Safe harbor: Home to the crafts that have plied the Finger Lakes for centuries, the Finger Lakes Boating Museum inhabits the former Taylor Wine Company buildings in Hammondsport, donated by CEO Bud Meade and his Mercury Aircraft Corporation.
I was eleven-goin’-on-twelve and sound asleep in my trundle, dreaming of the pretty redhead who held my hand while we danced around the May Pole. It was four o’clock a.m., and my old man rousted me out of bed to go fishing. The Old Man had been bitten by the lake trout bug and, after a number of trips to Crooked Lake, he decided to drag me along. It would be my first outing and trouting on Keuka Lake.
I had dozed for an hour when the car came to a stop. Dad scurried to the trunk of the car, lifted his 5-horse Evinrude motor, and raced to a boat. Another sprint and his hand- hammered Seth Green rig was aboard. “Hurry up! Get in the boat,” he hissed. The Old Man acted as though we were stealing the watercraft. I felt like I did the night the East-End Nature Club raided the neighbor’s garden. I learned later that Dad and his buddies apparently had an arrangement with Clark’s Boat Livery, where they could take a boat before daybreak and pay for the rental when they returned to the dock. I didn’t know that. I muttered to myself, “This lake fishing might be fun.”
Once on the lake, Dad motored to just the right spot, throttled the engine down to trolling speed, and began dropping silver lures into the drink, one by one, as each spoon took its turn on the rig. When that was done, he handed me a spinning rod that held a small gold Rooster Tail spinner.
“Here,” he growled, “you can use this to fish with.”
Talk about boring. I let out about a thousand yards of line and closed the bail on the reel. Before long, I had devised a method of securing the rod while I closed my eyes. Every once in a while, the Old Man stirred. He furiously yanked the line up until a nice lake trout appeared, was netted, and was boated. I watched the fish flop on the bottom of the boat and closed my eyes again. With the steady, easy rocking of the boat and the comforting lull of the trolling motor, I was fast asleep in no time.
Now, had they offered college degrees for foul language, my Old Man would have earned a PhD in profanity. So I was not shocked when he...understand, he had a progression whenever he used the Lord’s name in vain. Jeez was level one. Next was Jee-zus! Then Jesus Christ! The top level was when he gave the Son of God a middle initial. And I heard him scream, “Jesus H. Christ!” I opened my eyes and saw what looked and sounded like a jet skim past our boat. The speedster set up a surge of swells and sprays that threatened to swamp our dinghy. I murmured to myself, “Wow! What a boat.”
Another fisherman trolled copper wire about fifty yards away, and the speedster had zoomed between us. He corrected the Old Man, shouting, “No, that wasn’t Jesus. That was a Penn Yan Swift...the fastest boat on the Finger Lakes.” It was my first day in a boat of any kind, but I vowed to see a Penn Yan Swift up close one day.
Two hours later, after basking...no, broiling, baking, and burning in the hot sun as it beat down upon the occupants of our boat, I felt a tug. “Dad, I’ve got one on.” And I reeled in the first lake trout I ever caught. I started to enjoy the lake fishing. But the 5-horse died and the Old Man went back to wet flies and brown trout on Pine Creek.
Just last week, I finally fulfilled that sixty-year-old vow. I saw a Penn Yan Swift, looking like it had just rolled off the factory floor. And I saw a lot more. I was at the Finger Lakes Boating Museum. The place is in Hammondsport on Pleasant Valley Road. Some folks might remember the site as the former Taylor Wine Company. My lovely bride and I enjoyed a personally escorted “cook’s tour” led by museum Executive Director Andrew Tompkins. And what a tour. We both whispered, “Wow!” when we entered the lobby. The reception area was impressive and board member Pat Etter was working the desk. Pat told us that it was once the accounting office for Taylor Wine Company and that museum volunteers had torn out scores of cubicles to create the wide-open greeting space.
