Giesler Boats nine decades old and going strong

·6 min read

Giesler Boats in Powassan is one of the oldest and perhaps the oldest family-run business in the community.

The small boat manufacturer, around for more than nine decades, has a unique history.

Gerry Giesler is the third-generation Giesler to own and operate the company which, he says, his grandfather, Barney, founded in 1927 thanks to a string of events.

Barney Giesler was a blacksmith in Powassan during the early part of the 20th century.

He produced a lot of iron works goods, but after returning from the First World War, Giesler had a lot of time on his hands as industrialization turned his craft into a lost trade.

“So grandfather regularly fished with a friend on Lake Nipissing because he wasn't very busy,” Gerry Giesler says. “His friend would row ashore in his boat to pick up grandfather, and off they'd go fishing.”

As Giesler recalls the story, this ritual of being picked up by the friend went on for a while until Barney Giesler decided to make his own fishing boat so he could just meet up with his fishing buddy.

After all, he did have time on his hands.

“So he built the boat and launched it at a tourist outfitter's at Wade's Landing in Lake Nipissing,” Giesler says.

Barney Giesler didn't know it at the time, but building that first boat would chart the course for most of his life.

“At the time of the launch, there was a tourist there who saw the boat, liked it and made my grandfather an offer he couldn't refuse,” Giesler says.

“He sold it and went back to build a second boat. Well, he only got the second one partway built when someone heard there was this guy building boats.”

Giesler says this person gave his grandfather enough material to build two boats with one going to the individual and Barney Giesler keeping the second boat.

The man also gave him an outboard motor which was missing some parts, but Giesler had no problem fixing it thanks to his skills as a blacksmith.

When Giesler had finished building both fishing boats, he sold the second one, as well, making enough money to buy materials to make two more boats.

“This was 1927, and that's when it all started with grandfather making rowboats,” Giesler says.

“So now he's building boats for the area's tourist camps and word is getting around that he builds a pretty good boat. And then 1934 arrives, the Quints (Dionne Quintuplets) were born and things went crazy in this area with tourism, and grandfather started selling even more boats.”

For a number of years beginning in 1927, Barney Giesler built his boats with help from his wife, Rose. They used his blacksmith shop, which is where the Valumart is today on Main Street in downtown Powassan.

That's the site the Gieslers continued until 1947, when the demand for his boats was so great he had to expand.

“So he built his own boat factory which was behind the Valumart,” Giesler says.

During this period, Gerry Giesler's dad and an uncle also are working at the small plant along with other people because Barney Giesler couldn't get his boats out fast enough.

“In the 1950s, they were building as many as 600 boats a year, which were sold to outfitters in Nipissing and across the North,” Giesler says.

“That includes places like Thunder Bay and Atikokan because there were a lot of tourist outfitters up there who used our boats.”

Giesler notes that the number of manufactured boats fell over the decades as the number of tourist camps shrunk.

Today, the most employees he has is six, compared to the 14 workers at the company's peak during the 1950s.

And compared to rolling out 600 boats a year during the peak period, today Giesler Boats manufacturers 40 to 60 boats a year.

Giesler says a calendar year is split between making new boats and repair work.

The repair process is now underway at the plant, with the workers switching gears during the latter part of January and turning their attention to making new boats.

He says keeping his employment numbers on the small side means he doesn't have to lay anyone off because there's enough work for everyone.

Gerry Giesler believes the company has survived trends and new introductions to boating because the family has been careful with how it's expanded over the years.

“We've stayed relatively small and remained a family business and didn't let any expansion get out of hand,” he says.

“We concentrated mostly on the tourist industry as opposed to focusing on individual boat owners.”

Part of that expansion included venturing into the canoe building process during the plant's early days but, here again, Giesler says the company made sure the expansion was carefully controlled.

“We never made more than 20 or 30 canoes a year and most went to the tourist outfitters,” he says.

There are several models of Giesler boats, ranging in length from 10 to 22 feet.

Cedar, mahogany, oak and pine go into each boat, which then gets a Fibreglass covering.

About one-third of the finished boats go to Americans, including residents of Texas and Arizona.

Giesler says Americans become aware of his boats while at tourist camps in this region.

“They like what they see and, after talking to the tourist operator, they call us,” he says.

The company made 46 boats this year.

Giesler says 14 are still at the shop because COVID-19 halted their transport to the United States, as well as one to Europe.

The present-day shop on Elm Street is smaller than the one that went up behind the Valumart in the 1940s, and Giesler says it's the right size.

At one point, Barney Giesler had all four of his sons working at the boat plant. All the Gieslers, including Gerry, are self-taught on how to build a fishing boat.

Gerry Giesler's introduction to boat building came after his school day ended and he did odd jobs around the shop before learning from his dad and uncles on how to make an actual boat.

“I got paid a dollar a day,” recalls Giesler.

Giesler took ownership of the family-run business in 2007.

He has a daughter who helps with the paperwork, but he doesn't believe she's interested in taking over from him.

But that doesn't mean an end to the family business.

“I have a nephew who's working with us now and he's probably going to take it over,” Giesler says.

“So it will still be known as Giesler Boats.”

Meanwhile with 2027 not far off, Giesler recognizes that the company's 100th anniversary is quickly approaching.

He's not sure yet what the company has planned, but he's not worried.

“For our 50th anniversary we built a special boat we called a Gentleman's Racer, and I'm sure we'll figure something out for the 100th anniversary,” Giesler says.

Rocco Frangione is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the North Bay Nugget. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

Rocco Frangione, Local Journalism Initiative, The North Bay Nugget