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.

Key to the emerging popularity of canoeing, according to the Times article, were adventurers such as Pennsylvania shoemaker George Washington Sears (“Nessmuk”), who “proved by his Adirondacks-based voyages that guides could be dispensed with, thus opening up canoeing to lean-pocketed sportsmen.” Mr. Rushton crafted five boats for Nessmuk, the most famous of which was the “Sairy Gamp,” weighing 10 ½ pounds. It rested in the Smithsonian before it was put on loan to the Adirondack Museum in 1965. Nessmuk, supposedly Mr. Sears’ pen name, wrote 90 articles in Field and Stream, rhapsodizing on Rushton’s canoes and their lightness.

Mr. Rushton was one of the 23 founders of the American Canoe Association, which the biography notes was important for his business in the 1880s and 90s; its August regattas, first held at Lake George and later off Grindstone Island in the St. Lawrence, “saw his racing and sailing canoes always competitive and usually dominant.” At these international meets, Mr. Rushton provided American cedar go-light craft that were superior to the English, the biography says.

Mr. Rushton was a keen-observer of the world, perhaps as skilled in using words to describe it as he was using tools to help people navigate it. He is said to have remarked of heavy, noisy canoes: “Goodbye, old man! Salt pork for breakfast at your camp tomorrow! Ha! Ha!” But as the 1890s progressed, he got further away from decked patterns as Canadian open models gained popularity.

Nonetheless, this was a time of great notoriety for Mr. Rushton, who had agents in America’s largest cities, including an exhibit at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. He even shipped some of his craft to boaters including August Belmont to use on the waters of the Nile. And The New York Times described the Rushton as the “strongest, lightest, most graceful, and most useful, paddling canoe that has yet been devised.”

Mr. Rushton married Leah Pflaum in 1883, who bore him two sons and was in charge of making the sailing rigs for his craft for many years inside their home at 19 Hodskin St. As his business prospered and he became a national and internationally regarded figure in the canoeing world, he also got highly involved in the community, as a member of the St. Lawrence canoe club, and the water and sewage commission the Stillwater club. His abstinence from alcohol and tobacco led to the formation of a society that grew into the Canton Free Library. And his efforts at outlawing the use of dogs in deer hunting led to a county prohibition of hounding before the state enacted a similar measure. Field and Stream made the laudatory remark that “Rushton has become Canton.”

The apex of Mr. Rushton’s career, according to the Manley biography, was the 1886 ACA congress at Grindstone, in which his “Vesper” won a great Challenge Cup race against the Joyner-made “Pecowsic.”

The 1890s proved a challenge for his business, as general canoe use suffered with the costs of racing as well as the proliferation of cycling and power boats. But by the early 1900s, things seemed on the upswing as Indian and Indian Girl models—canvas-covered canoes—led to an uptick in sales. Mr. Rushton added on to his building and installed steam heat and electric lights. He employed 25 men per day and churned out 750 Indian Girls in 1904, as well as 150 all-wood canoes.

Despite the prosperity, his letters from these years hinted at mortality, and by 1906 he was dead at the age of 63. His shop, however, powered ahead under the direction of his wife, then “Harry,” the elder son, later J. Henry’s half-brother Judd and finally the young son, Sidney. By the dawn of World War I, “the last copper nails were clinched in a Rushton boat,” and in 1926 the shop was dismantled by a farmer who rather unceremoniously built a dairy barn from the lumber. His legacy, however, was not.

In May 1962, the first annual Rushton Memorial Canoe Race was held in Canton on a seven mile course on the Grass River from Pyrites to the bridge on Main Street with 10 contestants, sponsored by the Grasse River Historical Society and the Canton Junior Chamber of Commerce and attracted about 1,000 people. The next year, the number of participants more than doubled. Following the fifth annual paddling in 1967, the Historical Association held ceremonies at the bridge to honor Mr. Rushton’s canoes, embedding a stone monument on the mall facing toward the business district. Today the Rushton races are held as part of Canton Canoe Weekend, with a variety of race categories, and draw throngs of participants and spectators.

And the grandson of one of Mr. Rushton’s employees, Edmund Chase, continued the production legacy by crafting the paddles that originally accompanied the Rushton canoe for more than 30 years, primarily using his grandfather’s hand tools, in his Russell home, according to a 1983 Times article. Mr. Chase’s grandfather and father both worked for Mr. Rushton, but he taught himself to make the paddles. The paddles were designed for deer hunters who needed to make minimal noise in the waterways.

“He sold those plain paddles for two dollars and a half and that was at a time when the average person made $1 a day, so he was doing pretty well,” Mr. Chase told the Times. “After grandpa died, the paddle became a collector’s item. People wondered where they could get one.”

Mr. Rushton inspired others, too: Old Town Canoe Co., Old Town, Me., developed a lightweight fiberglass canoe similar to Mr. Rushton’s “Wee Lassie” pack canoe, according to a 1971 Times article. Old Town’s canoe was 10½ feet long, 27 inches wide and 10 inches deep, weighing only 18 pounds.

One of the last remaining Rushton canoes was put on display at the first annual canoe race after it was found in the garage of the old Ellsworth home in Canton and completely restored. The “Princess” model was owned by Nathaniel Wells, of Judson Street.

Today, two canoes and one of Mr. Rushton’s rowboats, as well as various historical materials on his boats and exhibitions, is on display at the St. Lawrence County Historical Association, 3 East Main St., Canton.

Business history is a monthly feature from the archives of the Watertown Daily Times. Visit www.watertowndailytimes.com to access digital archives since 1988, or stop by the Times, 260 Washington St., Watertown to research materials in our library that date back to the 1800s.