Just a memory

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 18, 2004

I’ve probably mentioned I used to work for Chris Craft before. I just heard from a friend living in Florida who is the oldest living ex-employee of the Chris Craft Corp. I rank about 10th, maybe 15th on that list.

I refer to the time when Chris Craft produced varying sizes of those beautiful mahogany pleasure boats at the original plant up in Algonac, Mich., on the St. Clair River. Neither of us could make it this year to join the 50 or so still alive who meet annually, each year takes its toll.

When we are all gone, there will still be a beautiful memorial over at the Mariner Museum in Newport News that includes a few old-timer boats. Those gems are quite rare and lucky owners show them with pride, keeping them looking like the day they were &uot;born.&uot; I use that term because it required great labor and love to deliver such a varnished masterpiece.

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My brother Jim became the plant manager after the war and went on to build plants in other cities. My Florida friend and I helped build the huge new plant in Algonac; it’s still there but is now a private marina used to store boats in the winter season.

The real Chris Craft is but a name now and old boats are collector items. I knew the original owner, Chris Smith and all his descendents that took part in building the business to what was a giant in those days. All are gone but grandson Christopher Smith, now 76. He still builds them as a profitable hobby, like the originals, turning out a few each year like the jewels they were. Chris, his sister and I used to walk a mile to school together.

After retiring and turning the business over to his sons, the grandfather occasionally tinkered with boats but most of the time on his porch in a rickety chair, puffing his cigar and whittling duck decoys. If he wasn’t there, he sat on a box in the Chris Craft plant’s boiler room, visiting with old timers that had been with him from the start, each a specialist in the craft of boat building.

Beginning in 1942, when I was 16, I worked summers in the shipping department building cradles to hold the boats on flat cars when they were sent off to the Navy. These weren’t jewels; they were steel-fronted landing craft, built by Chris Craft under a contract with Higgins Boat Company, which eventually produced thousands of them for the invasion fleets.

Years later, I got to ride in one as it approached Normandy in 1944. It was a simple matter for Chris Craft to convert from pleasure boats with compound curves to what looked almost like a box. Twenty a day going out the railroad gates were expected… and bonuses if there were more. That was Algonac’s contribution to the war, that and many sons, some of which never returned.

When I returned to Chris Craft sometime after the war, things had changed. Returning vets were guaranteed a job. My brother, as plant manager, did not believe it a good idea that his younger brother should have anything but a menial job… something about nepotism.

I was used to dirty work as a combat engineer, and as long as I didn’t have to sleep in a hole at night it mattered not what I did for a living. Anyway, I didn’t stay long

The sons of Chris Smith had big ideas and moved on to bigger boats, eventually to 65-footers that were monsters compared to the early models of the 1930s. And they sold them and many sizes in between. As expensive and beautiful as they were, they held no candle to the original almost red mahogany hulls with the polished stainless steel cutwaters.

And Chris Craft expanded to cities like Holland, Michigan, Cadillac, Pompano Beach, Florida, and many others, even one in China. Eventually, the company sold out to NAFI and the boys, now aging fast, found other ways to keep busy and spend their money.

It gives me pleasure yet today to wander in my mind through those old original Chris Craft buildings, watching a small boat emerge from piles of wood, floors covered with shavings and sawdust. Sweepers stayed busy and you often thought about fire. There were barrels of water, handy just in case. But these craftsmen smoked their hand-rolled cigarettes and workplace pipes; these were the days before safety precautions. The air filled with the wonderful aroma of glue, wood, and the slapping sound of huge leather belts that powered the planers and sanders.

In another separate &uot;clean&uot; building, the smell of varnish hung in the air. No brass screws showed, each countersunk and covered with a mahogany &uot;bung&uot; glued in with its grain properly aligned with the plank and sanded by hand to be smooth as glass. You won’t see this again in this plastic world.

I am proud to have been a small part of the era of craftsmanship.

Robert Pocklington is a resident of Suffolk and a regular News-Herald columnist. He can be contacted via e-mail: robert.pocklington@suffolknewsherald.com