With all this talk about sticking and driving tacks, I couldn’t help but recall the video that runs in the Museum’s boat building near the boat shop. It follows Willard Hanmer as he builds a guideboat. Now Williard is very highly esteemed in the village of Saranac Lake, NY, so esteemed that the annual guideboat race in that town is named in his memory. More on his life will follow.
The reason I am so familiar with the video is that it plays over and over again and is loud enough that I can hear every word while I volunteer in the boats hop. The video seems to run at twice the normal speed,perhaps double time. I certainly hope so since there is no way I could come anywhere near the pace at which he works in that video.
One portion shows him as he drives tacks on the inside of the hull. He first lays out and opens the pilot hole for the tacks with an awl. This is all done by eye. No careful laying out of the holes with a gauge block as I do so methodically (and slowly). Next, he and his wife Pauline stick the tacks. Then along comes Willard with tack hammer and clinching iron. In a blur a whole row of tacks is driven and clinched in the wink of an eye.
The more I read about Willard the more I believe he lived as the guideboat builders lived 100 years before he was building boats. Willard was born in 1902, the second son of Theodore, who was a guideboat builder. Theodore spoke proudly of his son saying “It takes a woodsman to building a woodsman’s boat and Will is the still the best boatbuilder in these parts”.
Willard learned how to build guideboats from his father. He began by sticking tacks, then caning seats and sandpapering. As Willard said, he was given tasks where if you didn’t do it right you couldn’t hurt anything. Of those times he said” It would take a long time to rub a hole through a boat by (sandpapering) by hand. Still would I guess”.
The following Hanmer family history was gleaned from Chris Woodward’s excellent website, Adirondack Guideboats. Willard worked for his father for 18 years until 1928 when he married Pauline Bennett. They built a boat shop in Saranac Lake in 1930 and built boats there for 33 years. The shop was eventually purchased by Chris Woodward who builds guideboats there today.
During those 33 years many challenges confronted this intrepid pair. In those days customers would not pay for all the hand labor involved in building a guideboat. Willard countered by “mechanizing all aspects of guideboat construction that he could” to quote Carl Hathaway.
Willard was a very talented builder and craftsman. Proof of this came several years ago when two of his guideboats, in mint condition, sold at auction for $25,000 each!
The life Willard lived hearkened back to the days when guides would build their own boats in the winter and guide during the summer. Willard couldn’t follow that tradition to the letter but he came pretty close. He would build boats during the winter and spring and then go out on the lakes to repair boats during the summer. Come fall he would go into the woods and hunt.
I have known a few true “Adirondackers”. They are exceptionally clever people who can use hand and mind to create most anything. They are generous to a fault. I know of one gentleman who lived all his life in the Adirondacks. One time a neighbor of his came to him in desperation. His home had burned down and he had no insurance. My friend said “Don’t worry, I have a saw mill. We’ll build you a new one”. And he did.
I believe that Willard Hanmer was one such soul.