Paddling into the future: Restoring the legendary Chestnut canoe for a new generation

·7 min read
Restored Chestnut canoes like this one continue to appear online sites. Decades after the last canoe rolled out of the Fredericton factory, these canoes remain popular. (Kijiji - image credit)
Restored Chestnut canoes like this one continue to appear online sites. Decades after the last canoe rolled out of the Fredericton factory, these canoes remain popular. (Kijiji - image credit)

The Miramichi Canoes workshop is flooded with the distinctive scent of wet cedar. Sunbeams cut through the windows and illuminate floating specks that give this "canoe rescue place" the slight taste of sawdust.

Throughout the shop and scattered around outside are piles of canoes at different stages of decay.

Most still sport a distinctive logo: a single, brown nut within a wreath of six green leaves and the words, Chestnut Canoe Co. Ltd. Fredericton, N.B. Canada Pat. 1905.

WATCH / 'The Cadillac of canoes': see how it gets made

Each Chestnut canoe was made by hand from the turn of the 20th century to the late 1970s. Built with their signature cedar-planked ribs bowed over a wooden frame and covered with stretched canvas, the youngest Chestnut canoe would be creeping up on 50 years old today.

As each of these canoes awaits its turn inside the workshop to be restored, the man who brings the canoes back to life reflects on how their dwindling numbers are all that's left of a legacy that spanned eight decades.

"It's the Cadillac of the canoes," said Norman Betts, who is spending his retirement at his workshop in Doaktown, alongside the Southwest Miramichi River, restoring Chestnuts to their former glory.

"They're meticulously made," Betts said. "They're not mass-produced. Every one is unique because the wood, the knots, the feel of every canoe is unique."

Roger Cosman/CBC News
Roger Cosman/CBC News

History of the Chestnut 

Roger MacGregor also felt the "largest canoe company in the Commonwealth" wasn't getting its due. So in 1999, he published the book, When the Chestnut was in Flower, detailing the rise and fall of the Fredericton enterprise.

MacGregor, now 78, recounts how in 1900, brothers Henry and William Chestnut took over their father's successful hardware business in downtown Fredericton.

They started catering to wealthy sportsmen coming from Boston and New York to hunt moose, bear and caribou or to fish for salmon on the Miramichi River.

Submitted by the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick
Submitted by the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick

At that time, canoes made of birch bark in the Indigenous tradition dominated the market. But the Chestnut canoe was born with the advent of canvas, a tightly woven, heavy fabric.

"They just covered these wooden boats … with canvas, which pretty much is the start of the canvas-covered canoe in Canada," MacGregor said.

Roger Cosman/CBC News
Roger Cosman/CBC News

He notes a similar technique was being applied by rival Old Town Canoe Company in Old Town, Maine, but the Chestnut brothers were quick to file a successful patent in Canada.

"They made a factory business out of it,"  MacGregor said. "And you could say they took their lead from Old Town."

Submitted by the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick
Submitted by the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick

Chestnut took more than that, poaching Old Town's foreman Henry Wicksteed, for its new factory.

"I think it was he who had locked up in his mind a lot of the secrets of canvas-covered canoe-building," said MacGregor.

According to MacGregor, the very first Chestnuts were built in 1904 at what was known as Calder's boathouse, at a location that would now be under the abutments of the city's Westmorland Street bridge.

A year later, the company built a factory at 220 King St. Then in 1907, an expanded factory was built on York Street. It was lost in a fire but immediately rebuilt. Today the building still stands, formerly a popular bar, it now houses government offices.

Submitted by Provincial Archives of New Brunswick
Submitted by Provincial Archives of New Brunswick

Within a few years, the factory was producing more than 1,000 Chestnut canoes a year.

MacGregor recalls being fascinated with workers' accounts of an elevator the size of a living room that would move dozens of canoes from floor to floor for distinct stages of production.

