From Wooden Canoe: the Journal of the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association, Issue 104, 24(2): 6-12.
Copyright 2001, Wooden Canoe Heritage Association and Patrick F. Chapman
For a fuller accounting of the Willits brothers and their canoes, see my book The Willits Brothers and Their Canoes
You Take No Risk in Ordering from Us
The Willits Brothers and Their Canoes
by Patrick F. Chapman
Old Town, Maine. Peterborough, Ontario. Canton, New York. We instantly associate these locations with the great canoe makers of their time. Old Town. Peterborough, Rushton. The companies and their canoes are revered. For those of us in the Pacific Northwest, Tacoma, Washington, and Willits Brothers top that list.
From the first canoe they built in 1905 while still school boys in Des Moines, Iowa, to the last one finished following Floyd's death in 1962 in Tacoma, Earl and Floyd Willits built floating masterpieces in wood. With the exception of brief periods, including service to the United States during World War I, they spent a lifetime producing just under a thousand of their "double-planked canoes." As they stated in their 1935 catalog, "for utility and service, our canoes are decidedly superior to the canvas covered canoes." They must have believed that claim because for nearly 60 years they built only one model of canoe.
Earl C. and Floyd C. Willits' family roots can be traced back to Richard "Willets" who immigrated to New York from England in the 1640s. Over the generations, the family gradually migrated west, finally ending up in Mercer County, Illinois. Earl was born there, in New Boston, on November 22, 1889. He was the fourth child of Clinton Homer Willits (possibly Homer Clinton) and Adda Kiddoo Willits. He joined his siblings Clyde O., Dwight E., Ray C., and Ruth V. Willits. Floyd was born in Muscatine, Iowa, a neighboring township across the Mississippi River, on March 13, 1892. Since Clinton was a carpenter and building contractor, it is possible that he moved his family across the river to Muscatine for business reasons prior to Floyd's birth. The children's mother, Adda, died in 1894, leaving Clinton a widower with five young children to care for. Clinton would eventually remarry and have another son, Leonard, but not until shortly before Floyd had graduated from high school.
After Adda's death, the family moved to Des Moines, Iowa, where Earl and Floyd built the first Willits canoe, a 13-footer in 1905 at the high school. They used it on a local reservoir, but apparently never built another like it. In 1907 and 1908, portions of the family moved to the west coast. Dwight and Earl moved to Tacoma in January 1907, followed by Clinton, Ruth, and Floyd in September 1908. While their father and brother worked as building contractors and carpenters, both Earl and Floyd finished their education at Tacoma High School, graduating in 1911 and 1913, respectively, when they were each 21 years old. During their schooling in Tacoma they became serious about their careers as canoe builders, perhaps because they were older than the typical student. They focused on studying mechanical drawing, woodwork, and applied sciences, all of which would serve them well as they perfected the design and construction of their canoes.
The business blossomed slowly. Between 1908 and 1911 they built three canoes. The first of these they kept for themselves until it was destroyed in 1962 (See photo, page 12). It wasn't until June 1913 that they sold their first used canoe to Frank Lund of Victoria, British Columbia. It was one which they had built in 1911; the price is not recorded in their build records. The price of a canoe built in 1910, however, is; it sold in 1916 for $35. From their record book it appears that the first unused canoe they sold was built in 1913 and sold in March 1915 for $65 to F. T. Callendar of Tacoma. In 1917 Dwight Willits, their older brother, bought the twelfth canoe they built in Tacoma for only $35, perhaps reflecting a family discount. No canoes were built in 1912, and only one was made in 1913.
Prior to 1914, canoe building would have been difficult for the brothers because they had no shop to work in and the family moved to different houses on a regular basis. It would have been a challenge to dedicate the space needed to accommodate the building form, machinery, and tools required in a garage or basement. For brief periods following their graduation from high school, the brothers held jobs outside of their canoe business and likely had little time to devote to building canoes. According to Tacoma city directories, from 1911 through 1914 Earl was a draftsman for the Northern Pacific Railway Company, and Floyd was listed as a painter in 1911 and 1912. The first listing of either brother in association with canoes occurs in 1914 when Floyd is listed as a "canoe maker."
