Wooden Boats, Lifeblood of Les Cheneaux Islands in Northern Michigan

The part about people conspiring to keep the boats alive was something I only came to grasp later, after Elizabeth Fels, owner of The Village Idiom bookstore in Hessel, agreed to guide me to some of the pieces and people that make up the wood boat culture of Les Cheneaux. “I’ll try to get you on some boats,” she said. Naturally she had my attention.

Talk to somebody, anybody, about wood boats around Hessel and Cedarville, and one fact is certain to emerge in less than five minutes: Eugene James Mertaugh opened the first Chris Craft dealership in the world here in Hessel, in 1926. Chris Craft is the biggest name in wood boats, and the shop is still open. I decide to start my exploration there, so she leads me from her bookstore down the gentle slope to Hessel’s docks and the door of E.J. Mertaugh Boatworks, which still sells new boats, used boats and restores boats, and has been owned by Brad and Shelly Koster since 2000.

On this bright August morning, sunshine bounces from the harbor through the showroom’s glass front, illuminating the honey-toned wood paneling in watery light. Brad leans on the counter talking to a 40-something man in bermuda
shorts and a blue Polo shirt. I hear the words carburetor, gas tank, varnish, and eventually the ending line. “Well, tell him if he wants to turn it into cash we’ll take it for parts.” Behind him, on shelves along the wall, are the kind of parts I’m guessing he’s referring to. Red running lights in sleek chrome housings, speedometers, a horn.

The customer leaves and Brad sits down to discuss some of what he knows of Les Cheneaux’s wood boat legacy. “Back in the 20’s this place was booming,” he says. “Several families had cottages the size of resorts. These were families with Eastern and Midwestern industrial wealth, and they had an appetite for nice things.” One of the nicest, most tantalizing and glamorous things introduced then was the wooden power boat. “The engines were finally reliable, and they could go 30 miles per hour, which was unheard of,” Brad says.

Based in Algonac, Michigan, near Detroit, Chris Craft borrowed mass production techniques and engine design from the automobile manufacturers nearby, and became the nation’s biggest producer of wood boats. Back then, when trailering was sketchy on washboard gravel roads, the Mertaughs would mostly just drive the boats north on Lake Huron, a process locals refer to as “running them up on their bottoms.” Although that carried risks as well, because captains often had to dodge logs—sometimes entire rafts of them—from logging operations.

After World War II, the market burst wide open as the sport moved from elite to everyman. “Between the Depression and World War II, there were 15 years where people just didn’t do much, so there was a lot of pent up demand,” Brad says.

In addition, the efficiencies of mass production, honed during wartime manufacturing, put the boats in the price range where many average people could afford them. This was the golden era of the wood boat business, and boathouses popped up along the Les Cheneaux shores. Boathouses are essential for wood boats because without them, the sun destroys the varnish, and the boats quickly rot.

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