Innovators in Boating - Smoker Craft Inc. Intertwines Two Families & Five Generations of Success
By: Richard Crowder
Today, Smoker Craft Inc. is arguably the largest manufacturer of aluminum fishing and pleasure boats with five well known and respected brands: Smoker Craft, Starcraft, Sylvan, SunChaser, and Starweld. Together they offer literally hundreds of models that appeal to nearly any boater in a diverse marketplace.
It all started almost a century and a quarter ago. And yet, the descendants of the families that started the brand are still in charge today. There is virtually no other boatbuilder that can make the claim of family longevity, perseverance, dedication, and business acumen in an industry that is known for its ups and downs. Those family names, Schrock and Smoker, have built an almost century-long partnership with fourth and fifth generation family members still actively involved.
In 1903, Arthur E. Schrock started working at the Star Tank Company which manufactured galvanized steel tanks for the railroad and agricultural industries in Middlebury, Indiana. The company sidelined into galvanized steel boats, found success, and became the Star Tank and Boat Company. Schrock bought into the company and when the owner died in 1926, Arthur Schrock purchased the rest of the business and changed its name to Starcraft and concentrated solely on manufacturing boats. Arthur Schock died in 1966 at age 85.
Arthur’s son Harold Schrock, born in 1915, started at Starcraft by first hand painting the boats until he worked his way through all aspects of manfucaturing. After graduating from Goshen College, Harold started full-time at Starcraft in sales, then worked up to the General Manager, then eventually became president of the company. Following World War II when aluminum once again became readily available for non-military applications, it was Harold who pioneered its use for boatbuilding in place of the wood and steel mostly seen at the time. Harold became known as “the father of the aluminum boat business.” Starcraft by then had moved to Goshen, Indiana only a few miles away from Middlebury.
Aluminum proved to be strong as a boat material, easy to form, and of course much lighter than alternatives. The boats were easy to transport, easy to store, easy to power with the developing outboard motor business, and easy to trailer behind the vehicles of the day. For all of those reasons, they were also easy to launch and retrieve even at the most underdeveloped launch ramps. With the increased in disposable income during the boom years following the war, sales of aluminum boats skyrocketed.
Starcraft grew and prospered. Recognizing another growing trend and wanting to capitalize, in 1958 Starcraft started fabricating fiberglass runabouts to cater to more of the pleasure boat market. To this day Starcraft continues to produce both fiberglass and aluminum boats. In 1965, Starcraft introduced the Deep-Vee hull design to aluminum boats which increased their rough water comfort and performance capabilities. It started building pontoon boats as well.
Starcraft leveraged its knowledge of aluminum and cabinetry fabrication by entering the exploding camper, RV, and van conversion markets as well. They also expanded their aluminum boat model lineup considerably with its American, Holiday, Islander cuddy cabins, and Chieftain full express cruiser models, all of which became popular, especially in the Canadian marketplace. In 1969, Harold Schrock sold Starcraft to the Bangor Punta corporate conglomerate that was accumulating boat manufacturers at the time.
Meanwhile, in nearby New Paris, Indiana, the Smoker Lumber Company, founded by John Smoker, sidelined into making oars and paddles, created the Smoker Oar and Paddle Company. By the mid-1920’s it had become the largest such manufacturer in the world. It had for years supplied the manual power for Starcraft boats.
(Picture- Top Left- Arthur & Harold Schrock, Top Right- Sara (Schrock) Barrett, Susan (Schrock) Graff, Cinda (Schrock) McKinney, Center- Cinda McKinney, Susan Graff, Sara Barrett, Peter Barrett, Bottom Left- Doug Smoker & Henry Smoker, Bottom Right- the late Barney Smoker, Phil Smoker, Doug Smoker)
John Smoker’s grandson Byron Smoker joined the company and by the mid-1950’s, again by exploiting the benefits of aluminum, expanded the product line to include mobile homes and camper trailers. Then in 1963, it began producing its own line of aluminum boats under the Smoker Craft moniker while still manufacturing wooden oars and paddles right through to 1988.
In nearby Wolcottville, Indiana by the shores of Sylvan Lake, the Sylvan Boat Company, established in 1948, became an innovator and leader in houseboat and pontoon boat design. Sylvan eventually became the first manufacturer to offer pontoon boats with coloured side panels (fences), and also pioneered the development of high performance pontoons. Having just sold his Starcraft company, Harold Schrock purchased Sylvan in 1969. Later in the 70’s, Harold then purchased a controlling interest in Smoker Craft from Byron Smoker, grandson of founder John Smoker.
In the meantime, Starcraft went through several corporate owners until it was purchased in the late 1980’s by Brunswick Corporation, which also included Mercury Marine in its stable. By the mid-1990’s, Brunswick Corporation decided to sell Starcraft once again and this time, Doug Schrock and his sisters Cinda, Susie, and Sara, the children of Harold Schrock who had sold Starcraft and grandchildren of Starcraft founder Arthur Schrock, purchased Starcraft from Brunswick. The RV side of Starcraft had been divested to Jayco of Middlebury, Indiana which to this day, is one of the leading manufacturers of campers, fifth wheel RV’s, and motorhomes. So once again, Starcraft was all boats, both fiberglass and aluminum.
Over the years, Starcraft, Smoker Craft, and Sylvan have been leaders in aluminum boat production. Adding to Starcraft’s revolutionary Deep-Vee aluminum hull design and Sylvan’s high performance pontoon development, both Starcraft and Smoker Craft met the surging demand for higher horsepower fishing boats in the booming walleye (pickerel) fishing market. In the mid-70's, Smoker Craft introduced its tri-hull Vega models offering a dry and stable ride suited to both cruising and fishing.
Starcraft introduced its legendary Power-Trac hull design in 1991 specifically to accommodate higher horsepower outboard motors. Smoker Craft introduced its Hydra-Lift Reverse Chine Hull design to drive water toward the boat’s stern to improve hole shots and on-plane performance. Later it developed pinch-free seating and introduced the Yarblow system of storage compartment ventilation. Meanwhile Sylvan introduced RPT ands SPX tubes to offer better pontoon boat handling and to accommodate increased horsepower to satisfy the growing demands of tow sports.
Today, the Schrock and Smoker families are united in a unique family-owned boat company with five brands operating under the Smoker Craft Inc. umbrella in New Paris, Indiana. Harold Schrock, son of founder Arthur Schrock, died in 2012. Harold’s three daughters, Cinda McKinney, Susie Graff, and Sara Barrett are all members of the Board of Directors of Smoker Craft Inc. with Cinda being Chairman of the Board.
Sara Barrett’s son, Peter Barrett, great grandson of founder Arthur Schrock, is currently Executive Vice-President as well as Senior Vice-President of Marketing and Corporate Development. Doug Smoker, son of Byron Smoker and great grandson of John Smoker is President of Smoker Craft Inc. and Phil Smoker, son of Doug Smoker is Vice-President of Sales.
They are a combined family of dedicated boaters who fish, cruise, and surf and, “As a family-owned and operated boat company, we hold tightly to the same values we were built on four generations ago – integrity, leadership, and loyalty.” And these same values extend to their employees and to their dealers and to their customers. #smokercraft #sylvan #starcraft #innovatorsinboating #culture