The Mystery and Mastery of searching the build records


I marvel at the ease and skill of those members that respond to the requests for serial number searches. Has anyone figured out how to search backward with details of the canoe's history to find a serial number? I bought a canoe 30 years ago and got the build record from Old Town. I then sold the canoe and lost the printed record. A few years ago I bought the canoe back and in the meantime the serial numbers have turned into a bunch of scratches. I have tried smoking, rubbing, wetting and lighting but no luck. I do remember that the canoe is a 17' HW sold originally at Staff Jennings boats in Portland, Oregon. Digging through many layers of paint the first coat on the present canvas was blue. Staff Jennings still operates in Portland and they established the business in 1929.

I have tried searching through the build records one by one, looking for a 17' HW sold by Staff Jennings in Portland. No luck. I think I have established that Staff Jennings did not start selling Old Town canoes immediately. I may have over- looked the right build record or perhaps I have not gone far enough forward from 1929. I may be wrong but there appears to be five digits to the serial number.

Any suggestions for improving my search methods before I go blind would be very much appreciated.

Thanks to the experts. R.C.
An expert is usually defined as anyone who is from out of town so there is no shortage of them here in cyberspace. The short answer is that there is no easy way to find an individual Old Town record by anything other than a serial number without a lot of eye strain. The chart at may help if you can narrow down the date range. The bad news is that this chart shows that it is highly unlikely to find a five digit serial number on anything which was shipped after 1929. You can reduce the list of likely candidates substantially if you can identify even a few digits, especially the first few. I checked the database and didn't find one there. Good luck,

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Thanks for the reply Benson. I can see by the chart that at least 6 numbers must be there. I have gone back to the stems and my rubbings and with the power of suggestion I am seeing all sorts of numbers. Guess I will just have to plod through the build record cards one by one.

You are welcome to post some digital images of the numbers here and you will probably get some more 'expert' opinions. Share the fun,

hey crosscuts:

As Benson says, we who look love a challenge. Especially us retired old @$*&^ who need to find little jobs to fill up the day. Give us what you've got, or even something close to what you think the # might be, and let us have a go at it. Two heads are better than one; four eyes better than two, and if we all put our heads together ............

Roger Y.
Mystery numbers

Roger, thanks for the support. The only numbers that stand out very strongly are the 17's. Not much help there.

There are no readable numbers in the bow but on the stern starting from the left and moving right there is a smudge X, X, X, 8, 5, X, 17.

Benson is right that there has to be six numbers.

Thanks for any help. Watch your eyes.

Hmmmm. Not having anything to go on in the first three digits is going to make this awfully difficult. We can likely assume the first digit is a "1". That leaves us potentially still looking through 100,000 build records for a 17' HW canoe. If we could ascertain the second digit, we're automatically down to 10,000 records, which narrows the field considerably.

Even if you can't give us a positive id on the second digit, is there any faint resemblance at all to something between "0" and "9"? Or, maybe even try looking from the other way around - how many of the possibilities between "0" and "9" would you say it is not? e.g., can't be a 2, a 5, etc. Each time we can discard a 'possible', we narrow the field by 10,000. Even a "best guess" could be helpful here.

Try the same for the third digit; what you think it might be, what you're fairly certain it is not.

If all that fails, seems to me that the last resort may be an individual 'crawl' through the records, beginning at 100,000. There's a way to speed up this process, but no real way to avoid a lot of eye strain. If you're certain that you have an HW model, I would focus my eyes on that part of the record and simply click your way through the files as rapidly as possible. Simply look for the HW's and forget the rest. When your eyes spot an HW, look next for a 17' er. Only when you have those two features together do you need to stop and look at the serial # to see if you can find the "8" and "5" in the place of the 4th and 5th digits, respectively. Then, any recorded shipping destination will likely confirm that you have the right canoe.

I have found that it's possible to 'flip' through about 1000 records in 15-20 minutes, but the strain on one's eyes grows after a while. Perhaps we could divide up the task. But, first, have another 'go' at that second digit, if you can. It is very critical to narrowing the task. The third one will help, too.

If anyone else has a better, faster way to do this, let's hear it. As things stand, such a task is a manual, card-by-card search.
Actually, if I'm thinking correctly, if you assume "1" for the first digit and the two identified digits are correct, that leaves only 3 unknown digits, which means only 1000 possible records (10 times 10 times 10). Maybe not a 15-minute search because you'll be searching multiple sets, but at least it's not 100,000 records!
Well, my eyes have not given out yet but a search of all the numbers that match your xxx85x pattern between 9885x to 16585x produced no 17 foot canoes that shipped to Oregon. The HW model was last listed in the 1953 catalog so yours isn't likely to have a serial number higher than 165K. The only Oregon canoe that I noticed is shown below and it doesn't match the serial number pattern. Can you provide any images of the numbers on the stems?

The other interesting discovery was that the Boy Scouts were buying aluminum colored canoes in 1939 so the popularity of this color pre-dates the invention of the aluminum canoe by at least six years as shown in the second attached record below. This may also be one of the earliest examples of the wooden Ojibway model which appears to have never been listed in the catalog.



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I, too, went through all the possible numbers from 100,000 to 171,999 and could find no 17' HW model that went to Oregon. I did find 47 HW canoes in the 17' length where 1XX85X would work when the 'blanks' were filled in. I can give you a list of those serial numbers if you like. I did NOT find records for two possibilities: 145854 and 145851; those build cards seemed to be missing. That leaves two possibilities unaccounted for, at least in my search.

And thanks, Michael, for correcting me on the actual number of cards that needed to be checked. Nice that it was closer to your count rather than mine.

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Here's something close, serial # 82856, a 17' CR, shipped to Portland, OR. I'm still looking.


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Here's an even better possibility, # 84855, a 17' HW sent to Portland. This one had sponsons and rowlocks as well as a mast seat and step. There are altogether 15 canoes of the 17' HW style that will fit the XX85X possibility between serial #'s 80,000 and 97,999, plus the one CR model noted above. Benson has already checked the 98,000 and 99,000 ranges.



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The power of suggestion allows all sorts of numbers to be seen. There is no indication of a first digit creating a series of six. From the rubbings there could be a series X?- X- 7- 4 stamped over 6 or vice versa- 8- 5. I can't find any numbers dating from 1929 forward on my disks so I don't know what the first digit would be counting forward from 1929.

I have all the disks numbered in sequence. Has anyone reported missing years? There is nothing to photograph. The best evidence is the rubbings but I doubt they would photograph clearly.

In past searches I found that the Beebe Co. sold Old Towns for a number of year prior to and after the establishment of Staff Jennings. Eventually Staff Jennings seems to have taken over as dealer.

Thanks for everyone's interest and effort.

No evidence of oarlocks or sponsons.

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Roger Young said:
I did NOT find records for two possibilities: 145854 and 145851

Those two records are misfiled at scan numbers 16367 and 16368 as shown below but they didn't go to Oregon either.

crosscuts said:
I can't find any numbers dating from 1929 forward on my disks so I don't know what the first digit would be counting forward from 1929. I have all the disks numbered in sequence. Has anyone reported missing years?

There have occasionally been cases of problems with bad copies of the build record CD-ROMs so let us know if you need a replacement.

I have just looked at the records in the x7485 and x7685 format from 87485 to 157685 along with 74685 and 76485 but didn't found any Oregon canoes.



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Benson Gray said:
An expert is usually defined as anyone who is from out of town so there is no shortage of them here in cyberspace.

Actually the defination of "expert" is easy if you break it down into it's root words or derivitives.

"Ex" means former or has been. "Spurt" is a drip under pressure!