Submitted by Provincial Archives of New Brunswick
Submitted by Provincial Archives of New Brunswick

In its heyday, the Chestnut Canoe factory was a destination, he said, with customers going out of their way to make the trip to Fredericton to pick up their canoes and watch the process of steamed cedar planks being bent over a mould to form the ribs.

"The Chestnut canoe people had perfected the art of building these canoes over a hull or a form," said MacGregor.

And despite being about 100 years old, several of those original forms still exist.

Hidden history

Tucked away in an old dairy barn outside Fredericton are seven original Chestnut canoe moulds. Each one was used to build "hundreds and hundreds" of Chestnut canoes over nearly 80 years.

The moulds, or forms, simply look like overturned canoes. Made from heavy wood, they have iron ribs instead of cedar, and the canoes were built overtop of them. When brass tacks were hammered into the cedar ribs, their tips would mash against the iron ribs, forming a button. When the canoe frame was finished it was simply lifted off the form.

Shane Fowler/CBC News
Shane Fowler/CBC News

When the Chestnut canoe company folded in 1979 after years of financial hardship, a dedicated employee decided to take a chance on rescuing the moulds.

Donald Fraser spent 28 years working for the Chestnut Canoe, and was only 50 when the company collapsed. That was the year he decided to try building a canoe himself.

"I just decided that it wasn't possible to just walk into another job somewhere at that time," said Fraser, who decided that if the company wasn't going to keep building canoes he would take up the mantle.

"I didn't build canoes at Chestnut," said Fraser. "I was in sales. But I had spent a lot of time going through the factory, and you'd learn something every time you walked through the plant."

Shane Fowler/CBC News
Shane Fowler/CBC News

Fraser bought seven of the Chestnut moulds, and over the next 28 years with help from his late wife Isabel, Fraser built 230 individual canoes.

"I made a very moderate, modest living," said Fraser, now 92.

"It kept the wolf away from the door is all it amounts to."

CBC News
CBC News

He sold those Fraser canoes throughout New Brunswick, Ontario, B.C. and Washington State. A few were even shipped to Europe.

"I can't call them Chestnuts, but they were built off of Chestnut forms," said Fraser.

He built his last canoe about 15 years ago, but he's still fiercely protective of the moulds. Despite offers, he won't sell them.

Shane Fowler/CBC News
Shane Fowler/CBC News

For 56 years, Fraser said, the moulds formed his livelihood and he's honoured to be part of their history.

"They were probably the most popular canoe in Canada," he said.

"The quality of the Chestnut was well known. And then it ended. And that's the reason they're still popular."

Roger Cosman/CBC News
Roger Cosman/CBC News

Chestnut future

Fraser, MacGregor and Betts all attribute Chestnut's demise to the company trying to do too much instead of just focusing on canoes. There was an attempt to get into motorboats and fibreglass canoes, but it didn't work.

While the Chestnut Canoe Company is gone, online marketplaces are littered with Chestnut canoes for sale.

Prices vary depending on their condition, but usually they're at least $1,000.

Betts said it's a testament to the quality of the workmanship.

"We live in this throwaway world now where you buy a plastic this and a plastic that," said Betts.

"And, yeah, you can go to Canadian Tire and Costco and buy a plastic canoe for 600 bucks, and you can go down the river. There's people who want to do that. Good for them."

Shane Fowler/CBC News
Shane Fowler/CBC News

Miramichi Canoes sees a constant flow of Chestnuts coming through its doors. Betts feels New Brunswickers are just starting to appreciate their quality.

Many of his restorations are canoes that belonged to someone's grandparent, and there's an heirloom status that comes with them.

So as long as there's a Chestnut canoe that could use new canvas, a layer of paint or some ribs replaced, Betts said  there will be someone who will recognize its value to Canadian history.

"Somebody asked me what I'd do if I make one million dollars," said Betts. "And I said, I'll just keep fixing canoes until that's all gone."

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