A Willits canoe, considered one of the finest canoes ever made, was the life's work of the Willits brothers: Earl Carmi (1889-1967) and Floyd Calvin (1892-1962). Born in the Midwest, they arrived in the Puget Sound region at the beginning of the twentieth century and began designing and building canoes in 1908 while still in high school. The Willits Brothers Canoe Company, located on the Tacoma Narrows, was started in 1914, moving in 1921 to nearby Day Island. They built only one model of 17-foot canoe, which was modified and improved over the course of the business. The final design was introduced in 1930. Each canoe was meticulously shaped, cut, and pieced together by hand, made of woods such as Western red cedar, mahogany, and teak. At one point, there was a seven-year waiting list for a Willits canoe, but the brothers refused to hurry their process or expand their company. In nearly 60 years, only 918 canoes were built. When the Willits brothers died within five years of each other, so too did the production of Willits canoes.
A Midwest Childhood
A Willits canoe is an example of meticulous craftsmanship. Like the finest wine or the most precise timepiece, the assembly of a Willits canoe was never rushed, its materials and artisanship were never compromised.
Earl and Floyd Willits were born 27 months apart: Earl on November 22, 1889, in New Boston, Mercer County, Illinois, and Floyd on March 13, 1892, in Muscatine County, Iowa. They were two of six children born to Clinton Homer Willits (1858-1934) and his first wife Adda Kiddoo Willits (1862-1894). Clinton and Adda, who were married on September 16, 1880, came from farming families, but Clinton grew restless with that way of life. In 1889, shortly before his son Earl was born, "he had submitted a patent application for a rowing apparatus for boats. Patent number 420,137 was granted the following year ... There is no evidence he pursued any commercial application for his invention ... [but] it might at least partially explain the origins of Earl and Floyd's interest in boating" (The Willits Brothers and Their Canoes, 13).
Two years after Floyd was born, family life changed dramatically. Adda died of peritonitis in 1894 at the age of 31. Now a widower with six children aged 2 to 13, Clinton had trouble paying his debts and lost several properties. In 1896, the family moved to Davenport, Iowa, for a fresh start. Situated along the Mississippi, Davenport was a river town, and the Willits boys likely took notice of the numerous opportunities for commercial and recreational boating.
In 1906, oldest son Dwight (1881-1952) made his way to Tacoma, followed the next year by 16-year-old Earl, who settled in Seattle and entered his sophomore year of high school. For the next two years, he lived in boarding houses, went to school, and, when he could, picked up work on the railroad, either in the Northwest or in Alaska. Floyd, older sister Ruth (b. 1888) and father Clinton moved to Tacoma in 1908 and were reunited with Earl. Both Earl and Floyd attended Tacoma High School; Earl graduated in 1911 and Floyd in 1913. The young men were each 21 years old when they graduated, several years older than their peers, the extra years attributed to the family’s frequent moves and the children having to repeat grades. At school, the brothers studied mechanical drawing, woodworking, and metal shop – practical choices for the profession they chose to follow – and they were considered good students.
In 1912, Clinton re-married. His new wife, Ellen Jane Matthews (1873-1951), was a two-time widow who had been born in Cornwall, England. Ellen had six children previously, and she and Clinton added a new boy to the family when Leonard Homer Willits (1914-1973) was born.
Open for Business
As teenagers, Earl and Floyd started designing and building their own canoes. The first one they built in 1908 was never sold. By 1911, they had built two more. They continued to experiment with their design, test their materials, and refine their processes. In 1913, they sold their first canoe, a used one, to Frank Lund of British Columbia. In 1915, F. T. Callendar of Tacoma paid $65 for a brand-new Willits canoe. For the next 20 years, their canoes cost $100 or less.
Canoes played a critical role in the history and economic development of the U.S. Native Americans used two types of canoes for transport: the birch-bark canoe was popular in the Northeast and Midwest; the dugout canoe made of redwood, cedar, and other woods was used in the West.
"Both types, but especially the bark canoes, could be tweaked to local tastes, whether practical, spiritual, or artistic. Prior to European settlement, the basic canoe shape was so successful and well-engineered that the French, English, and Dutch explorers who showed up on these shores could not improve upon it; the most successful of them, the fur-trading voyageurs, co-opted the vehicle as their own freight hauler. Both canoes ruled the waves for hundreds of years through the resettlement of the continent, before steam power in boats and trains shoved them aside" (Neuzil).
It was slow going at first for the Willits brothers, who were juggling high school with running a business. In 1914, Floyd told Tacoma’s Daily Ledger: "Although we have been building canoes and experimenting with designs and various methods of constructing our boats during the past eight years, still as a commercial enterprise our business is in its bare infancy and we are just now placing our first canoes on the market and holding ourselves out as manufacturers of canoes. We have been going to high school, paying our own expenses, and perfecting our canoes at odd times. Our development up to the time we finished school was a slow and difficult task and has been a constant drain on our slender purse, but we have been forging ahead” (The Willits Brothers and Their Canoes, 32-33).
