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Generational Business: Powassan's Giesler Boats have been plying northern waters for nearly 100 years

Established in 1927, boatbuilder's durable, handcrafted wood watercraft double as treasured heirlooms

The tale of how Barney Giesler ended up becoming Parry Sound District’s foremost cedar strip boat builder has become somewhat of a legend in the area.

So the story goes, the blacksmith was an avid angler and loved to ply the waters of Lake Nipissing for a fresh catch. But, as he learned on one particularly rough outing, his boat was no match for the lake's choppy waters. So, he decided to build his own.

Shortly after launching the craft, a tourist staying at a nearby resort, impressed by the quality of the work, made him an offer to buy the boat, and so Barney returned to his Powassan shop and set to work building himself a new vessel.

But even before he had hammered in the final copper nail, another buyer had snapped up that boat, too. It became clear that demand was there, and, thus, B. Giesler and Sons Boat Builders was born.

That was in 1927, and today, nearly 100 years later, the company constructs its boats using the same moulds and patterns, saws and equipment that Barney employed when he was starting out.

“It’s changed slightly, but very little,” said current owner Gerry Giesler of the process established by his grandfather all those years ago. “There’s not much you can change in it.

“It all has to be pretty much handmade. It’s pretty hard to use a machine, because every one comes out slightly different.”

A Giesler boat is a beautiful thing to behold.

Strips of British Columbia cedar are carefully cut and moulded around a classically shaped frame, with locally sourced pine and oak built in for durability and strength.

Sanded and varnished to a smooth finish, the final product has a vintage feel, but is just as reliable as the first boats that rolled out of the shop 95 years ago.

When it launched, the company made two versions — a 16-footer and an 18-footer — but today, Giesler Boats makes upwards of 20 models, including canoes and rowboats.

Unlike their aluminum or fibreglass cousins, wood boats require a bit more finesse — and a lot of patience — to construct.

It’s not something that can be left to automation or robotics. A human touch is needed to shape each one into a one-of-a-kind creation.

“When we’re planking in the front of a boat, you have to pick out your boards, because not all of them will go, because there’s a twist and a bend to it. So that’s a technique that just takes practice and learning.” Giesler said.

“You pick out your board, and if you break it, well, you go and pick out another one until you learn how to pick them out properly so that you can get them put on there.”

Giesler estimates about 100 man-hours go into the assembly of one boat, and once constructed, the highly durable watercraft can last for generations.

“Wood boats, if they're properly stored, they'll last 100 years, no problem,” Giesler said. “As soon as you leave them sitting outside for a couple of years, you're done.”

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From its earliest days, Giesler Boats made its name largely by serving the tourist industry.

Business really took off when the Dionne quintuplets were born in 1934 in the nearby community of Callander.

As curious visitors arrived from around the world to see the famous sisters — the first quintuplets known to have survived beyond infancy — the whole area quickly transformed into a haven for vacationers, Giesler noted.

“A lot of tourist camps opened up and they all wanted boats to take people out fishing, and so that was a big push on our company,” he said.

By the 1950s, Barney’s four sons had joined him in the business, each contributing their individual talents to the enterprise.

Giesler’s dad, Pete, looked after the books — “he had the memory and the mathematical skills to do the ordering and keep all that going,” Giesler said — while Joe’s expertise lay in parts and wood.

Carl specialized in finishing, working with the various paints and varnishes. Willie took on responsibility for the motors, eventually spinning that division out into a separate business, Giesler Marine, which continues to operate today.

Giesler first got his introduction to the family business around the age of 12 when he would take on small jobs to help out around the shop.

“I was working here at the shop making $1 a day — but I only worked for an hour,” he chuckled. “I got home from school and went down to the shop and I just swept the floor.”

At that time, part of production involved laying a piece of string inside the joints of the boat, a practice Giesler estimated continued until about the 1980s, and it became his job to place the string in the joints after his uncle had filled them with rubber sealant.

After high school, Giesler served in the armed forces before returning temporarily to Giesler Boats in the late 1970s. But when a recession hit, he opted to find work elsewhere rather than have other long-time shop employees be laid off.

He returned to school, earning a diploma in civil engineering technology from Cambrian College in Sudbury, and spent a number of years in the design department at Kent Trusses in nearby Sundridge.

After that business was sold, he returned once again to the family company, this time for good.

“It’s basically been a retirement job, in a sense, even though it’s been over 35 years,” Giesler said.

His nephew, Matt, joined him in the shop about four years ago, and he’s now in line to be the fourth generation of the family to run the business.

At its peak in the 1950s, Giesler Boats built between 500 and 600 boats annually, employing a dozen people working six days a week. In 2021, Giesler estimated the company built just 42 or 43 boats, and with half the staff.

But they also take on repairs, fixing up some wood boats that have been around for 60 years or longer, including those made by other companies that are no longer in existence.

“Over the years, we started getting more and more customized boats and now I would say probably 60 per cent of our business is customized and the other 40 per cent is for tourist operators.”

Giesler has shipped boats all across Canada and to such farflung destinations as Switzerland, Germany, England, and South America. But his main clientele remains the tourist operators in Northern Ontario.

Lodge owners like them for their practicality. A wood boat can be strapped securely between the pontoons of a floatplane and easily flown into remote camps. Any damages can be repaired easily in the off-season, Giesler noted. Mar Mac Lodge near White River, Esnagami Lodge north of Nakina, and Loch Island Lodge are all clients.

Collectors, on the other hand, appreciate them for their nostalgic quality and the idea of leaving a beautiful heirloom to their loved ones.

One friend, who ordered the last boat to come off the production line at the old shop before the works were moved to the new location in 2011, said wherever he goes, his wood Giesler boat always draws a crowd.

“He had a place down in Florida and he used to take it down there,” Giesler said. “And he said that when he went to a launch, it was like rockstar status — people would come running over to see it.”

This article is one in a series focused on the rich histories, journeys and long-term successes of generational businesses in Northern Ontario.