RED WING -- Mike Wilson had known about the Red Wing Boat Manufacturing Co. launch in Florida for more than 20 years. He suspected it was the last Red Wing boat in existence, and hoped that someday, he would be able to put it in his Red Wing Marine Museum, but the boat wasn’t for sale.
Then, this summer, Wilson’s phone rang. The boat’s owner, Jim Leroy, was on the line. His wife had died last March. He had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. He told Wilson that the boat belonged in the Red Wing Marine Museum.
“The boat had been in his family for 47 years,” Wilson said. “He had the boat restored in 1976 and brought back to the condition it is in today. He had it in several boat shows in Florida.”
Wilson told Leroy that the museum could not afford the price of the boat, but after a short conversation, they found a price that worked, and Wilson bought the boat. He and his brother drove to Florida in late September, prepared the boat for travel, and drove it to Red Wing.
“It was a sad day,” Wilson said. “When we pulled this thing out of his front yard, that was not a good thing. It was hard on him When we got home, I parked the boat in front of the museum, took a picture, and sent it to him with a note that we made it home. He was excited that it got here.”
After 115 years of hauling fishermen to prime sites and carrying family members on afternoon excursions, the Red Wing launch had come home.
“This boat was built in Red Wing in 1904 down on the levee,” said Wilson. “It is a 20-foot launch with a 6-horse Red Wing motor. The boat was shipped to a fishing camp in upper Michigan, and it was used there for pulling fishermen and their canoes out onto the lake.”
Wilson said the resort owners would take the fishermen out onto Cisco Lake near the border between Wisconsin and Michigan. They would come back at the end of the day to take the fishermen back to the resort. Eventually the resort was sold, and the boat was owned by two other parties before Leroy bought the boat, restored it, and moved it to Eustis, Fla., near Orlando.
Red Wing Boat Manufacturing Co. started making boats and motors in Red Wing in 1902. The motors were so popular that in 1910, owners changed the name to the Red Wing Motor Co. and became so busy building motors that they stopped building boats in 1916. They continued to build motors, which sold throughout the world, until the 1960s.
“We don’t know of any other Red Wing boats in existence,” Wilson said. “When they used these launches on the lakes, they would work them until there was nothing left of them. Then they would either burn them or sink them. Luckily this one survived, and with the engine, too. This is an extremely rare piece.”
Red Wing resident Harry Munson, who collected and restored the 33 motors that form the central collection for the Red Wing Marine Museum, was featured in a boating magazine article in the 1990s. Leroy read about Munson restoring Red Wing motors and contacted him about the Red Wing boat.
“Jim saw that article and got ahold of me,” Munson said. “Nobody had ever heard that there was an existing Red Wing boat. Several of us flew down there in 1998, and Jim took us out for a ride in the boat.”
Munson explained that the boat required two people to operate it. The steering wheel was in the bow and was connected to the rudder by cables that ran the length of the boat. A second person had to sit by the motor and operate it.
“This is a direct drive motor, so there is no transmission,” Wilson explained. “In order to go from forward to reverse, you had to slow the motor down, move a lever, and the motor would go into reverse.”
Twenty years of patience paid off for Wilson and the Red Wing Marine Museum. Even though he intends to display the boat in the museum, Wilson has one problem.
“We have to dismantle part of the entryway to get it through the door,” Wilson said. “We didn’t make the doors wide enough to get a boat through.”
Bringing the boat back to Red Wing and the museum is important to Wilson, because “It is a nice piece of Red Wing history. This is the home run.”