Grumman Cane History

 

Using wartime technology, Grumman produces a
product for peacetime America

Paddling a Canoe to Success

 

Newsday/Daniel Goodrich
John Achilich, one of the creators of the Grumman canoe in 1945, takes his fiancée, Olga Baumann, for a paddle in a 15-foot model recently in Arrowhead Lake in Baiting Hollow.

A GRUMMAN CORP. executive was portaging a heavy wood-and-canvas canoe in the Adirondacks in 1944 when he wondered if the activity might be easier if the vessel were made of aluminum.

 

World War II was drawing to an end and William Hoffman, a company vice president, knew that defense contractors would be looking to convert their factories for peacetime production. As he heaved the old-style canoe around, he figured that Grumman could make lighter, sturdier aluminum models with the same metal-working expertise it had used to make thousands of Hellcat, Tigercat and Bearcat warplanes.

 

 


Northrop Grumman Corp.

William Hoffman, left, was the Grumman executive who sold the idea of the aluminum canoe to Leroy Grumman, the company president.

Company heads Leroy Grumman and Jake Swirbul liked the idea. Soon, 17-foot-long prototypes were being built in the employees' bowling alley in Bethpage. After a successful test in the rapids of the Allagash River in Maine, the Grumman canoe was launched. A model was displayed in the window of Abercrombie & Fitch in Manhattan and in October, 1945, Leroy Grumman announced that the company had invented a 13-foot, 38-pound model that "even a woman can carry." The New York Times described it as lighter "than Hiawatha's birchbark vessel ... and impervious to either porcupines or termites."

 

 


Northrop Grumman Corp.

Grumman himself showed off its buoyant qualities for a publicity photo.

The Aluminum Company of America provided a special aluminum alloy for the hull -- and an expert, too. Russell Bonetcou, a sportsman who years earlier had worked with Alcoa on the aluminum canoe idea, joined Grumman on the project.

 

As Grumman geared up for mass production, Hoffman tapped John Achilich, a Grumman tooling engineer, to design larger canoes of 15, 17 and 19 feet. Achilich, a lanky 27-year-old, was excited about the assignment. As a teen growing up in the Bronx, he had built his own wood-and-cloth kayak. And before and during his college years at Pratt Institute, he had worked as a lifeguard and canoe instructor.

 

With instructions to keep quiet about the project, he was sent to work alone in a remote office in a hangar at Bethpage Plant 2. Over the course of about a month, Achilich, often working into the night, laid out paper on top of long pieces of thin aluminum to draw hull lines. From his designs, hard-wood molds would be created over which sheets of aluminum would be "stretched" on presses to make each half of the canoe.

 

Part of Achilich's challenge was to engineer smooth lines that would prevent the aluminum from wrinkling during pressing. Eventually the halves would be held together with rivets and extrusions at the seams, as well as ribs and seats reaching from side to side.

 

"A canoe is a canoe is a canoe," Achilich, now 81 and living in Bethpage, said recently. "The important thing about the Grumman canoe was that it was so strong. It had a nice flat bottom for stability and had a nice prow."

 

In a 1976 company book called "The Grumman Story," Hoffman said the corporation improved the conventional canoe by adding water-tight compartments at the bow and stern so the vessel "would not only remain afloat when swamped, but also support several people while awash."

 

Grumman canoes -- known for the booming sound they make when hitting a dock or rock -- became fixtures at summer camps and rental sites on rivers and lakes. They were so popular that Grumman built a separate boat manufacturing plant in Marathon, 40 miles south of Syracuse, to open up space in Bethpage for Korean War aircraft production in 1952.

 

This past winter, Paddler, a national boating magazine, honored Hoffman and Achilich by naming them two of 100 "Paddlers of the Century."

 

"Hoffman and Achilich influenced canoeing in the last half of the twentieth century like few others, by introducing light, rugged boats at an easily affordable price," the magazine wrote. A Grumman canoe, Paddler publisher and editor Eugene Buchanan said recently, could take a beating. "You could put the wife and kids and kitchen sink in the thing and ram it into rocks," he said. The public bought thousands. A 1975 brochure cited sales of more than 300,000 Grumman canoes in 30 years. Demand peaked in 1974 with sales of 33,000, propelled by the 1972 movie "Deliverance" and concerns about fuel consumption during the mid-'70s energy crisis.

