My grandfather was not a novice in boatcraft for he had built and operated his own keelboat in freight service on the St. Joseph River between South Bend, Ind. and Niles, Mich., in the '70s. He loved the river and spent a lot of time on it after he retired; taught us kids how to make log catamarans, raft shacks and even flat-bottom canoes, and finally came up with the idea of building a big scow and taking 10 of us down the St. Joe to Lake Michigan, a 75-mile cruise. Our parents welcomed the prospect of getting us out of their hair for a couple of weeks, and they had full confidence in grandfather.
Each of us chipped in a dollar for the boat material (one boy later dropped out), which was to be a 22-foot scow, 5 feet wide. (Ten dollars today might buy the paint and hardware.)
A man needs only a nodding acquaintance with ordinary tools to build a first-class boat these days, anything from a kayak to a salt-water cruiser. He buys a kit, moves the car out of the garage, spreads out the plans and gets to work. Fifty years ago it was a laborious task to build anything that would float with a payload. One had to have considerable savvy, too.
Gramp had the lumber hauled to a flat at the water's edge and began construction on a couple of sawhorses. Sides were 2 inches by 12 inches and bottom boards 1-inch-by-4-inch pine installed crosswise, edges beveled to form a V-joint. Oakum was packed into this with a homemade, hardwood calking chisel and hot tar poured over it, a tedious job not speeded up any by us kids trying to help. A 2-inch-by-4-inch keel was set and the scow was turned over for the installation of end decks and boards were secured on the gunwales for seats. No screws; only nails and spikes were used throughout. It was no swanlike gondola but it looked mighty good to us as it slid into the water and floated with 10 inches of freeboard. A long pole and pair of oars completed the equipment.
August 7, 1955
On a glorious morning in June we shoved off, forward deck piled high with tent, blankets, canned goods and gear. Parents and neighbors waved us bon voyage and father took snapshots on glass plates in a primitive box camera, one of them shown here.
We floated lazily with the current, Gramp poling through slack water. We watched the herons rise in leisurely flight and saw the surprised turtles slide off logs as we came round the bends. We trolled for bass as we passed over their spawning beds, catching more than we could eat on soft shell crayfish and hellgrammites, which looked like aquatic scorpions. The old St. Joe was an Izaak Walton paradise before industrial waste had polluted the water. In fact, before the dams were put in, many sturgeon up to 100 pounds were caught and one commercial fisherman actually built a corral of saplings in the water to keep his catch until marketing them.
A week's camp was set up on Batchelor Island where we swam, shot "mushrats" with a .22 Flaubert rifle, ate prodigious quantities of bread and jam between meals and dug for arrowheads. Found 'em, too.
One night in a terrific thunderstorm lightning struck a tree nearby and our tent blew down. There was a frantic hassle in the dark under that wet canvas, 10 scared youngsters milling around over fishing tackle, lanterns, groceries—including two dozen eggs we'd just got that day from a farmer. Gramp thought he'd been smart to sleep in an abandoned fisherman's hut, but in the morning his eyes were nearly swollen shut from insect bites.
Normally he was of placid disposition but this was the turning point. For a week he'd been trying to keep a bunch of 10-year-old Comanches out of trouble and the strain was beginning to tell. Of course all of us could swim but there were the hazards of broken arms, poison ivy, rattlers, or a carelessly aimed rifle or hatchet. Gramp even got clopped on the nose when one of the boys swung a club to kill a snake. Not long after, he stepped on a rusty nail and an infection set in, so there was nothing to do but for him to go home for treatment.
Rather than abandon the expedition an 18-year-old boy, Bob Campbell, was put in charge and he proved a competent skipper. We continued on down to Lake Michigan without untoward incident and after considerable haggling with a bewhiskered old boatman, Bob sold the scow for $3. What did we do with all that money before starting home on the train? Filled up to the neck with chocolate ice cream sodas, naturally. They were only 5¢ in St. Joseph, Mich, and a welcome change from a fish diet.