(The Brown Boat Company - Red Feather Boats)
[The Brown Boat Canoe Co. Logo]
We first hear of James George Brown (1851—1920) working for Robert Strickland in Lakefield, Ontario sometime in the 1880’s. Mr. Laurence Griffith of Lakefield told the writer of this biographical sketch in 1986 that J.G.Brown was supervisor of operations for Mr. Strickland, and was a skilled canoe designer and builder. Mr. Griffith felt that Brown and Strickland did not always see eye-to-eye, with the result that when the chance came to open his own business in 1887, Mr. Brown took it at age thirty-six. A lozenge-shaped builder’s plate from one of his old canoes has a kind of decorative edging enclosing the words:
J.G. BROWN.CANOE MFR [Manufacturer] LAKEFIELD, ONT.
In 1896, the Brown canoe enterprise appeared in trade directories as Lakefield Canoe Factory, located on Queen Street, next to the Grand Trunk Railway station and having a boat house - a livery - at Corporation Wharf in the village. Ads at the time drew attention to the fact that J.G. Brown used the new Sir John Models (the writer of this biography takes “model” to mean a canoe-building mould, but which “Sir John” or why “Sir John” remains a puzzle. A note here for the unwary: at this time, the Strickland canoe business went by the similar name “Lakefield Canoe Works.” An advertisement from 1911 finds Mr. Brown advertising Paddling and Sailing Canoes, as well as canoes for hunting and fishing. Photos accompanying the ad show one of Brown’s “Kawartha” rowing skiffs with stylish outboard steering rudder and skiff chairs in addition to the old stand-by, the “cedar-strip canoe.” This 1911 ad also claims that Brown operated the largest and best equipped boat livery on the Kawartha Lakes.
The building of J.G. Brown’s factory on Queen Street still stands at its original location on Queen Street in Lakefield. Until recent years (this is written in 2009), it was possible to make out the word BOATS in faded paint on the gable-end of the building which was devoted to Bowman’s Antiques. It is still dedicated to beauty and style, now being the home of Stony Lake Furniture Co.
The catalogue for 1926 put out by The Brown Boat Company as it became known (perhaps following the death of its founder in 1920) offered a full line of the traditional canoes of Canada: basswood rib-and-batten, classic cedar-strip and “Red Feather” canvas-covered canoes in two finishes - No. 1 for pleasure purposes and No. 2 for liveries, prospecting, etc. Also in the catalogue are “Red Feather” cedar-strip skiffs which the Browns called “row boats.” The stock size was 16 ½ - 17 ft length, described as ideal for fishing, pleasure and boat liveries. “If we make a success of anything,” said the builder with commendable modesty, “it is this boat.” The offerings of the 1926 catalogue were rounded out by “Red Feather” rowboats built in basswood, “Red Feather” outboard boats (stock being 16 - 16 ½ feet with a 43 inch beam) and “Red Feather” Flat-bottomed boats in a fourteen-foot version.
The catalogue also contains some admirable text to place the Canadian canoe in its broader context:
Although the superior skill of the white man has produced canoes stronger, swifter and more durable than the birch bark, the original idea of the Indian still survives. The same requirements have to be met. A canoe must be buoyant in rough waters, light for portages, a shelter by night if need be, and quickly repaired in case of accident. To this day the canoe remains the same picturesque and romantic craft – the tried and trusted friend of the traveller who enters the wild.
Local belief in Lakefield has it that the Brown Boat Company closed in 1938, which may well be so, though the name of the company continued to appear in national trade directories and gazetteers in 1940, 1942, 1944 and even 1946—47.