 

Grumman through the years expanded into several types of aluminum vessels, including square-backed canoes, fishing boats, pontoon boats and hovercraft, and even found a way to rig its canoes for sailing. But aluminum canoe sales eventually dropped to perhaps 4,000 a year as plastic and fiberglass models became popular, according to Kip Towl, a former head of Grumman Boats who is now retired in Centerport.

 

Grumman's boat division was sold in 1990 to Outboard Marine Corp. and then in July, 1996, OMC produced its last Grumman-brand canoe. Only a few months later, however, four former Grumman and OMC employees and an upstate investor formed Marathon Boat Group Inc. and began pressing out canoes again at the old Grumman plant in Marathon. Today's 17-footer sells for $775, plus shipping, compared with about $205 in 1953, according to Greg Harvey, Marathon's sales manager.

 

"Aluminum is no longer the king, but it has its own market," said Harvey. "We virtually kept the canoe from disappearing."

 

For his part, Achilich was involved in the canoe project at Grumman for only about a year. He later worked in engineering for a variety of companies and in research for the U.S. Navy. In 1966, he returned to Grumman, where he was in charge of training-equipment facilities for the F-14.

 

In his off hours, he sometimes paddled Grumman canoes with his sons, Steve and Ken, on the Delaware River and as a Suffolk County Boy Scout commissioner. Achilich said he never spoke much about his role in creating the canoe, although friends filled a Grumman model with ice and beverages at his retirement party in 1989.

 

 

"It isn't until you're old and white-haired that you think, gee, that was a pretty good thing we were doing," he said.

 

The Marathon Boat Group:

From Grumman Hellcats to Marathons and DuraNautics.

In 1945, a year after William Hoffman's auspicious fishing trip, the first aluminum canoe, 13 feet in length, was produced at a Grumman aircraft plant in Bethpage, Long Island, During testing, the prototype demonstrated superior strength and handling characteristics to its wood and canvas counterpart while weighing in at a full 30% less pounds at the same length.

 

As World War II drew to a close and the U.S. Government began to strongly encourage diversification of its wartime industrial suppliers throughout the country, Hoffman and President Leroy Grumman decided to designate a 20,000 square foot area of the aircraft plant for the manufacture of aluminum canoes. The model line expanded to include 13 foot, 15 foot, 17 foot, 18 foot, 19 foot and 20 foot length canoes in both standard and lightweight thicknesses. Increasing demand from these canoes coupled with governmental concerns over their being produced in manufacturing areas largely funded by the Navy Department caused the Corporation to relocate the effort to upstate New York.

 

The plant located on South Street in Marathon, NY was purchased from the Arco Skate Company in 1952 and became the Metal Boat Division of the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation. The first aluminum canoes produced in Marathon came off the assembly line early in 1953.

 

The mid-fifties saw the introduction of the first aluminum fishing boats and runabouts produced by the Marathon plant. These models were offered in 13 foot, 6 inch and 14 foot, 6 inch lengths.

 

In 1957 Grumman purchased and remodeled the Front Street Marathon Plant as an additional assembly area for aluminum canoes and boats. In 1959 a south wing was added to this plant to accommodate the production of fiberglass boats. Within two years, however, this production activity was relocated to a sister division, Pearson Yachts in Bristol, RI to better utilize their existing fiberglass production capacity.

 

During the early sixties, Grumman expanded its stretch formed boat line to include several new models, the longest of which measured 19 feet with a beam amidships of 8 feet.

 

In 1963 Grumman Allied Industries, Inc. was formed as a subsidiary to Grumman Corporation. The Marathon, NY location became known as Grumman Boats, a division of GAII.

 

During the late sixties, waning aluminum boat sales combined with increased demand for canoes led to management’s decision to discontinue boat production in Marathon in favor of concentrating solely on aluminum canoe production.

