from both shops had a pronounced deck crown that was carried through to both the oversized engine hatches and the arched windshields. But this was 1919, and styles had changed.

The boat Julius was finishing had a more subtle deck crown and an upward sweep to the deck just before the windshield, and the windshield itself was square rather than arched, just like those being built by Herb Ditchburn. Some of the interior elements, like the carved curlicue on the arms of the rear seat, also evoked touches used by Ditchburn and others.

Stepping back to study his handiwork, Julius’s gaze lingered over the transom. This was the part of the boat he had always liked best, a complex series of curves that gave the boat its character. It wasn’t easy to build a boat that looked good and performed well, and the lines of the transom had an impact on both aspects of the boat’s design. Some of his favourite boats had an extreme curvature at the transom, coupled with a pronounced set of “hips” that made the boat look pretty and ride well. He recalled the Torpitt, the launch he’d built for Torpitt Lodge on Sparrow Lake. It was a big boat meant to carry guests and their luggage from the train station to the lodge, and he smiled as he recalled a photograph someone had taken of the boat on regatta day.

The boat wasn’t riding quite right in the water in that picture, which was hardly surprising given what it was carrying and towing. Packed with at least 15 passengers, it was towing a long line of rowboats down the lake, each of them filled with smiling guests.

The boat wasn’t riding quite right in the water in that picture, which was hardly surprising given what it was carrying and towing. Packed with at least 15 passengers, it was towing a long line of rowboats down the lake, each of them filled with smiling guests.

The boat immediately behind Torpitt was even more heavily laden, its gunwales mere inches above the water as an entire brass band stood and played a salute.

Chuckling at the thought, Julius applied the last lick of varnish, sealed the can, then sauntered outside to enjoy the feel of the rising sun. It was a good boat; it was going to be a good year.

In the early years of the last century, there were numerous small builders like the Bornemans plying their trade around the lakes. The brothers were unique in a couple of respects, though. For one thing, they built even their largest boats in canoe fashion, bending steamed ribs around a mold and planking the boat upside down, rather than building the boat rightside up on heavy wooden frames. The resulting boats were light, but also had a more rounded bottom and tended to roll a bit in a cross wind.

The other thing that made the Bornemans unique is that they didn’t stay in the boat business. Many builders had the craft in their blood. Even though they could make more money building homes and cottages, they kept coming back to the boat work they loved. The Bornemans, though, moved on to other things. In the mid-twenties, likely facing increased competition from larger builders like Herb Ditchburn, they closed their boat shop and opened a Ford dealership and garage. In 1937, wanting a business his children could take over, Julius sold the garage and opened Gravenhurst’s first movie theatre. It still stands on the town’s main street although it stopped showing movies years ago.

But even though the Borneman family moved away from boat building, a handful of the vessels they crafted continued to ply the local waters. The Llansakes, which Julius and Herman built for the Miller family of Llanllar estate, remained with the family until 1957 when Mrs. Miller traded it in on a new Greavette. A cottager named Bob Purves was at the Greavette plant when the boat arrived and bought it on sight, paying $1,800 for it. He stored it in a friend’s boathouse for two years until he could get his own boathouse built, and later passed it on to his son Robert Purves.

The Llansakes is one of only three Bornemans known to exist today. Even Julius Borneman didn’t have one of his own boats: when he died in 1947 he owned a Greavette, which he looked after with meticulous and loving care.

– End of Chapter Five – 

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