Sailing Smoothly for 50 years: Antique Boat Museum Celebrates Birthday

Rebecca Hopfinger, executive director of the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, stands with boating relics in one of the showrooms.

    By: Norah Machia

The roots of the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton can be traced back to a group of boat enthusiasts who had a great deal of grit and determination. They wanted to find a way for people in the region to show off their restored antique wooden boats, while at the same time, admire and appreciate the restoration work done by others.

In 1967, they accomplished this by forming an auxiliary of the Thousand Islands Museum to build the momentum for antique boat shows to be held yearly in Clayton. These boat shows became renowned for their magnificence and splendor, growing each year in the number of entrants and attendees.

     The auxiliary later went off on its own and created a permanent museum to host annual boat shows after acquiring several parcels of waterfront property. That museum, called the Thousand Islands Shipyard Museum, was established in 1971 and dedicated to helping preserve both the nautical and cultural heritage of the St. Lawrence River.

     During the early 1990’s, the museum’s supporters and staff reexamined the mission and the future of the museum, and decided to expand its reach by featuring antique boats from throughout the United States and Canada, not just the northeastern United States.

   The museum was renamed the Antique Boat Museum in 1990, and also started fund-raising so it could expand its facilities for its growing collection of classic boats. The board created Friends of the Museum, a program through which benefactors could give to the museum to help establish educational programs, hire more staff and build a capital improvement fund. 

     In the early 2000s, La Duchesse, a two-story, 12-room houseboat that had been owned by Andrew McNally III, the former president of Rand McNally, was bequeathed to the museum. The 110-foot-long- vessel was open to the public in 2005, attracting more than 11,000 visitors that first summer.

   Today, the Antique Boat Museum has a collection of 10 buildings on its waterfront campus, containing a total of 29,000 square feet of exhibit space and 33,000 square feet for public programs, collections storage, archives, library and administrative space.

    It contains more than 320 boats in its permanent collection, including runabouts, skiffs and canoes. Its collections reflect the earliest days of pleasure boating, and also showcase items such as inboard and outboard engines and motors, historic boat-building tools and equipment, and boat hardware and accessories.

  But the museum has remained true to its roots by continuing to host the annual antique boat show along the St. Lawrence River, drawing tourists from throughout the country and Canada. It has been designated as North America’s longest-running antique boat show.   

     The Antique Boat Museum, 750 Mary St., has a myriad of activities scheduled for a “50th Birthday Celebration” this summer, to mark the milestone of the Antique Boat Auxiliary forming in 1967.

    “It is a truly exciting time as we enter our next fifty years,” said Rebecca L. Hopfinger, executive director. “We have so much to be proud of and being good stewards of our collection, campus, and donor’s contributions ranks very high on the priorities.”

   “The Antique Boat Museum’s board of trustees and staff are dedicated to shaping the best future possible for this special museum, and celebrating with all of its supporters and the community,” she added.

     Margaret E. Hummel, Antique Boat Museum director of events and marketing, said the museum has planned the special “50th Birthday Celebration” for July, but is celebrating throughout the year in a number of ways.  

They include:

  • A special membership incentive to bring back past due members. For example, those dating as far back as 2007 can renew their family memberships for $50 (that membership category is typically $75).
  • Free admission will be offered to anyone who was born in 1967 (and is therefore also celebrating their 50th birthday this year).
  • The Gazette Annual, published in March, features a historical retrospective written as a team effort by staff, breaking down the museum’s history into five decades. Each staff member took on a decade to research.
  • A special birthday video that will debut at the museum’s 50th Birthday Party is being created and will also be available for viewing throughout the summer.
  • The museum will have a special 50th Birthday decal for members this year and they are being encouraged to display their decal and post a picture online using the #abm50 hashtag.

     The Antique Boat Museum’s “50th Birthday Party” celebration will be held on July 22 and include a variety of activities, starting with a “group row” at 8 a.m. from the museum to the Clayton Yacht Club on Bartlett Point. Participants will be given the opportunity to row one of the museum’s skiffs, or they can bring their own small craft.

     Museum officials are still determining the best way to bring people into the museum that day, so the fee will either be waived or there will be a nominal 50 cent admission charge, Ms. Hummel said. There will be special exhibit tours led by the museum’s curator, activities and crafts for children and families, and discounted rides on the museum’s in-water fleet boats. The evening will feature live music, a variety of food and possibly a fireworks display.

     Part of the celebration will also include a staff reunion, Ms. Hummel said. 

     “We’re encouraging everyone who has worked at the Antique Boat Museum in the past fifty years, from full-time positions to teenagers who worked summer seasonal roles, to join us at the birthday party to celebrate our connections and contributions,” Ms. Hummel said.

     Although many of the Antique Boat Museum’s founders are deceased, the museum is planning to invite their families and other key members of the community to the 50th Birthday celebration, in order to honor them for their roles in creating the museum, she said.

    “We will also be encouraging people to contribute items for a 50th Birthday Time Capsule to celebrate our history” and reflect how the museum impacted their lives, Ms. Hummel added. 

     Although the 50th Birthday Celebration will recognize the establishment of the Antique Boat Auxiliary, there are a few years of history worth mentioning that lead up to that accomplishment.

      A Clayton man had been part of the inspiration behind the formation of the auxiliary. Allan R. Youngs had purchased a boat that had been built in 1924 by Hutchinson’s Boat Works, Alexandria Bay. It was 28 feet long and 6 feet, 6 inches wide, and named Idyll Oaks.

     After a yearlong restoration effort, the couple was inspired to show off their hard work. They reached out to others who shared their enthusiasm for restoring and displaying antique wooden boats, and staged the first boat show in 1964. It was some of those participants who later formed the Antique Boat Auxiliary.

     In The Gazette Annual 2017, staff members compiled a history of the museum.    In reflecting on the name change from The Shipyard Museum to the Antique Boat Museum, it was noted that “the biggest change was one of vision and direction.”

    “Building on the foundation laid by a committed group of boat collectors and enthusiasts, the Board embraced professionalizing the Museum and promoting our collection and our regional boating history to a much broader audience,” it stated.

         In referencing the modern-day Antique Boat Museum, contributors wrote “Today, the collection continues to grow and be refined, education programs cater to a variety of interests, social media allows us to engage with audiences across the globe, and the in-water fleet program flourishes with multiple boats driven by a team of twenty volunteer captains.”

    “Despite a few uncertain years, stability has been reached,” staff members wrote. “The Antique Boat Museum has a rich and varied history and is grateful to its membership, trustees, staff, and volunteers for their unwavering support over the last 50 years.”