Floyd acknowledged their early difficulties in a news-paper interview in 1914 in which he said,
"We have been going to high school, paying our own expenses, and perfecting our canoes at odd times. Our development up to the time we finished school was a slow and difficult task and has been a constant drain on our slender purse, but we have been forging ahead, and the one fact that we were 'getting there' has held us to our job in spite of the numerous difficulties we have had to overcome."
("Tacoma High School Boy as Pioneers of Industry," June 21, 1914, The Daily Ledger, Tacoma, Washington.)
The new business required a shop big enough to accommodate them. In 1913 Floyd bought a waterfront lot on Wollochet Bay between the unincorporated towns of Artondale and Wollochet, just west of Tacoma, across the Tacoma Narrows of Puget Sound. A shop was put up on the property, likely with the assistance of Clinton and Dwight, and the brothers were open for business in a serious way by June 1914. Floyd said in a 1914 newspaper interview that "although we have been building canoes and experimenting with designs and various methods of constructing our boats during the past eight years, still as a commercial enterprise our business is in its bare infancy and we are just now placing our first canoes on the market and holding ourselves out as manufacturers of canoes." (The Daily Ledger, June 21, 1914).
Even with a new shop, business was slow in the early years. It is difficult to understand how the two brothers could have made enough money to survive just by building canoes. Their output was slight, perhaps because, as it appears, they did actively advertised the business and because they were perfecting their canoes. They made two canoes in 1914, six in 1915, four in 1916, and two in 1917. They used some of these canoes themselves for awhile and then later sold them to various clients. Several of these clients were repeat customers and likely owned or operated resorts or boat liveries in the area. In the following years many of their boats were sold to these and other resorts and rental services which required large fleets. Many local paddlers first became acquainted with Willits Brothers canoes through these rental operations. In their 1935 catalog the brothers indicated that orders for their canoes could be placed "direct with us or through your nearest boat house or summer resort and we will give your order the same careful attention in either case."
In 1917 the business started to build. Floyd and Earl sold at least seven canoes, although only two of these had been built that year. It may be they sold some of their stock on hand because they had anticipated the effect on their business of the growing pressure for the United States to enter World War I. Whether or not that was the case, the brothers were forced to close temporarily after being drafted into the U.S. Army. Their build records reflect this; they show no canoes being built in 1918.
Earl entered the service in August 1917 at Fort Lawton, Washington. He was quickly promoted to corporal and finally to sergeant 1st class. He served with the 137th Aero Squadron, a service squadron, in which he saw overseas duty for a year during and after the war and was finally discharged in April, 1919. Floyd, meanwhile, entered the service in September 1917 and was stationed at Camp Lewis, Washington, just south of his home in Tacoma. He, too, was promoted quickly to corporal, then sergeant while with the 136th Infantry Regiment. In August 1918 he accepted a 2nd lieutenant commission and served with the 166th Depot Brigade at Camp Lewis until his discharge in December 1918. Since he was stationed so close to home, Floyd could have worked on canoes while on leave, but he did not do so. A few of the canoes that the brothers had used for themselves were sold during this period, though, so it's likely that he at least kept an active interest in maintaining the bare bones of the business.
After the war and the return of the brothers, the business grew steadily, and in 1920 they were putting out nearly one canoe every week. Demand was growing from the resorts and liveries, and Earl and Floyd worked hard to meet it. Finally, by 1921 the demand had outstripped their ability to meet it at the Wollochet Bay location, and Earl purchased property on Day Island, on the eastern shore of Puget Sound just outside Tacoma. A two-story shop and a modest house were quickly constructed with assistance from their father. The 1921 edition of the Tacoma city directory is the first in which the brothers are listed together as canoe builders, "Willits Bros. (Earl C. and Floyd C. Willits) Manufacturers of Canoes, Day Island. Telephone Proctor 2708- R-5." They also had a listing in the boat builders' pages of the classified ads. With a large shop and a telephone, it is clear they were seriously open for business.
They were confident of their skills, even in the early days. In response to an inquiry about a special-ordered sailing canoe in 1921, Earl wrote, "This would be a canoe absolutely first class in every respect, a very practical and serviceable canoe, one that you can well be proud to own, that you can take great pleasure in and that will be an eye opener to the canoeing fraternity of Seattle." So confident were they in their product, that they featured this guarantee prominently in all their catalogs:
You take no risk in ordering from us. If you are not satisfied with your purchase after trying out your canoe or any of the equipment, it can be returned to us and your money will be gladly refunded.