 

Canoe demand peaked in 1974 due in part to the "energy crisis" and the canoe’s ability to provide recreation on the water without fuel consumption. This, coupled with a renewed paddling popularity spurred on by the motion picture "Deliverance," which featured Grumman canoes, resulted in Grumman canoe sales of over 33,000 units that year.

 

In the late seventies a new management team decided to re-enter the aluminum boat market with the "Meter series." Offered in 3.8, 4.4, 4.6 and 5.0 meter lengths, these boats were very heavily design and labor intensive and were consequently considered to be overly expensive for an aluminum boat by the buying public. While these units were not as well accepted in the market place as hoped, they did mark Grumman’s return to aluminum boat manufacturing and were the first models produced at the Marathon Plant to offer level flotation.

 

In the early eighties it was decided to produce a more conventionally designed line of aluminum "V" bottom fishing boats. These models were manufactured in large numbers in several lengths ranging from an 11 foot, 6 inch car-topper to an 18 foot l/O.

 

In 1984 Four-Way Industries, a manufacturer of flat bottom aluminum jon and bass boats located in Arkadelphia, Arkansas was purchased by Grumman Boats. Aluminum pontoon boat production began in this plant in 1986 with three models being offered in 20, 24 and 28 foot lengths. Demand in the Northeast for these units was so great that the following year production of pontoon boats began at the Marathon Plant.

 

1986 also saw the Grumman Boats’ purchase of an assembly plant in Minong, WI. All units produced at this location were assembled with parts supplied in the flat, shipped from either Marathon, NY or Arkadelphia, AR. This was done to achieve lower freight costs to dealers and consequently better sales penetration in the North Central and Northwestern market areas of the country. This strategy had been employed to a lesser degree some years earlier with limited success at Grumman sister locations in Carmichaels, PA and Corcoran, CA.

 

In 1988 Grumman produced the largest aluminum boat in its history at Marathon. This model measured 22 feet, 3 inches, featured a cuddy cabin and was designed primarily for Great Lakes use.

 

With a downturn of the economy and the marine industry in particular, Grumman Allied Industries, Inc. decided to sell its boat division in 1989. Grumman Boats was purchased by the Outboard Marine Corporation in March of 1990. After 14 months of operation in a still sluggish boating economy, OMC elected to relocate all Grumman aluminum boat and pontoon production to its other Mid-western aluminum boat manufacturing plants to better utilize their more modern facilities and larger capacities. OMC sold its Grumman plants in Arkansas, Wisconsin and all of its Marathon, NY holdings with the exception of the South Street Plant where it continued to produce Grumman canoes only as a part of OMC’s Aluminum Boat Group.

 

In the Spring of 1995 OMC ABG purchased the DuraNautic Boat Company’s tooling and assets in Scranton, PA and relocated them to the Marathon Plant. DuraNautic Boat designs featured all welded heavy duty hulls and were renowned throughout the Northeast since the early seventies for their strength and durability.

 

In May of 1996 the combination of a new OMC management team and a 30% downturn in OMC’s overall sales performance led to the decision to discontinue operations a the Marathon Plant. Reasons cited for the closure were that OMC could realize a higher return on their investment by focusing on their higher volume operations in the Midwest.

 

The last Grumman canoe produced by OMC in Marathon, NY was completed on June 27, 1996. OMC did, however, offer to sell the plant and all of its assets except the Grumman name to its former Marathon employees. OMC maintained a small staff until August 31, 1996 to continue to sell existing inventory.

 

On September 4, 1996, the Marathon, New York operation, including all assets, inventories and tooling, was purchased from OMC by four former Grumman/OMC employees and a local investor. The new company, known as the Marathon Boat Group, Inc., resumed production of Marathon Canoes, identical in every respect to Grumman Canoes with the exception of decal, on September 9, 1996. A restart of DuraNautic Boat production followed shortly thereafter.

 

The DuraNautic product line offering was expanded to include jon boats in the fall of 1997.

 

The Marathon Boat Group currently offers 13 Marathon Canoe models and 11 models of DuraNautic V-hulls and jon boats.

 

In the summer of 2000, a licensing agreement was reached between Northrop Grumman and Marathon Boat Group. The Name Grumman is once again back on the canoes where it always belonged."