How old is it?

Benson Gray

Canoe History Enthusiast
Staff member
Founding dates and confounding dates

A common question with any wooden canoe is "How old is it?" which doesn't seem like it should be difficult to answer. This is likely to be even more frequent question at the Assembly this year which is celebrating centenarian canoes that are over 100 years old. Many canoes have no documentation available so we are often left to guess. Some manufacturers like Old Town, Carleton, Kennebec, Seliga, Shell Lake, and a few others have bits of original documentation surviving so we may know some more details. This can be helpful but creates a new quandary about which date to use. The earliest date listed on a record is usually the "Half Built" or similar date when the planking was finished and it was removed from the form. The latest date may be when the warranty card was returned by the final customer. Other important dates can include when the canoe was finished, shipped to the dealer, or sold to the customer. It is not unusual to have years elapse between many of these dates so the range of choices can be huge.

This dating problem becomes even more difficult when applied to builders. For example, the Old Town Canoe Company has been operating under the current name since January 23rd, 1903 when Maine's Secretary of State approved the name change from the Robertson and Old Town Canoe Company which had been formed on January 16th, 1902. Most of the company's founders had previously operated the Indian Old Town Canoe Company which was first described in a local newspaper article on October 13th, 1900. Old Town currently claims 1898 as their founding date because their marketing director in the 1990s decided that they probably started making canoes a few years before officially forming the company. Their first employee was Alfred Wickett who appears to have learned the canoe building trade from E. M. White starting in December of 1895 and from Joseph Ranco who was another early employee. Ranco had a canoe building shop announced in the local newspaper on April 28th, 1888.

Shaw & Tenney is an oar and paddle maker from Orono, Maine with an even longer history. They advertised 1858 as their founding date and as being the "Successor to T. J. Shaw & Company of Boston" since at least 1919. The exact source of this founding date isn't clear. An old sign shown on their website lists an 1856 date. They were first identified as Shaw & Tenney in the 1908 issue of the Maine Register. Previous issues back to 1861 had listed them as W. C. Taylor and Company. The purchase of the Taylor company by T. J. Shaw of Boston was announced in the local newspaper on September 9th, 1900. Taylor was also shown as an owner of the Orono Manufacturing Company in 1869. This company was first incorporated in 1847. The Shaw company of Boston has a similarly long history. A set of T. J. Shaw's oars were displayed at Faneuil Hall by the Charitable Mechanic Association in September, 1850.

The White Canoe company is more consistent with their 1915 catalog cover indicating a 1889 founding date and all later references also used this date. It is interesting that they weren't big enough to advertise in the local newspaper until 1891 and didn't get listed in the Maine Register until 1894.

The Morris Canoe company catalogs had greater variability. Their 1916 catalog states that "The Morris canvas-covered canoes have been on the market for twenty-six years" indicating a 1890 start date. His circa 1912 motor boat catalog says that the canvas covered canoe "was first advertised and put on the market by me in 1889." The 1919 catalog says "Mr. Morris began the manufacture and sale of a Canvas Covered Canoe thirty-five years ago" which pushes the founding back to 1884 when he was 18 years old. His first listing in the Maine Register was in 1892 and the first known catalog was published in 1893.

Therefore, the exact age of your canoe, paddle, or the manufacturer who built it may not have an obvious or easy answer.

75482.jpg Ranco-April-28-1888.jpg ROTC-OTC.jpg FRONT.JPG FRONT.JPG old-sign-1856.jpg Taylor-sold-9-Sept-1900.jpg Shaw-1919-SG-Trade-Directory.jpg front.jpg
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It appears that E. H. Gerrish and the Gerrish Canoe Company had a similar problem with selecting a founding date. The advertisement from 1897 claimed "20 Years Experience" which implies an 1877 start date. The one from 1899/1900 lists 1875 and the one from 1909 shows 1878. It is interesting that he wasn't listed in the Maine Register as a canoe builder until 1881.


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