By: Richard Crowder
(Editor's Note- this is the final segment of the 'Before Fibreglass' series. As you'll see, Grew Boats has direct connections throughout its history to three other brands we've covered earlier in the series- Gidley Boats of Georgian Bay, Hunter Boats of Muskoka, and the Fairmile B of WWII. You can also catch up on the full series at the bottom of this article. Enjoy the ride.) This series exploring Canada’s wooden pleasure boat heritage would not be complete without recognition of one of this country’s most well known and iconic brands – Grew Boats. Even if, as a relatively new boater, you had no idea that Grew had built wooden boats, you could hardly have boated in any fresh water in Canada, and especially in central Canada, without having spotted the Grew name on the side of a runabout, cuddy cabin, or cruiser, even if it was a fiberglass boat. The name Grew is almost synonymous with pleasure boating in Canada.
Grew Boats of Lake Simcoe, Ontario
Arthur Grew (1885-1952) from London, Ontario learned his boatbuilding trade around the turn of the century while working at the foot of Yonge Street in Toronto for the renowned Ackroyd Brothers -- builders of canoes, rowboats, and the famous Ackroyd sailing dinghy. In 1907, on the advice of his doctor, Grew moved to Jackson’s Point near the southern end of Lake Simcoe where he was advised that the cleaner air would be better for his asthmatic condition.
Here he set up shop and using the knowledge gained from his Ackroyd Brothers experience and built canoes, rowboats, and sailing dinghies to service the growing influx of summer cottagers and tourists from Toronto. He also had a booming boat rental business. Sales of new boats and boat rentals increased dramatically into the 1920s as southern Lake Simcoe drew more big city vacationers with more disposable income and especially after the completion of the electric railway from Toronto to Simcoe.
But the economic crash of 1929 was devastating to many tourism-oriented businesses, and Grew suffered the downturn as well. He turned to friends for help, and one of his customers, Clarence Kemp, a successful Toronto businessman and third generation of a manufacturing and sheet metal operation known as General Steel Wares, bought the struggling company in the early 1930s. He retained Arthur Grew and his employees to run the company and stayed mostly in the background. The Jackson’s Point operation continued to build wooden canoes, rowboats, and dinghys, but on a reduced scale from before the Depression.
Just prior to World War II, Clarence Kemp, along with a couple of Toronto businessmen, purchased the struggling Gidley Boat Company in Penetanguishene. They renamed it Grew Boats as well, but also kept the Jackson’s Point facility managed by Arthur Grew. As the war progressed, the Penetanguishene facility earned federal government contracts to build wooden bridge barges, twenty and thirty-foot tenders, and even a 140-foot minesweeper.
At the height of Canada's involvement in WWII, Grew Boats in Penetanguishene was one of the first, along with Hunter Boats in Orillia, to receive contracts to build 8 of the 112-foot Fairmile B anti-submarine patrol boats for the Canadian Navy. This kept the operation busy and profitable until the end of the war. After the end of WWII, as the economy began to boom and discretionary spending on leisure activities increased, Grew Boats in both Penetanguishene and Jackson’s Point continued building their pre-war designs, but started offering inboard and outboard-powered runabouts and even small cruisers. A 23-foot inboard mahogany sedan was one of the most popular Grew models.
Both operations continued to prosper and in 1950 Kemp sold the Penetanguishene facility, along with the Grew name, to a group of Toronto businessmen headed by Col. W.E. Phillips, who docked his converted Fairmile at the plant. Arthur Grew stayed with the Jackson’s Point facility, which had to be renamed since the Grew name had been sold. It was given the new moniker Bonnie Boats and continued to build oak, cedar, and mahogany skiffs, tenders, and outboard powered runabouts. Sadly, Arthur Grew died two years later in 1952, and the Bonnie Boats facility was sold again, but continued for some years until the waterfront property was purchased for development.
Meanwhile, in Penetanguishene, Grew Boats flourished not only with their own designs, but also by producing other designs under license. Probably the best known and recognized of these licenses was obtained in 1963 to copy and produce the lapstrake outboard and sterndrive cuddy cabins and cruisers of Cruisers Inc. of Oconto, Wisconsin, which had been renamed the Thompson Boat Company. These new designs were called 'Cruisers Inc.' by Grew, and eventually simply 'Grew Cruisers.' These well built and sea-friendly designs can still be seen plying the waterways.
Within a few years, fiberglass construction replaced wood and Grew latched on to the new technology, obtaining a license to produce Michigan-headquartered Slickcraft boats. Grew expanded exponentially, through good management and a huge dealer network, as well as a product line well suited to Canadian boating conditions. Along the way, Grew obtained licenses to produce some selected Wellcraft models and then a large complement of Chris Craft express cruiser models. Business was booming. The Penetanguishene facility doubled in size, and even arranged export of some models to the US.
However, the oil crisis of the early 1970s followed by the economic crisis of the early 80s resulted in the sale of Grew a few times over to different owners, until it eventually shut down at the end of the decade. An employee group tried to keep production going but that eventually collapsed too, leaving the remaining assets including the boat molds to be sold at auction. The molds were purchased and moved to Owen Sound where tragic circumstances eventually caused the closure of that facility in 2011, thus bringing the end to an iconic Canadian pleasure boat name.
To learn more about the history of Grew Boats you can check these great sites:
1) Town of Georgina Heritage Committee (see pages 17-44)
You can enjoy more from our 'Before Fibreglass' series here: