J.B. O’Dette & Sons
Peterborough, Ontario

 

If you looked out on Little Lake in Peterborough, Ontario or on stretches of the Otonabee up or down-river on an afternoon in the late 1930’s, your gaze may well have been met by the sight of dozens of rowing skiffs out for a pleasure cruise. Many of the skiffs came from the livery of J.B. O’Dette & Sons situated not far from the present location of the Holiday Inn on George Street. On weekend nights, many O’Dette skiffs and canoes could apparently be found at favoured spots on the shore or the little islands nearby. To judge from the late hour at which the occasional skiff or canoe returned to the livery beside the CPR bridge, romance was thought to have intervened.

It is hard not to notice the name O’Dette. In truth it is not O’Dette at all but the French name Audette, still well-known in Quebec. The Audette family (the parents of J.B. O’Dette) came to Peterborough from Hull, Quebec in the nineteenth century. Within a few years, the Audettes decided to adapt the family name to its new surroundings, settling on something which sounded similar but looked Irish.

John Baptiste O’Dette (often called “Bat”) was born in Peterborough c. 1862 and was educated at local schools. As a boy of thirteen or fourteen - this would be 1876 or 1877 - he entered the pioneer firm of Wm. English Canoe Co. where he learned the art and the business of canoe building. In September, 1891 he became a partner in the same firm but in November of 1893 the partnership had lost its appeal. By this time he had been working at the old factory on Charlotte Street for seventeen years. We do not find his name on the payroll of the Peterborough Canoe Co. until January of 1895 but it appeared there for more than thirty years afterward. For part of that time (if not all of it) he was the foreman of the company’s red-brick plant at the corner of King and Water. You notice from old photos that he was a rather small man, even for the times. Perhaps small in stature, he was otherwise mighty.

[J.b. O'Dette & Sons Logo]

In 1926, he stopped working for other men and began working for himself under the name J.B. O’Dette. One wonders if he always fancied a bit of independence. In 1930, his younger son George joined him, necessitating a change of name to J.B. O’Dette & Son. The father and son built skiffs, canoes and outboard motor boats as well as paddles, oars and other related equipment. They also ran O’Dette’s livery from a boathouse on Little Lake. After Bat O’Dette retired in 1934 at the age of seventy-two, George O’Dette and his brother Vernon carried on the family business, which formally became J.B. O’Dette & Sons in September of 1937. Vernon O’Dette was also well known as a canoe and boat builder around town. From 1911 to 1914 you find his name in the payroll books of the Peterborough Canoe Co. He later became the foreman at the Canadian Canoe Co. and his name can even be found in the Minute Books of that company in 1918 expressing a wish to buy stock.

About 1940, the O’Dettes extended their operations seven miles down the Otonabee River to Bensford Bridge where they established a second boat livery. This brought them closer to the excellent fishing grounds in that part of the river and those of nearby Rice Lake. J.B. O’Dette & Sons ceased offering boats and canoes to the public in about 1949–50.

A catalogue put out by the firm c. 1940 shows an extensive line of boats and canoes as follows: 

canvas-covered canoes (elegant looking) with long decks, the outer stem-pieces called “snouts” in Peterborough, and caned seats. Inside finished with one coat of oil, one of shellac and two of varnish. Exterior done in French grey or green. Lengths: 13, 16, 17 and 18 feet. Depths: respectively: 12, 12, 13 and 13 inches. The 13-footer was a trapper’s model which was built with short decks to reduce weight.
cedar-strip canoes (on similar, lovely lines) in lengths of 14, 15 and 16 feet; all 12 inches in depth. Two grades offered as usual: varnished grade, copper fastened (“all that can be desired” said the catalogue) and painted grade fastened with iron nails.
cedar-strip rowing skiffs, varnished, in lengths of 15 feet and 16 feet.
cedar strip outboard boats in 15 foot length and beams of 50 inches and 56 inches for motors of varying size.
cedar strip outboard boats more like a skiff but with a transom stern for lighter motors with the option of rowing.
boating accessories: sails, paddles and oars.

Further reading: The Examiner, Peterborough, Ontario. March 12, 1951 “Baptiste O’Dette, Boatbuilder 53 Years, Dies”