Grace & Speed – Excerpt – Chapter 19

By Andrew Wagner-Chazalon

Chapter Nineteen

Unraveling the mystery

 

One Saturday each July, thousands of people file onto the docks at Muskoka Wharf for the Antique and Classic Boat Society’s annual boat show. Ten thousand people will shuffle past a hundred or so boats on that day, studying them, dreaming about them, reminiscing about the wooden boats they’ve owned or ridden in or admired since childhood. Every boat is identified. Some have large wooden plaques temporarily mounted at their berths with the history of the boat and its notable achievements enshrined in mahogany and varnish. Others bear a simple sheet of paper with the basic information: owner’s name, boat’s name, year of construction, builder. What the sheets don’t reveal is that occasionally even that basic information is no more than educated guesswork.

Paul Hammond had worked around wooden boats off an on for years before he decided to buy one. The owner of a successful trucking firm in Bracebridge, he was often called on to move large wooden boats that had been sold or were being taken away for repairs. He has moved Kitty Hawk, which once belonged to Orville Wright, and he once moved a Chinese junk; his father, who founded the trucking firm, once moved a 56-foot steamship from Lake Muskoka to Lake of Bays, mounting it on a giant sled and towing it across the snow-covered roads.

“What I knew about wooden boats,” Paul said, “is that you couldn’t sleep the night before a move for fear you’d scratch them.”

Then, in 1994, Hammond got a call from Ruby Budd. Her husband, Aud, had recently passed away, and Ruby wondered if Paul would like to buy Aud’s old boat. Paul had heard of the boat from Ruby and Aud’s daughter, who had worked for him for many years. He was intrigued, and agreed to visit Ruby at her home in Milford Bay, a few minutes from Bracebridge on Lake Muskoka.

The boat was stored in a single slip boathouse which had been built to house the 28-foot boat and not much else. A single light bulb hanging from a cord was the only illumination, but it was enough to reveal a large boat hanging in a sling above the water. The leather upholstery was cracked, the canvas “navy top” was decayed, and there looked to be at least an inch of dust on the boat. The motor was completely seized, and the hull was so dry “you could have thrown a cat through the cracks,” Paul said, but it seemed to be in restorable shape so he agreed to buy it.

The lettering on the hull revealed that the boat was named Onweglyde III, but what kind of boat was it? There was no maker’s plate on the dash, no initials or signature written anywhere that could be seen. So who had built this boat, and when? Ruby had no idea – the boat had been her father-in-law’s, and had been in the boathouse when she and Aud had married nearly 50 years earlier. Although she lived beside the water, she had no love of it and certainly had no interest in boats. So in between tinkering with the motor, and waiting for the hull planks to soak up enough water to swell the cracks closed, Paul began to ask around.

Some said the boat was a Ditchburn, looking at the lines of the deck and the shape of the windshield. But that didn’t seem right. The lines were similar, but the finishing touches weren’t as fine as a Ditchburn. Others, old-timers who lived in the Milford Bay area, said the boat was built by Aud and his father, Herb Budd. That seemed to make sense. Both Aud and Herb had been house and cottage painters, but they were also renowned as boat finishers. They stripped and revarnished boats that were showing the effects of the sun, and in the earlier years they had done custom finishing work for some of the smaller boat building shops in the area, the places that produced a couple of boats a season and didn’t require the services of a full-time varnisher. They would have needed a boat to get to painting jobs – in fact, it wasn’t unusual to see four or five ladders lashed to the rails of the boat’s navy top, and there was still a paint-stained sheet of linoleum on the floor where the paint cans were piled. So why wouldn’t they have spent a quiet winter building their own boat?

Hammond began to share that theory around, to see whether others thought it made sense. Aud’s brother-in-law, Lionel Cope, certainly did not agree. “He laughed,” Paul said. “He said ‘They couldn’t build a boat! They couldn’t drive a nail straight. They were painters.’” Lionel had worked as a boat-varnisher in Port Carling for many years, and seemed a reliable source. He told Paul the boat wasn’t a Budd boat, it was a Clive Brown, and Herb Budd had acquired it from Brown as part of some sort of deal in the 1920s.

In the first half of the 20th century, there were dozens of small boat builders plying their trade in Muskoka. Most have been forgotten, some with good reason, but a few like Clive Brown stood out. In the workshop behind his home on McMurray Street in Bracebridge, he produced a couple of dozen gorgeous launches for wealthy clients. Fiercely independent, refusing even to have an assistant and certainly not willing to have an employer, Brown was nonetheless revered as a master builder and a perfectionist. Some of his clients were wealthy and powerful seasonal residents who knew their boats and valued craftsmanship – Brown built for renowned families such as the Mellons of Pittsburgh, and for people like Carl Borntraeger and Nelson Davis, whose knowledge of wooden boats made their collections famous in boating circles. He also built more modest vessels, cedar and mahogany runabouts that were every bit as well built but whose finishing touches were a bit more modest than the millionaires’ boats.

Whatever he built, though, Brown poured into it both his craftsmanship and his eccentricities. His designs may not have varied much from those being used by the larger builders, but his techniques make his boats unmistakable to those who study the details. Hammond enlisted the help of some of those detail-oriented people, and a consensus began to emerge. Boat restoration experts studied the construction of Paul’s boat, looking at the pattern of the frames and the way planks were attached with the same degree of care an archaeologist would use to decide whether an arrowhead was carved by a Mohawk or an Ojibwa hunter. Where others could see the fine lines and delicate shape that marks a boat as being Muskoka-built, they noted the use of bolts rather than clench nails to fasten the planks, and other details that made the boat unique. And they concluded that Onweglyde III is almost certainly a Clive Brown, likely built in the late-teens or early-twenties.

There are still mysteries attached to the boat: who was the boat built for, and what happened to Onweglyde I and II? How did the Budds come to have as their workboat a fine launch that, even at the prices Brown charged, could have been beyond their means and certainly was beyond their needs? It seems unlikely those questions will ever be answered. When Brown died in 1959, the Budds had already been using the Onweglyde for nearly 30 years; anyone who knew the details of its origins has long since disappeared.

In the 1990s, Paul Hammond registered the Onweglyde III for the Antique and Classic Boat Society’s annual show. When he arrived, he was presented with a paper sheet to place on the seat: Onweglyde III, it read, built circa 1920 by Clive Brown. Sometimes, it seems, nearly certain is as close as one is going to get.

 

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