After Floyd graduated from high school in 1913, the brothers paid $250 for a lot on Wollochet Bay just west of Tacoma across the Tacoma Narrows. In 1914, they spent $30.30 for an additional 200 feet of tidelands that adjoined their property. There, the brothers built their first production shop on pilings. The Willits Brothers Canoe Company was open for business.
Tacoma seemed to be a smart choice for a canoe company. The first Tacoma Narrows Bridge was not completed until 1940, so rowboats and canoes were a popular way to travel between Tacoma, Gig Harbor, Fox Island, and other points. There were other reasons as well for locating the company near Tacoma, as Floyd told the Daily Ledger: "We can see so clearly Tacoma’s great future as a yacht and boating center. Tacoma is also at the center of the large circle from which we get our materials; for instance, we get Port Orford cedar from Oregon, Alaska cedar from Alaska, mahogany from the Philippines and South America, oak from the Eastern states, Spanish cedar from Mexico, and spruce for our paddles right at home. Tacoma is also at the center of a large local market for our canoes and we ship our product economically to all Sound ports and the many inland lake resorts” (The Willits Brothers and Their Canoes, 34).
The Move to Day Island
The brothers handcrafted each canoe, perfecting a design that was double-planked, which uses a waterproof cotton fabric liner sandwiched between two layers of cedar planks. The technique was employed by a handful of canoe manufacturers at the time, but the Willits brothers "took that particular design much farther than anyone else" (Chapman interview). The double-planking provided strength and support, eliminating the need for ribs. Each canoe was fastened with more than 7,000 copper tacks and brass fittings. The brothers were evidently pleased with their efforts because, for the next half century, they offered only one size of canoe, a 17-foot, 75-pound model originally called the Artondale Canoe after the town closest to their shop.
The two were methodical to the extreme. They each claimed a part of the production process and it seldom varied: Earl cut out the pieces, Floyd put them together. "Earl hand cut, stamped and inspected every piece of cedar, oak and teak while Floyd drove in each copper fastener, assembled each canoe and perfected the final brushed-on varnish finish. They never rushed and never completed more than a handful of canoes each month" ("Makers on the Tide"). Earl kept a logbook in which he recorded information on every canoe: the date it was completed, who bought it, and the purchase price, among other details. Word spread about the canoes and at one point there was a seven-year waiting list. But for the Willits brothers, patience was a virtue: "If they got wind you were impatient waiting for your canoe, you might be quietly moved off the list" (Sullivan interview).
In 1921, the business had outgrown the Wollochet Bay site and a larger piece of property was purchased on the southern tip of Day Island, on the eastern shore of the Tacoma Narrows. With assistance from their father, a carpenter, the brothers built a two-story shop and small shed. Electricity was not yet available on the island so large windows were installed to let in as much daylight as possible. Later, the shed was converted into a house. The business was incorporated in 1926, and named Willits Brothers, Inc. The articles of incorporation listed both brothers and father Clinton as owners, and claimed $15,000 in capital stock.
"The Best Ever Made"
The brothers believed in their product wholeheartedly. In the 1926-1928 company catalog, the joy of canoeing and the craftsmanship of a Willits canoe were extolled: "Canoeing! A winding river, an inland lake, the broad expanse of ocean inlets and bay, 'A Canoe Built for Two,' music floating eerily over the water – what a wonderful way to find the Land of Enchantment ... There is a charm and fascination about canoeing that has a universal appeal, and it has long been a source of pleasure to thousands of people both young and old in all the ages of the past" (The Willits Brothers and Their Canoes, 209).
As "a local brand that some regard as the best ever made" (Champaco), a Willits canoe saw strong demand that continued through two world wars and the Great Depression. As they grew in popularity, thefts were inevitable. The brothers kept detailed notes of each canoe built. To improve the odds that they could identify the rightful owner in a dispute, they began to insert custom serial numbers in multiple locations. "Unbeknownst to any of their customers, the brothers stamped or wrote serial numbers in hidden places on several of the components of their canoes, so that if the canoe ever showed up in their shop for repairs, or if they were called up to identify one suspected of being stolen, they could identify it" (The Willits Brothers and Their Canoes, 65-66).
When Not Building Canoes …
Floyd was said to be the more gregarious of the brothers; Earl kept to himself. Most of the meticulous record-keeping was Earl’s doing. He took to it with relish. Despite their eccentricity, the two were well-respected by their neighbors and they enjoyed the company of a tightknit intellectual circle. "The Willits were fascinating people who were comfortable surrounded by a liberal community of thinkers. They had a progressive world view, the lefties of their time" (Sullivan interview).
