The Sebago Historical Society prominently displays two wonderfully preserved examples of the boats that used to be made in Sebago. A lap-strake wooden square-ended canoe dominates the exhibit shed, and a traditional double-ended wooden fishing boat sits in the main building. These two were some of the many boats built of cedar by the Sebago Boat and Canoe Company in East Sebago. Curtis Sanborn and Carlton Martin were two of the principles at the firm, and they employed several other locals in the building of their quality boats. Sebago Boats were popular with sportsmen and guides for their stability and ease of handling, and the Sebago Boat and Canoe Company was a small but important part of the commercial life of Sebago from the turn of the last century until the early 1950's.
For a half century there hasn't been a boat building business in Sebago, and now we have two of them - Yankee Airboats and the Bear Creek Canoe Company.
Harold Williams started building airboats on Hog Fat Hill as Yankee Air Boats a couple of years ago. He makes airboats for sportsmen and for search and rescue, and it is not unusual to see him testing his craft on the ponds and lakes in the area. His business was written up in the Portland Press Herald recently so I won't go over old ground. However the newest boat company in town has not been and I visited there this week to find out more about it.
In February 2004 Don and Brenda Moore began making fiberglass canoes and kayaks in Sebago as the Bear Creek Canoe Company. As Don showed me around his shop he talked about how he got started in the boat building business.
"Bear Creek Canoes was started in Limerick by Robert Brawn in 1981, when he started making cedar strip canoes and selling them. Bob made his first canoe under a tarp in his front yard with the help of his wife Faith. The demand for cedar strip canoes grew rapidly as did the requests for a line of fiberglass canoes. By the 1990s he was designing and constructing his own line of fiberglass canoes."
Don continued "I started working with Bob in the 1990's over in Limerick, and when he decided to concentrate on the designing side of the business I bought out the construction side of Bear Creek Canoes from him in 1994."
"What prompted you to move to Sebago?" I asked.
"We were well established in Limerick, but we had a fire in 1999 that forced us to move to rented quarters at the Limerick Mill. Finally Brenda and I decided to move our operation to the barn behind our home on Swamp Road in Sebago, and we have been here since earlier this year. We have plenty of space to make and store our canoes and kayaks, and it is working out well."
Don and Brenda make about 500 canoes and kayaks a year here. Bear Creek Canoes offers 12 models of canoes and 3 models of kayaks all built using the conventional, open-mold hand-lay process with fiberglass and reinforcing ribs. Molds for each size and model of boat in the Bear Creek line are scattered around the workshop. In making a canoe Don first applies a coating of one of eight gel coat colors to the inside of the mold, then starts laying in fiberglass fabric and resin to make the hull. He then puts down extra material to reinforce the bottom and a finishing interior coat. When dry the canoe shell is removed from the mold and vinyl rails, caned seats, ash carrying yokes and thwarts are added to complete the canoe. Don estimates that each canoe or kayak takes from eight to twelve hours to build depending on the model and finishing touches.
"We are seeing a resurgence of interest in square stern canoes now by anglers and hunters, and we have four models to meet the demand," Don said. "Kayaks are increasingly popular as well, but the mainstays of our business are our traditional canoe models. They all have a wide beam and are stable, and carry a lot of gear for camping and canoeing trips."
"Do you sell canoes here?" I asked. There were several canoes in different stages of construction in the shop, but I didn't see a sales room anywhere.
As Don showed a couple of customers who had dropped in a selection of kayak paddles in a corner of the shop he said, "We'll take orders from people that drop in or call us here at the shop, and will ship from here also, but most of our boats are sold through our network of dealers. When you go to our website you'll see a list of our dealers in nine different states. Our sales representative and factory outlet is John Gardner in Cumberland, Maine (207-829-3544).
I was impressed with the quality work that Don and Brenda put into their canoes, and was tempted to order one myself. After all, I only have two canoes out back, and neither has the distinction of being a canoe made right here in Sebago. It is nice to know that the spirit of the old Sebago Boat and Canoe Company lives on again in Sebago.
I'd like to thank Ann Burns and Lucretia Douglas for information on the Sebago Boat and Canoe Company.
This article was edited and published in the Neighbors Section of the Portland Press Herald on August 12, 2004 under the title "Boat-building tradition lives on".
Last updated August 24, 2004
Copyright © 2004, Allen Crabtree
Copyright © 2004, Allen Crabtree