A paddle through time: Canton man crafted celebrated light-weight canoes

Mr. Rushton’s son, Henry, stands atop a canvas-covered Indian Girl model canoe outside the Canton shop. The Indian Girl was a mainstay of the shop after 1900. Courtesy St. Lawrence County Historical Association

Mr. Rushton’s son, Henry, stands atop a canvas-covered Indian Girl model canoe outside the Canton shop. The Indian Girl was a mainstay of the shop after 1900. Courtesy St. Lawrence County Historical Association

In the last few decades of the 19th Century, as reconstruction from the Civil War wound down, an interest in recreation sports like boating swept the nation. Among the many eager businesspeople to tap into the trend was J. Henry Rushton, who from 1873 until his death in 1906 made what would become renowned and coveted canoes in a Canton shop and inspired a prestigious annual canoe race that had its 52nd paddling in the town this spring.

In a 1968 Watertown Daily Times article about the book Rushton and His Times in American Canoeing by Atwood Manley, published by the Syracuse University Press, Mr. Rushton, who was born in Edwards, is described as a “tiny, frail man” with a cough. He allegedly built his first boat for the woods after reading Adirondack Murray’s “Adventures in the Wilderness.” His Canton friend Milt Packard purchased the boat, and another friend, Canton’s shoeman Joe Ellsworth, for whom Mr. Rushton first worked as a clerk upon moving to Canton in 1869, supposedly saw it and spoke the dictum that launched Mr. Rushton into business: “Build me a damned sight better one.”

He built his factory at the corner of State and Water streets (now Riverside Drive) in 1881 and his catalogs grew from eight pages to over 80 in the early 1900s. He also forged a relationship with the magazine Field & Stream, his primary national advertising medium, in 1876, which was the same year he sent two cedar canoes to the Philadelphia Centennial.

Though canoes were his “staple product,” Mr. Rushton also made rowboats and guideboats, and even steam and electric-powered craft in the later years of his career. [Read more…]