By: Richard Crowder
The web of connections between Thompson Boats, Cruisers Yachts, Slickcraft, Grew, Tiara, Pursuit, and Chris Craft
In my over forty years in the pleasure boat industry, there have been literally thousands of boat companies and brand names of boats in North America.
Some of these were and are strictly regional brands not known or recognized in the rest of the continent but many were national and even international brands known to most of us diehard boaters.
It is those well known and recognized brands that are no longer with us that I look forward to examining in this series. These brand names may still be corporately held in reserve but are not known to currently be in production.
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Brothers Peter and Christian (Christ) Thompson, sons of immigrant Danish farmers, built an anti-leak canoe in 1904 in the family barn near Peshtigo, Wisconsin, just southwest of Marinette. By 1912, the brothers had been joined by their four other brothers, two sisters and one sister’s husband in the Thompson Brothers Boat Manufacturing Company in Peshtigo.
Thompson specialized in cedar strip rowboats, skiffs, runabouts, fishing boats, and small sailboats and were said to have eventually become one of the largest such builders in the world. By 1924, a second facility was opened in Cortland, New York. The company flourished, especially in the production of runabouts for the developing popularity of the outboard motor market. During the Second World War, both Thompson facilities devoted their output to specialized boats and even paddles for the war effort.
The 1950’s saw many changes. The first half of the decade brought a gradual shift from cedar strip to plywood lapstrake (clinker-built) construction, which was better suited with its superior strength and lighter weight for the growing horsepower of outboard motors. A couple of Thompson brothers saw the market need for small and medium-sized cruisers and broke away to form Cruisers Inc. in Oconto, Wisconsin, a few miles south of Peshtigo on the shores of Green Bay. Thompson Skis, Inc. was created in Crivitz, Wisconsin, a few miles northwest of Peshtigo, to manufacture paddles, oars, wooden water skis and similar water toys.
Thompson resisted the move to fiberglass construction. As a compromise, by the late 50's, it was offering, as an option, to cover its wooden hulls with a fiberglass coating. The early 60's saw Thompson as one of the first major manufacturers to embrace the new sterndrive (inboard-outboard) power from Volvo-Penta called the Aquamatic.
In the early 1960’s, a Thompson cousin who had been working at the Cortland, New York facility, returned and established T & T Boats further north in Wausaukee, Wisconsin. It only lasted until the mid-60's and its facilities were taken over by Cruisers Inc. and re-tooled to make fiberglass boats.
Wooden boat sales were faltering quickly. By 1962, the Cortland, New York facility was sold to Chris Craft to eventually become its fiberglass Corsair Division. This closed in the mid-70's. Thompson slowly entered the manufacture of fiberglass boats by first putting wooden decks and interiors onto fiberglass hulls. In 1964, Thompson contracted with Crownline Boats of Cairo, Illinois to produce some all-fiberglass boats for it.
It was a bit of 'too little too late' and facing bankruptcy in late summer of 1966, the Thompson Boat Company was sold to an individual for basically the amount of its debts. Gradually turning things around, by 1970, all Thompson boats were of fiberglass construction. Sales slowly increased. In 1974, Thompson Boats purchased Tom Sawyer Boats as well as Sidewinder and moved production of those brands to the Peshtigo facility, as it did when it purchased WinnerBoats in 1977.
Thompson was now offering over 50 models. The largest Winner models were contracted out to IMP Boats in Iola, Kansas. IMP (Iola Molded Plastics) started out making Red Fish Boats under license. Red Fish closed in the 60's and IMP in 2003. Stretched so thin, the financial crisis of the late 1970’s led Thompson into receivership and they closed their doors in 1980.
Later that same year, one of Thompson’s largest dealers, Anderson Marine of St. Charles, Michigan purchased the Thompson assets and moved production from Peshtigo into the old and outdated Browning Aero-Craft Boat facility in St. Charles. A new state-of-the-art facility was built in 1988. Sales flourished but then dipped again so that bankruptcy proceedings again went ahead in 1993.
Production continued under new owners until more troubles were encountered in 1997. Some help was found by building under contract in St. Charles some models for Yar-Craft Boats of Menominee, Michigan but the end of Thompson Boats came finally in 2001 with the closing of the plant. That signaled the end of almost 100 years of the building of Thompson Boats. (Note: Yar-Craft Boats are still into production as are Cruisers, now known as Cruisers Yachts of Oconto, Wisconsin and now owned by the world’s largest boat retailer, MarineMax, Inc. as of 2021).
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At 18 years old, Leon Slikkers joined his two brothers working at the Chris Craft factory in Holland, Michigan. He loved working with his hands and with the wood used in boatbuilding immediately after the war. By age 24 he had become assistant foreman in the joiner department and was recognized as a highly skilled woodworker. During a labour strike at Chris Craft in the early 50's, Leon and a fellow worker started building 15-foot plywood runabouts in Leon’s garage.
