It was the end of World War II. Flour City Ornamental Iron, a south Minneapolis company known for creating beautiful architectural metalwork and fancy elevator cages, had shifted its production capabilities, at the government’s request, to aluminum. But now, there was no longer a need for aluminum bridge pontoons and aircraft parts. Yet, Flour City had the machinery, the metal and the metal-bending know-how. What to do?
Harry J. Neils, company president, had an idea. Why not make aluminum fishing boats? With that, the Alumacraft boat division of Flour City was born.
Pontoons were not boats, however, so Neils reached out to Erich Swenson, a Swedish immigrant with a degree in naval architecture and a reputation for visionary designs.
Erich Svante Swenson was born in Listerby, Sweden, in 1899. He had emigrated from Sweden in 1924, landing in New York with $75 in his pocket, and bound for Minneapolis. He soon found work at Dingle Boat Works in St. Paul, and later at Oberg Boat Works in Orono. Both companies made wooden boats, including models for well-to-do Minnesotans who raced them on Lake Minnetonka.
Wooden boats are typically built from the bottom up, with a central rib, or keel, laid down first and curved vertical ribs attached to it. Wooden lap siding is affixed to the ribs and sealed with caulk to keep water on the outside of the boat.
With aluminum as a substrate, Swenson didn’t have to worry about caulk, siding or ribs. He designed a boat that could be built in two sections and held together with rivets, much like an airplane wing. The two halves joined at the boat’s center, and a gasket ensured the keel line stayed watertight. The stern and the keel were made from a single piece of heavy-duty extruded aluminum. It was an industry first.
In 1946, the first Alumacraft boat, a 12-ft. Model B, rolled off the assembly line. The price was $275, which included a pair of aluminum oars. The strong but lightweight rowboat was a success. The Model A, designed before the Model B, came off the assembly line the following year. It, too, was innovative, made from a single sheet of aluminum “stretched” around a form. (Alumacraft still uses the government-surplus stretch former today to make gunwales.)
The timing was right. Alumacraft tapped into the post-war boom economy. Returning soldiers had money to spend, and a weekend fishing trip to one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes was affordable.
Swenson continued to innovate, and the company made the most of it; advertising frequently referred to “Eric Swenson designs.” Swenson-designed duck boats and canoes were popular, as were runabouts for family fun. A 1954 advertisement made the claim, “cannot rust, rot, soak up water or dry out and leak.” It also touted a smooth ride and easy handling.
The company added value to its line with the boating industry’s first life-jacket seat cushions and a self-draining pan ahead of the transom (where the motor attached to the boat) kept waves on the outside.
Swenson was concerned about uniform standards for small boats, and he and others in the industry soon formed the Outboard Boating Club of America. Swenson led the committee that set national standards for boat capacity, flotation and horsepower.
By 1957, Alumacraft had outgrown its space within Flour City and moved from south Minneapolis to Northeast. Different Central Avenue addresses show up on old Alumacraft ads, including 1559, 1555, 1551, 1529, and 1505, but company catalogs from the 1960s seem to have settled on 1515 Central, where Lighthouse Productions recently concluded its “Immersive Van Gogh” show.
One of Alumacraft’s most popular series, The Queen Merrie, introduced in 1958, featured a deck, steering console, running lights, an optional “sporty” canvas or fiberglass top and back-to-back open seating, another first. Included with the boat was a pair of folding lawn chairs for passengers in the stern (aluminum frames, of course). More than 1,900 Queen Merries were sold that year.
Alumacraft also made aluminum water skis, which became a favorite for trick jumps.
Alumacraft made fiberglass boats for a time, calling them Aluma Glass. The Super CS, a 15-ft. runabout, featured a walk-through center deck with steering offered in front or in the center, and could handle a 60-hp outboard motor for water skiing, a sport that was on the rise.
Hupp Corporation, a maker of fiberglass boats, acquired Flour City Iron in 1960 for an exchange of stock worth about $2.6 million according to a Nov. 14, 1960 article in the Wall Street Journal. The fiberglass boat line sold to Alpex Corp., Rochester, N.Y., for more than $2 million two years later, and Hupp concentrated on the profitable Alumacraft line.
Alumacraft’s sojourn on Central Avenue was brief – a little over 12 years. During that time, however, aluminum boats came off the assembly line regularly, with new models introduced each year at winter boat shows. Ads for fishing boats appealed to men, but ads for more “family-oriented” boats were apt to include a swimsuit-clad woman languidly soaking up the sunshine while a man drove the boat.
Erich Swenson retired in 1961, but the company continued to come up with new ideas. They made their first sailboat in 1962.
In 1967, a sudden summer storm tore through Minneapolis. North, Northeast and downtown took the brunt of it. Spotlights at the Minar Ford used car lot on 17th and Central were bent and twisted. Winds clocked at 68 mph picked up boats from the Alumacraft boatyard and scattered them throughout the neighborhood. One went through the picture window of a home about two blocks from the factory. Others were found near Stinson Blvd. Still others went home in the pickup trucks of opportunists who happened to be out in the storm.
In 1969, their last year in Northeast, Alumacraft built 3,341 Duckers, a flat-bottomed boat that is still much sought after by duck hunters. Space in the plant was getting tight.
Alumacraft was acquired in 1970 by Timpte Industries, a Mankato-based company that manufactured semi-trailers. The boat factory moved to a 100,000-sq.-ft. plant in St. Peter. David Benbow, a 24-year employee, became a major stockholder and led the company. Alumacraft became part of the marine division of Bombardier Recreational Products, Valcourt, Quebec in 2018.
Like Alumacraft boats of the ‘60s, today’s boats are built completely in-factory at St. Peter, from keel to carpeting. They have more bells and whistles and safety features, but the basic process is the same.
Eric Swenson, the engineer who revolutionized the small boat industry, died in 1984. He and his wife, Mildred, are buried at Sunset Cemetery in Northeast.
Many thanks to Scott Wilkings, site director at Alumacraft in St. Peter, and Candace Gawrysiak, BRP, Sturtevant, Wis., for their help with this article and photos.
Below: Boats going north on Central. Alumacraft boats on the assembly line at 1515 Central Avenue NE. Alumacraft’s manufacturing facility at 1515 Central was once the headquarters for a quarrying operation. Alumacraft also occupied the “Alamo” building next door at 1519 Central. Alumacraft advertised on billboards and in magaznes. A 1967 tornado scattered aluminum boats throughout Northeast. (All photos courtesy of Alumacraft, St. Peter, Minn.)