Business was steady for Willits Brothers Canoes, even though Willits canoes were usually significantly more expensive than competing wood and canvas canoes such as Old Towns. While there was demand for more canoes than they could produce, they never chose to expand and hire employees. With the exception of occasional help from their nephew, Lon Willits, and, perhaps, their half-brother Leonard Willits, no one but Earl and Floyd ever assisted in the construction of a Willits canoe. In fact, Lon recalls trying to persuade them in their later years to expand and modernize the operation to meet the needs of the market. The brothers responded that they made a decent living without having to work too hard, and besides, they were afraid of saturating the market. As it was, they had a waiting list of up to seven years for one of their canoes. They worried that they would have to begin actively marketing if the waiting list got down to four years!
In truth, Earl and Floyd worked long hours to maintain the business. Lon recalls that they were at the shop for twelve hours each day, six days a week. They took a half-hour break in the morning and afternoon with an hour for lunch. Earl kept the books, much of which required him to work evenings or during Sunday. Both men frequently spent weekends or evenings delivering canoes to clients. Even though in their later years they would travel with their wives, it still was part of what it took to run a small business.
In 1926, Earl and Floyd incorporated the business and named it Willits Brothers, Inc. With themselves and their father as trustees of the corporation, they issued $15,000 of capital stock in 150 shares. The business did not stay incorporated long - the last payment made to the State of Washington for annual incorporation fees was in 1932 - and the state dissolved the corporation in 1937 for non-payment. Whatever benefit the brothers gained from incorporating was apparently realized because the business continued for nearly thirty more years.
While some believe that the brothers were secretive about the methods they used to construct their "double-planked" canoes, this may not have been the case. In 1921 they wrote a client, "We should be pleased to have you call at our factory any time you are over this way and we shall be glad to show you in detail how our canoes are built." Other clients, local businessmen, and distant relatives recall tours of the factory over the years, with no indication that information was withheld. Most of these people recall many of the details of the building process, including the bending and building forms and the nailing machine that the brothers invented.
Earl and Floyd worked hard at making their business successful, but were not single-minded businessmen. They served their small, close-knit community at Day Island for years by volunteering for various roles. Floyd was president of the Day Island Club, an organization responsible for maintaining the water supply and hosting social events, among other things. Floyd also served as a long time water superintendent, and both brothers acted as secretary/treasurer of the club for a time. Earl registered voters in the community and also served as fire chief. The brothers were known to take extended vacations to Europe and Asia. Being good businessmen, though, they would use the opportunity to market their canoes that resulted in significant numbers being shipped overseas.
Canoeing and boating on local waterways was a significant portion of their lives. In 1929 or 1930 they built a "double-planked" twenty-foot motor launch. With a four-cycle inboard engine, it was not a fast boat. They used it not only to collect cedar logs for use in their canoes, but also to motor to the property on Wollochet Bay where the original shop had been located. They maintained a beach cabin there that the brothers visited often and where family gatherings were held. Several canoes were kept at the property and relatives fondly remember their use.
Both brothers married later in their lives. When Floyd was 47 he married Ruth Alice Carter, a divorcée, in April 1939, and they made their home with Earl in the house next to the shop on Day Island. Ruth had been a nurse prior to marrying Floyd, but appears to have fulfilled the duties of a housewife following her marriage. They had no children. Earl married Laura Magill Smith, a local school teacher, in December 1944 when he was 55. He had known Laura from his high school days in Tacoma and courted her following the death of her first husband, Elmer Smith, in 1932. Unfortunately, their marriage was never a happy one. Laura filed for divorce; Earl did not contest it, and it was finalized in October 1954. Earl moved back in with Floyd and Ruth where he lived until his death.
The brothers seemed to be reluctant to assign any part of their business to others. Nearly every aspect of building canoes and producing accessories and literature was accomplished themselves. Earl was an avid photographer, and the photographs in their catalogs were made and printed by him. He had his own darkroom and was capable of producing quality photographs. The brothers printed their own catalogs and instruction sheets for the business. In addition, with the exception of making the fasteners, they produced all of the accessories and hardware that accompanied their canoes.