In early 1955, Slikkers left Chris Craft, opened up a small rented shop in Holland with an upstairs apartment for his family, and started full-time making molded plywood hull runabouts with mahogany plywood decks. The Slick Craft Boat Company was created making Slickcraft boats. His objective was to build a quality boat, yet one that was affordable for the average family.
In late 1955, Slikkers contracted with a local fiberglass company to provide hull molds to which Slikkers added wooden decks for 1956. Boats were again all wood for 1957 but became hybrid again for 1958. Leon then brought the design and mold tooling and fiberglass building in-house so that he had full control over the process and the results. By 1961, only all-fiberglass boats were being built in several models and colour choices in 15, 16, and 18 feet.
The early 1960’s saw growing sales and expansion into larger a manufacturing facility in Holland, the switch to all fiberglass construction, and the introduction of sterndrive motors to a few of his nine-model lineup. An 18-foot cabin cruiser was introduced in 1963. Further factory expansions followed further sales growth and the Slickcraft reputation grew.
In the mid-60's, Century Boat Company of Manistee, Michigan contracted with Slick Craft to make its first fiberglass boats. International sales started and prospered. Grew Boats in Ontario obtained a license to manufacture “Slickcraft by Grew” boats in 1964. A similar arrangement was made later with a Finnish manufacturer. By 1965, Slickcraft offered five outboard models from 14 to 18 feet, three sterndrive models from 17 to 19feet, and a popular 23-foot cruiser. This had grown to 12 models by 1969.
Slick Craft moved into a brand new purpose-built facility in Holland for the 1967 model year. The company had attracted a lot of attention, and Slikkers sold out to AMF (American Machine and Foundry) in 1969. AMF was on a leisure industry buying spree at the time, a spree that included Hatteras Yachts, Alcort sailboats, Head skis, and Harley-Davidson Motorcycles at one point. Leon was contracted to remain as head of the SlickCraft Division for five years, which included a powerboat non-compete clause should he leave before that.
Leon left after four years, and almost immediately in 1974 started S2 Yachts to build sailboats, but no powerboats. His 23 and 26-footers became very successful with both cruisers and racers and a new manufacturing facility was built. Once his non-compete clause with AMF had expired, in 1976 Leon got back into the powerboat business by creating Tiara Division of S2 Yachts. In 1977, he added the Pursuit fishing boat line that became so successful he purpose-built a facility for that line in Fort Pierce, Florida in 1983. His three sons joined him in the business.
As a result of the financial crisis of 1980, AMF had ceased production of Slickcraft boats. Slikkers bought back the Slickcraft name from AMF in 1983 and used the name for a line of sport boats into the late 1980’s. Sailboat manufacturing ceased in 1987.
Eventually the Slickcraft name too disappeared entirely in the late 1980’s as the Tiara sport boat line took over, and then it too was phased out as all efforts were directed to the very upscale Tiara Yachts in Holland, Michigan and Pursuit Boats in Fort Pierce, Florida, two of the most highly respected boat brands today.
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Grew Boats, once Canada’s largest manufacturer of pleasure boats is mentioned here not only because it is a name recognized by thousands of boaters and is no longer with us, but because of the brands it associated with that are mostly still with us. Without repeating myself, there is a brief history of Grew Boats I wrote for a previous series called entitled “Before Fiberglass."
To augment its own designs of wooden runabouts, in 1963, Grew obtained a license to build in Canada wooden lapstrake outboard and sterndrive cuddy cabin and cruiser models from Cruisers, Inc. of Oconto, Wisconsin, a company we have just learned was established by part of the famed Thompson Boat family. Grew at first called these models “Cruisers Inc. by Grew” and later simply “Grew Cruisers.” Many of these wooden beauties still grace our waterways.
As wood production turned to fiberglass, once again Grew augmented its own designs by licensing the right to manufacture the successful designs of others. Some may call it “why bother to reinvent the wheel?” I recall some early “Wellcraft by Grew” bowrider runabouts, but the license to manufacture that would create a signature Grew 'look' came in 1964 when it secured a license from Leon Slikkers to build virtually a full line of Slickcraft boats in Canada.
It was these models of Slickcraft runabouts and cuddy cabins from 14 to 24 feet with both outboard and sterndrive power that would propel Grew to a number one sales position. Later, Grew obtained a license to manufacture Chris Craft express and mid-cabin cruisers up to around the 30-foot range. Grew even built the iconic 23 and 26-foot Chris Craft Scorpion and Stinger models.
Given the value of the Canadian dollar relative to the US dollar, Grew was able to set up some US dealers and export some of its output. But the 70's oil crisis coupled with the early 80's financial crisis crippled Grew, and although several attempts were made to save it, the Grew brand finally disappeared in 2011.
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