Etter gave us a detailed history of the museum and took us next door to view a professionally produced video. The words “Wow,” uttered by my wife and I, and “volunteers,” spoken by Tompkins and Etter, would echo throughout the museum while we were there. Each of the various halls is dedicated to a specific type of boat. Wow! A score of wooden canoes, restored to “brand new” condition by volunteers. Wow! Thanks to the hard work of volunteers, several dozen fishing rowboats shine like the day they were built. Wow! In the speedboat hall, I finally saw that Penn Yan Swift, it’s brass and chrome reflected in the varnish on the wood...restored by volunteers. Wow! The boats in the sail room looked ready to tack down the lake, thanks to the cadre of unpaid experts who breathed life back into them.
A leisurely stroll through the museum tells a tale of the history of watercraft on the Finger Lakes. The oldest canoe is an actual birch bark Indian craft. It is followed by a host of wooden canoes in a myriad of styles followed by aluminum and fiberglass, the latest renditions of those vessels. Each hall mimics the canoe display, taking the visitor through a history. There are over a hundred boats on display, and a like number of watercraft is stored in adjoining buildings to be rotated in and out of the display halls.
Visitors may watch volunteers carefully caressing the mahogany, teak, elm, and pine, the steel, copper, and brass as they work at restoring boats. Currently, the major project is the restoration of the thirty-nine foot launch, Pat II. The boat was built in 1924 and served as the mail boat on Skaneateles Lake up to the 1960s. The plan is to use the boat as an educational tour boat.
It was in the workshop that we met Ed Wightman. If the museum has a patron saint, Ed would be it. Perhaps the real story is the history of the museum. As early as 1995, Wightman recognized the need to preserve the boating history of his beloved Finger Lakes. Ed cautioned, “If we don’t try to save these boats, they’ll rot away and be gone forever.” The seed for the Finger Lakes Boating Museum was sown. A group of trusted restoration experts and a number who were willing to learn, step by step...well, stepped forward. Soon, they had gathered more than a hundred antique boats in need of love. One by one, the boats were restored and unceremoniously stored in garages and barns all around the Finger Lakes. The directors referred to the disparate collection of craft as “the museum without walls.” It was nearly a score of years before they partnered with Geneva, New York, to build the museum using grants. That process took time, but, for the first time, all the boats were gathered in one place. Funding and construction projections were cut dramatically, and the Geneva site began to fade from possibility. To add to the disappointment, the city of Geneva was forced to ask for rent.
Docked in Hammondsport: Canoes and their history—from an actual birch bark Indian craft to wooden canoes in a myriad of styles to the latest renditions in aluminum and fiberglass— are on display at the Finger Lakes Boating Museum.
What to do? Ed Wightman met with Bud Meade, the CEO of Mercury Aircraft Corporation, and convinced him to loan the group some space. On a single Saturday in April, forty volunteers moved more than eighty boats to the old Taylor winery, then owned by Bud and his Mercury Aircraft. Impressed with the concept of preserving Finger Lakes history and the enthusiasm of the workers, Meade made the museum a gift of the fourteen acres and twenty buildings that comprised the long abandoned Taylor winery, and the Finger Lakes Boating Museum had a permanent home. The museum still relies heavily on volunteers, as Andrew Tompkins is the only paid full-time employee.
The Finger Lakes Boating Museum is a great treasure. The place is kid friendly, with a special children’s section where youngsters can draw pictures of boats, construct rudimentary boats, or even stamp sailor tattoos on their arms. Education plays a key role in the function of the Finger Lakes Boating Museum. Seminars and workshops are scheduled regularly. Even when it was a museum without walls, classes were offered in boating safety. A workshop demonstrated how to build a nine-foot Penn Yan Dinghy from lines to lofting to building the mold. Novices were taught how to winterize outboard motors. Other lectures and presentations featured the history of steamboats on the Finger Lakes or how to replace ribs on a wooden rowboat. If you’ve ever floated aboard a craft on the Finger Lakes...if you are remotely interested in boating history...the museum is a must-see. You won’t be disappointed.