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"Local Museum Builds the Past, Lives the Story"

By Wayne Lowrie, Gananoque Reporter
August 26, 2014

A flotilla of antique boats on Sunday paid tribute to boat builder Charlie Cliffe, who has been keeping Thousand Islands sailors afloat for 67 years.

Cliffe, 84, modestly waved in acknowledgement as the owners of the 13 old boats saluted Cliffe as they motored past in the nautical parade organized by the Thousand Islands Boat Museum, which features a display of Cliffe Craft boats.

"It's an honour," Cliffe said after the flotilla passed, as a steady stream of friends, former customers and antique-boat aficionados stopped by to shake his hand.

Cliffe figures he has built 2,500 boats over the years, and their sturdiness and graceful design have earned him a prominent chapter in the boat building history of the area. On the lawn of the Museum grounds, Cliffe was accompanied by several former employees, some of whom had the deep, rich tans common to men who spend their life on the St. Lawrence.

In an interview, Cliffe said he first started building boats in the basement of his Wilstead-area family farm, east of Gananoque. After high school at the age 17, Cliffe caught on with the Link Manufacturing Company in Gananoque.

That was 1947 and the Link company, which had built the famous Link Trainer on which many Commonwealth pilots learned to fly during the Second World War, was looking for a post-war manufacturing vocation. Link settled on boats, and hired the young Charlie Cliffe to work in the mill of the boat shop, which churned out planks for the cedar-strip boats.

Link decided to get out of the boat building business about five years later, concentrating instead on making wooden furniture for schools. Link sold the molds and plans for its boats to Cliffe for $500. Cliffe took the molds back to the farm at Wilstead, where he and partner Jack Grey began building their own boats.

Cliffe and Grey developed a new line of boats, using mahogany instead of cedar, and the Cliffe Craft brand was born, including the company's flagship Commander model.

In 1960, Link decided to close its Gananoque factory and Cliffe and a new partner, Joe MacDonald, stepped in and bought the building on the Gananoque River for a song.

The purchase of the factory marked a period of growth and expansion for Cliffe Craft. The company now had the physical room to design and produce larger boats.

Cliffe said he is most proud of the Joseph E. Rogers, a 35-foot patrol boat that the OPP used to patrol Georgian Bay. It was one of the largest Cliffe Craft boats, most of which were 16-foot Island or the 26-foot Cruiser models.

By the 1970s, fiberglass boats were in vogue and the market for wooden boats was disappearing. Cliffe entered the custom-boat business and branched out into selling OMC engines and a line of aluminum boats.

Sometime in the mid-'80s, Cliffe Craft stopped building new boats and concentrated on repairing and restoring wooden ones. A decade later, in 1996, the company began making wooden reels for the wire cable industry.

Susanne Richter of the Thousand Islands Antique Boat Museum said the Museum wants to highlight a particular Thousand Islands boat builder each year and Cliffe Craft, with its connections to Gananoque, was an obvious first choice. As a bonus, Charlie Cliffe has agreed to meet visitors and talk about the old days when the exhibit is open.

Cliffe is not spry anymore. He has two artificial knees and he has a walker to help him get around. But he's still building skiffs back at Wilstead, right near the farm where he started 67 years ago.


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