Floyd worked up to the time of his death in 1962. His wife, Ruth, had died several years earlier of heart failure. At the time of Floyd's death, the brothers had slowed to working only five days per week, but still had a significant waiting list for their canoes. Early in the evening of June 10, Floyd suffered a stroke. He died shortly after that in the home he shared with Earl. He was 70 and was buried next to his wife in New Tacoma Cemetery. With his passing came the functional end of Willits Brothers Canoe Company. Earl was 72 and unable or unwilling to continue building the canoes alone. Since the company had never had employees, there was nobody to carry on the business with Earl. Leonard Willits had a full time job with the city of Tacoma and nephew Lon Willits didn't have an interest in taking over. The last canoe started by both brothers was finished on March 2, 1963, and then the shop was shut down.
The difficulty of the situation is reflected in the sad and somewhat nostalgic reply that Earl sent to an inquiry about the possibility of licensing production of Willits canoes in Wisconsin:
My brother and I have been building these canoes for the past fifty years and our canoes are well known and widely distributed throughout the country but the business has been only moderately profitable. About a year ago my brother Floyd passed away and this leaves the future production of our canoes rather uncertain. Canoes were very popular when we started building them about 1915 and then the interest waned somewhat but there is definitely a growing demand for canoes at the present time. The difficulty is to make it profitable with wages and taxes so high as they are today and apparently destined to go higher.
In his later years Earl enjoyed the companionship of Ruth Grant, a local widow whom he met through mutual friends. He was physically active until the last year or so of his life, even though for the last seven years of his life he suffered from prostate cancer. He died on April 21, 1967, in Lakewood General Hospital. Earl's remains were buried close to Floyd's in New Tacoma Cemetery. Both are marked by plain bronze foot stones supplied by the United States government in honor of their service to the country during World War I.
Although the Willits brothers built only one model of canoe, it changed over the years. The most common Willits canoe, the one they felt was "developed to a high state of perfection," was their final design-17 feet long with a beam of 34 inches, depth of 12 inches and significant tumble-home. The bow was 23 inches high, and the canoe always had a teak or mahogany keel, and inside and outside stems of white oak. A layer of waterproofed cotton muslin was sandwiched between two layers of 5/32 inch vertical grain red cedar planking which was finished inside and out with clear spar varnish. There were no inwales or ribs. Trim, including outwales, thwarts, and 2-foot long decks, was usually mahogany. Spruce slat seats were installed unless left out by special order. Planking was attached with more than seven thousand copper tacks. All other fasteners were brass. A brass plate identifying the canoe as a Willits Brothers canoe was attached to the bow deck coaming.
Their early canoes are sometimes referred to as Artondale canoes, after the location of their first shop on Wollochet Bay near the town of Artondale. These canoes were built even after the move to Day Island, up to at least 1925. Artondale canoes were modified in various ways as the brothers developed the design they would settle on, but generally were an inch narrower and had noticeably finer entry at the bow and stern than later models. The seats were mahogany with the bow seat hung very low. Some of these canoes were trimmed in oak, and the brothers experimented occasionally by planking with woods such as Port Orford or Spanish cedar. A brass plate also identified the early Willits model, but it was a larger shield design than later plate and was mounted on the top of the oak deck center strip. A few of these early canoes were painted white, but this does not seem to have been the usual practice.
Various accessories were offered over the years, depending on what the brothers thought the marketplace demanded. Paddles, back rests, sailing rigs, canvas covers, and bilge keels seemed to be the most popular and were offered most years. Such things as copper air tanks, outboard motor mounts and rowing accessories were only offered a short time and never seemed to have caught on.
Serial numbers were stamped on the inside stems, and in later canoes, in various additional locations, including the underside of the deck framework, the back of the deck coaming, and on the brass fitting for the sailing fin keel. Serial numbers were sequential, although those numbers issued prior to 1925 were preceded by a variable single numeral followed by a letter. The first canoe, built in Iowa, was numbered 1C1; the second, built in Washington in 1908, was 2C1. Canoes built between 1910 and 1919 were from 6C1 through 6C22. Those built between 1920 and 1923 were from 8C23 and 8C184. Canoes built after that time were stamped only with a three digit number, beginning with number 201. The last canoe was assigned number 965 and was completed on March 2, 1963. It was the 950th canoe.