Both brothers served in the military during World War I. Earl enlisted and was assigned to the 137th Aero Squadron. Although he spent time in England and France, his squadron saw no action. Floyd was a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army and spent his military service closer to home, as a clerk stationed at Camp Lewis, the precursor to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, in Pierce County.
The brothers remained bachelors until late in life. On April 20, 1939, Floyd married Ruth Alice Carter (1897-1956) in Tacoma. He was 47 and she was 42. Born in New York City, Ruth was sickly for much of her life and died at age 59. Earl married Laura Magill (1893-1994) in 1944 when he was 55. The two knew each other decades earlier when they were students at Tacoma High School. Laura had been a widow for 12 years following the death of her husband in 1932. Earl was so nervous about the impending nuptials, he called off the wedding at one point and then went through with it. His cold feet might have been a premonition because the marriage lasted less than a decade. In 1953, Earl moved out and into Ruth and Floyd’s home; the divorce was final in 1954. Neither brother had children.
The Spirit of Canoeing
No one knows exactly how many Willits canoes exist today; estimates are roughly half of the total made. A canoe of this caliber appeals to a certain type of enthusiast, and a Willits canoe was often the transport of choice for people seeking to create a memorable boating experience. "Paddling a Willits canoe is almost a spiritual experience. The way you move through the water is different than with a Fiberglass or metal canoe. It is pure elegance" (Sullivan interview).
In July 1933, National Geographic magazine covered a long-distance canoe voyage from Tacoma to Juneau, Alaska, made by Jack Calvin and his wife in a Willits canoe. In 1939, in an effort to retrace the epic journey of Lewis and Clark, Tacomans Bob and Louise Lynd traveled the Missouri and Mississippi rivers in a Willits canoe supplied by Henry Foss (1891-1986), whose parents founded the Foss Launch and Tug Company and who was a neighbor of the brothers on Day Island. And in 1961, a party of four adults and eight youth from Camp Ta-ha-do-wa on Tanglewood Island in Pierce County paddled from Tacoma to Juneau in five Willits canoes – a trip two years in the planning and organized by camp owner Alfred Schultz, a Tacoma physician.
The vintage canoes are highly collectible, and museums in at least three states (Connecticut, Oregon, and Washington) as well as the Canadian province of Ontario have examples in their collections. Tacoma-born glass artist Dale Chihuly (b. 1940) owns several, and his art was inspired in some part by their beauty and elegance.
Shuttered for Good
On June 10, 1962, Floyd Willits suffered a stroke so severe he was dead within 15 minutes. He had turned 70 about three months earlier. Earl hoped to continue the business without his brother but it quickly became clear that the canoes he built singlehandedly were not up to the Willits's exacting standards. Canoe number 965, the last ever built, was finished March 2, 1963, but it did "not meet the standards of even the earlier Willits canoes – planking is cracked around numerous tacks, the screws holding the outer planking to the stem are not perfectly aligned, and slotted heads of these screws often are not oriented correctly. That canoe ... remains in the Willits family collection. It has never been in the water" (The Willits Brothers and Their Canoes, 97).
Although no more canoes were made, Earl kept the telephone number registered to the company and carried on with odd tasks. On April 20, 1967, he died of prostate cancer. A week later, a Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist wrote a tribute:
"In a world where bigness is overrated sometimes, here's a tip of the hat to a master builder who went to rest in Tacoma this week. For more years than most men have lived, Earl Willits and his brother, Floyd, had been building canoes at the Day Island shop – building them beautifully, painstakingly, by hand. They could have built more. Orders piled far ahead for the fine Willits canoes. But for the Willits brothers, building canoes was an art, not to be hurried. Floyd died several years ago. Earl died Friday, at 77. Their memorial is a limited number of finely tooled, hand wrought canoes, prized by the boatmen who are fortunate enough to own them" (Page).
In 1970, there was hope that their half-brother Leonard Willits would resurrect the business. Since the brothers’ deaths, their shop had been shuttered with everything still in place, a veritable time capsule. "Tools are in place, machinery is shiny and cedar stock still is seasoning. Since these canoes won worldwide fame more than 400 unsolicited orders have been received at the factory during the past five years but not one could be filled ... [Leonard] often helped his brothers build their famed canoes, so he is certain he can duplicate their work" (Ryan). Leonard died in 1973 and the plan to re-open the factory was never realized.
In 2022, the brothers' written archives – from diaries, tax records, client correspondence, and so forth – along with roughly 200 photos and 500 negatives, were donated to the Tacoma Public Library. Once catalogued, they will be available to the public. The canoe-building materials from the factory, such as special tools, patterns, molds, wood planks, and partially finished boats, were given to the Foss Waterway Seaport in Tacoma.