Old Town and Peterborough – protagonists or pals?

Roger Young

display sample collector
It is likely that we’ve all heard stories of how Peterborough Canoe Co. bought a small number (6 or 7) of canoes from the Old Town factory in the early 1900’s. Supposedly, this was a bit of ‘polite’ research or industrial espionage – get hold of a competitor’s product, take it apart, study how it was made, learn the opponent’s trade secrets if you can, then make one of your own. And, it seems, there were Peterborough models which thereafter conspicuously imitated Old Town designs. But what if it was more than this? What if the relationship was, even briefly, far more commercial than rival?

While recently searching for something entirely unrelated amongst the OT build records of the early teens of the last century, I came across a startling (at least, to me) number of sales by Old Town to Peterborough Canoe. In all, I found some 68 canoes purchased by Peterborough between late April and early August 1914. In those 15 weeks, Peterborough had to have been one of the more significant customers of Old Town canoes. About half of these were shipped on one day alone - 25 May 1914. In all, Peterborough purchased thirty-eight 16’ CS grade HW’s; seventeen 17’ CS grade HW’s; eighteen 18’ CS grade IF’s; five 18’ CS grade HW’s; one 16’ CS grade CR; one 17’ CS grade CR; two 15’ CS grade 50#’s; three 9’ CS grade dinghies. This PCC ‘buying flurry’ seems to have ended as abruptly as it began.

True, there were other Canadian outlets which were multiple buyers as well over those same months and years, though not nearly in the same quantity – stores in Chapleau, North Bay, Ottawa, Stratford, Toronto, Montreal and Quebec, to name a few. But Peterborough Canoe was not only the largest Canadian outlet by far for that brief period in 1914, it seemingly out-rivalled even some major US purchasers over those few weeks. What to make of this near symbiosis? Why were they bought in such numbers, and what did Peterborough Canoe do with these craft? How were they re-sold – simply offered as is, or re-branded? Are there Peterborough’s out there that look suspiciously like an Old Town? A mystery waiting to be unravelled.

I have merely stumbled upon the ‘scene’. I’d love some help trying to find some answers. I have begun to poll others who might be able to contribute, such as Roger MacGregor, Dick Persson, Benson Gray, John Summers, Jeremy Ward. All have been quite interested and amused to learn the ‘news’. No firm explanations as yet. Anyone else care to chime in with some thoughts? All contributions welcome. I’m pulling together a data base of the relevant serial #’s of those canoes bought by Peterborough.

Roger Y.
Getting a handle on "old time business tactics" among the canoe builders/manufacturers is very interesting. There appears to be more "friendly interaction" among them than one would expect from companies seemingly in competition with one another.
Hi Roger,

I'm not sure what you're looking for in your poll. Just random ideas on why Peterborough might have ordered from Old Town? I wouldn't have a clue, though I could guess that they simply needed to fill orders quickly, they let their customers know that they could import from Old Town, or any of a variety of other guesses. Surely a re-branded Old Town labeled as Peterborough would be plainly obvious but I've never heard of one. There's no way this was "research"... they wouldn't need 38 HWs just for research. The fact that all 68 canoes ordered were CS-grade suggests that there was economy in mind. Not sure what else can be said.

The observation from the records is somewhat interesting, I suppose, but it wouldn't seem to be too mysterious or devious or else Old Town might not have agreed to the sales. Clearly they knew who the buyer was!

Denis, Kathy, thanks for the comments.

Michael: one of the theories for the sudden bulk purchase is that Peterborough may have had an interruption (fire ?) in its production facility, and was looking to temporarily fill orders, economically (the CS grade solution) for customers rather than lose them. Another thought is that there was/were a customer(s) looking for a type of canoe that Peterborough did not have in ready supply. But that would likely mean someone like a major corporation.

Another thought occurred to me after I had posted. I'm wondering whether these could have been bought by PCC to fill orders for summer camps? A good number of the OT canoes were painted slate grey, but there were some reds and others, too. Dinghies might fit into summer camp use, but I would have thought something a bit larger than 9' would be more practical for teaching youngsters. Having a large shipment sent out on 25 May would fit the summer camp possibility, as most would open early in July, with set-up taking place in mid to late June.

Just a thought or two. All other contributions are welcome.

Roger- summer camp idea certainly fits with CS-grade canoes, and maybe the variety of canoes and lengths does as well.

Roger, guess that explains the typical old town profile deck on the late '20s peterborough sponson canoe i had... Sure was rainy in Haliburton today wasnt it!
Hi Rob:

Roger MacGregor and I tossed the possibility of a military purchase contract back and forth, but tended to discard it. This took place some months before the war broke out. However, it's a plausible reason when you consider that nearly 25% of the total were slate, auto grey and pearl grey. The other 75% were either red or green, with a couple of other colours mixed in. Could be that some were sent off to the military, I suppose, but the orders seem to have halted before hostilities actually broke out.

My guess is that this was simply a way for Peterborough to deliver on a large order which might have otherwise been lost if they could not fill it quickly (i.e. before the summer was over). Demand forecasting has always been difficult for canoe builders and there are indications that Kennebec bought partially finished hulls from Morris in a similar situation. I've never heard of any military uses for canoes in the First World War so it doesn't seem likely that the Royal navy placed the order.

Maybe the king and his entorage were coming to town and they wanted to go for a paddle? Lots of security was needed as well as canoes for all the royals.

I like the idea of potential big order being lost if they couldn't fill it in a certain time frame, loss of factory due to fire or labor strike or???, the government's Royal Canadian Canoe Police needed to stock up on their mode of transportation, camp Chipmunk needed to get canoes for their summer programs,...