The Willits canoe's final design allowed it to meet the needs of local paddlers and canoe sailors. Long enough to achieve good hull speed and broad enough to feel stable to novice paddlers, it became a favorite of many. By broadening the beam and making the bow fuller, Earl and Floyd greatly improved the Artondale canoe's paddling and sailing characteristics, particularly in the often heavy waters of Puget Sound. A testament to the rough water abilities of the canoe is the fact that several expeditions over the years used Willits Brothers canoes to travel from Tacoma to Juneau, Alaska. An accounting of one such trip by Jack Calvin appears in the July 1933 issue of National Geographic and is entitled "Nakwasina Goes North."
The Willits is generally considered an enjoyable canoe to sail. In a surprisingly effective alternative to the standard sailing canoe leeboards, the brothers produced a unique streamlined fin keel which is attached to the canoe's main keel by mating brass fittings on both keels. With practice, the fin keel could be easily attached or detached while the canoe floated in the water.
The majority of Willits Brothers canoes are identical to each other, except for detail work. This was accomplished by creating a division of labor between the two brothers. When building canoes at the Day Island shop, Earl spent his days on the ground floor of the factory, milling out parts using an "indexing" process that produced identical replicas of the same part. Each part of the canoe had a scaled-down counterpart that was used as a template or "index." Patterns for each individual part were used to guide the milling of the part to assure its consistency time after time. Each part was stamped with a number to identify its location during assembly. When all the parts for a canoe were completed, Floyd assembled them upstairs.
Unlike a typical building form for a wood and canvas canoe, which serves both as the bending mold for the ribs as well as a way to clinch the tacks during planking, the Willits building mold was used for the assembly of pre-bent inner planking and outer planking with preset copper tacks. Inner planking and inside stems were steamed and bent onto separate wood-clad bending forms. Following a drying period, the stem was mounted to the wooden building form which was fully clad in sheet metal. The inner planking was clamped on the form so that it formed a smooth inner skin. A layer of cotton muslin was laid onto the inner planking and soaked in marine glue to form a waterproof liner un-der the outer planking. The outer planking was then attached by hammering the preset copper tacks which were clinched by the sheet metal of the form. To remove the partially completed canoe from the form, Floyd unlocked one end of the form which then could be slid down and away from the canoe, allowing the canoe to be lifted away. The canoe was then completed off the form by adding decks, thwarts, keel, outside stems, seats and outwales. Following careful cleaning of the canoe and varnish room, Floyd varnished each canoe himself, using specially ordered badger hair brushes and the best varnish obtainable.
The brothers prided themselves on their ingenuity in developing a variety of labor-saving techniques. The indexing method of producing parts may have been common in other industries, but not in canoe manufacturing. The method accounted for the brothers' ability to produce canoes quickly and for the uniformity of each piece. Little if any modification of parts during assembly was required. Even the paddles were produced using "indexers." Installation of the outside planking was speeded by the use of a nail machine that the Willits designed and made themselves. A hand-operated mechanical tool, it punched a hole in the edge of a plank and set a tack into it. When all the tacks were set for that plank, the plank was removed from the nail machine and placed on the building form. Each tack then was driven by hand with a blow of the hammer.For the most part, Willits Brothers Canoes has remained idle since Earl and Floyd died. After Earl's death, Leonard moved into the house next to the shop with his wife Gunneld and may have dabbled briefly on a few repairs. Upon Leonard's death in 1972, the business passed to his son Lon, who, with his son Kendal also repaired a few canoes. Regrettably the factory has not produced a single canoe since the last of Earl and Floyd's work was completed. The factory still stands on Day Island although the roof has been raised, siding added, and the southern portion turned into a home in which Lon lives. The last survivor of Earl and Floyd's generation, Leonard's widow Gunneld, still lives in the home that Earl and Floyd built. The Willits family and the locals of Day Island are very protective of the brothers' memory. The factory is closed to the public. Like long-forgotten props in storage on a Hollywood sound stage warehouse, all of the forms, equipment and materials the brothers used to make their masterpieces wait in the closed-up factory, gathering dust and holding the memory, of two incredibly gifted craftsmen. The passing of Earl and Floyd ended over a half-century of incomparable workmanship.