Very few of the boaters who stop by Van’s Motor Marine in Alexandria Bay have any idea that they are docking at one of the most historical marine business sites in the Thousand Islands.
Many of the boaters who live in, or transit through the region have had some of their most pleasant marina experiences pulling into Van’s where they are greeted warmly by owners Sue and Steve Keeler. However, if you were lucky (or curious enough) to peek into the shops at Van’s, you would quickly be transferred back into a world of boat building and repair as it existed from 1906 throughout the 20th century. Hanging from the ceiling of the large wooden structure are large steel I-beam rails and trolleys, and historic wood boats are still hauled using hand operated chain falls and carefully eased into the shop by a rope block and tackle to begin restoration or have a fresh coat of varnish applied. Over 80 years accumulation of old parts and tools surround this center of wood boat activity, and time spent gazing around the artifacts can bring back fond memories of summers past.
Several of today's “River Rats” grew up purchasing their gas, ice, worms and bait at Van’s. From the late 1940s’s through 1976, Van’s was a thriving marina run by Harold Van Norman and his wife Louise Keeler – selling Johnson Outboard motors, and OMC, Starcraft and Hydrodyne boats. But the genesis of the marine business at the site can be traced to 1902, when Hutchinson brothers Bert and George rented the building at or near the current Van’s to establish their boat building business. In about 1913, after building several very successful launches and race boats in the building on Sisson Street, the Hutchinson brothers moved their boat building business to a new shop on Crossman Street, and used the Sisson Street site for boat maintenance and repair work. [See Hutchinson Boat Works, written by Bonnie Wilkinson Mark]
In 1921, Hutchinsons sold their Sisson Street shop to Bernie Fitzgerald and Alfred Lee, who quickly developed a loyal following among Thousand Islanders for building fast, efficient, and well made boats suitable for life on the St. Lawrence River. The 2007 Alexandria Bay Boat Show poster of The1000 Islands Chapter of the Antique & Classic Boat Society portrays six 1927 Fitzgerald and Lee1 (F&L) boats in the bay in front of their Sisson Street facilities. That picture displays the classic lines built into the versatile designs produced by F&L. In addition to building spectacular boats on site, F&L became the local dealer for Gar Wood and DeeWite speedboats.
The original shop on the Van’s site was destroyed in 1931 by a fire apparently caused by a backfire in a boat in an adjacent boathouse. According to The Real Runabouts author, Bob Speltz, all the new Gar Wood and DeeWite boats in the show room were saved, but several boats in the shop for maintenance and repair were destroyed. Not to be deterred in their boat building and repair business, F&L moved into rental quarters and immediately began to rebuild at the Sisson Street site.
Reopening at the current Van’s site in late 1932, the new shop looked much as it does today. The new facility gave F&L the room to continue their much in demand boat building business as well as selling Gar Wood and Richardson boats. Many of F&L’s most famous boats were built at the new facility. Designs for the boats came from Fitzgerald & Lee themselves, as well as famed designer John Hacker. Boats such as the 45’ Vamoose, the 28’ runabout Footloose and Fancy Free, and the 31’ speedboat Skoal were built in the Sisson Street facility between 1932 and the shuttering of the plant at the start of WW II. The last boat F&L produced, the elegant and sexy SKID, can still be seen running around the 1000 Islands. In addition to selling boats, F&L became one of the areas early dealers for the “new fangled” outboard motors, selling Evinrude and Elto motors.
F&L closed during WWII, as its skilled craftsmen went off to war or to work for other larger boat builders producing boats for the war effort. Prior to closing because of the war effort, F&L had become the largest dealer in North America for the sales and service of Gar Wood boats. It is not unusual today to see a couple of Gar Woods at Van’s, either fueling up or in for maintenance in the shop. F&L never reopened its doors after WW II, and the facilities at Sisson Street were sold to Chester Burns, who opened a marina performing boat repairs and servicing all brands of boats.
Interviews with current owners Steve and Sue Keeler reveal that Burns may have sold his interest to Glen Wilson, who then sold to Harold Van Norman (Van), a marine engineer, in 1946. Van set his sights on creating a well run full service marine facility, known as Van’s Motor Marine. In its heyday, Van and his wife Louise (mother of current proprietors Sue Keeler) employed twelve mechanics, gas dock attendants, and boat cleaners to service their bustling enterprise. Many of these young employees, a mixture of local and summer residents, return to Van’s today to stay in touch with the current owners. Van’s also managed the boat rental concessions at Keewaydin and Grass Point State Parks, and had a rental fleet of eight custom-built houseboats that were seen exploring the channels and anchorages throughout the Thousand Islands. Van’s fleet of fifteen small rental outboard boats was a staple of the St. Lawrence River tourist experience. Renting a boat for a self drive boat ride was an introduction to the Islands that many people still remember and talk about when they come back to the area today.
The dock level showroom at Van’s always included shiny new and innovative boats, surrounded by the current years’ display of Johnson outboard motors. My first new outboard motor was a 1963, 5½ horsepower, Johnson Seahorse, which still sits in our boathouse ready to run as a backup motor for our little “tin-can”. (Early photos show that Van’s was a Mercury Outboard dealer prior to taking on the Johnson line of motors). Van’s carried the Hyrodyne, OMC, Crosby, Lyman outboard, and Starcraft lines of boats – all considered top end watercraft in their day. Those of us who lusted after the new boats and motors still marvel at Van’s ingenuity at being able to work the large craft into the tight showroom on small wheeled dollies, hauling them out of the River in the boathouse and pushing them by hand across the space between the buildings – and inside through large double doors.
The current Van’s marina looks almost exactly as it did 78 years ago. Sue and Steve, owners since 1976, greet you enthusiastically and pride themselves on giving great service. Rich Jury, a master boat builder and restorer, always has several old wooden boats in the two story facility in various stages of restoration and repair. Quite a few of these Lymans, Gar Woods, Hutchinsons and other locally produced boats were built or sold very near Alexandria Bay. During the winter months, a few classic wooden boats will be hauled onto both floors of the shop for replacing of planks or bottoms – serious work performed by Rich and his apprentice boat restorers. Steve Keeler can still be found tinkering on a Hydrodyne boat or Johnson motor sold at the marina over 40 years ago, or making repairs to an old wood or newer fiberglass boat in need of a quick fix. Part of the charm of the Thousand Islands is that there are still quite a few local businesses owned and run by proprietors whose families like the Keelers of Van’s have been in the business for many years.
By John Peach
John Peach and his wife, Pat, live on Huckleberry Island near Ivy Lea from May through October. The rest of the year they reside in Princeton, NJ, although John continues to make frequent return visits to the Islands throughout the winter. John retired several years ago from his career in international business. His family has owned a place in the Thousand Islands for over 50 years. John is a past president of Save The River, and is still active on the Save The River board. He, like many islanders and local mariners, value the contributions local marina operators make to our life in the Thousand Islands.
For more history on the wonderful boats produced by F&L, see Robert Speltz’s The Real Runabouts Vol. 1.