HORACE STRONG CANOE
The Legend of a Craftsman
Simpson Hall, 1988:
A birch dowel hits a table “as loud as a gunshot,” recalls Bill Laity ‘90, then a student. The late, and legendary, Horace (“never bleed on the work”) Strong is calling his woodworking class to order. “There will be no building of rocking chairs,” he intones. A week later, Strong is enthusiastically helping Laity with sourcing and transcribing a runner pattern for a Shaker rocking chair. “Two of us, in fact, had successfully cajoled Horace into supporting our rocking chair dreams,” he says.
Laity enrolls in Strong’s canoe-building workshop. “Long days spent milling cedar strips, steam bending wood, and shaping decks and yoke,” he recalls. “Evenings, swimming at Little Hosmer.”
But when the class draws straws to see who will win the opportunity to purchase for the cost of materials the beautiful Hosmer Queen canoe they had all just built, “alas, it was not I,” Laity says.
Looking for an affordable canvas canoe, he is enticed into taking Strong’s canoe restoration class, and leaves that course with a fully restored, 17-foot, 1916 Old Town which Strong had dragged out “from the pile of cedar canvas wreckage behind his barn.” In the Old Town, Laity has plied the waters of Algonquin Park in Ontario, as well as Minnesota lakes and “countless local forays,” near his home in Asheville, North Carolina.
But the intervening years still find Laity yearning for a Hosmer Queen: “As a lifelong flatwater paddler…I so wished I could own one of these very special creations.”
Rita Hennessy ’81 learned from Strong how to craft her own snowshoes, and how to make a canoe paddle. “I learned to paddle at Sterling, getting that J-stroke down on a cold fall day on Hosmer,” she recalls. “I wanted a canoe.”
Rita heads from her job as a Ridgerunner on the Appalachian Trail back to Vermont to begin a stint as Head Ranger Naturalist on Camels Hump. Her first stop: Craftsbury, and Strong’s boat yard. She places an order for one of his handmade canoes, an Hosmer Princess. She christens it on Hosmer Pond. The Princess has taken her on Upper and Lower Goose Pond in Massachusetts (her favorite lakes on the Appalachian Trail), Little Seneca Lake in Maryland, and various inlets of the Chesapeake Bay. But, she finds, the boat is in storage more than she—or Horace—would want. “She’s such a beauty, not the kind of boat you want to scrape on rocks,” she says.
After 30 years with the National Parks Service, Hennessy, getting post-retirement life in order, writes her will. The Hosmer Princess will go to Sterling College.
Hennessy gets word of The Craft of Sterling—an auction is being organized to benefit the Strong Center at Sterling, home to its environmental humanities program. Donations of handcrafted items are being sought. Hennessy calls Sterling and donates the canoe to the effort. Bill Laity did not yet know it, but he was going to be able to make his dream come true.
After a flurried bidding war—“I do feel badly for whomever I was bidding against. I’m really sorry”—he says, Laity wins his prize.
Laity drove to Hennessy’s to pick up the canoe in early winter, and since then has given her a nice new coat of the same red paint and a light spar varnishing inside of the type Horace taught him to use.
In early May, he launched her on Lake Jocassee in the Sumter National Forest in South Carolina, his “favorite lake.” In June, he will take the Princess to Ottertail County, Minnesota, “where we can choose a different lake each day.”
Laity says he had good reason for dropping $4,000 on a used canoe: emotional, physical and ethical.
Ethically, he says, “to imagine the privilege of paddling one of Horace’s original Hosmer Queens (better yet, a Princess!) while supporting the meaningful and powerful learning experiences provided to young minds at Sterling College…particularly carrying on the legacy of Horace’s unique talents and contributions to the College is a joy for me words could not adequately express.”
Physically, he says, the weight of the canoe—52 pounds—was compelling. “With my padding years ever increasing, and my upper body strength ever decreasing, my seventy-something pound Old Town has become very challenging for solo lifting and portaging. Twenty-five pounds less sounds just right.
Emotionally, the purchase closes a loop, fulfilling a wish he has carried with him since his days in Strong’s canoe-building course while honoring a man for whom he had deep respect and affection. And, of course, the auction honors Sterling as well. “Oh, those precious youthful days spent learning about my place in our natural world while at Sterling College,” he wrote in a note to Hennessy. “Rita, what an amazing gift you’ve given. For Sterling,” he says. “For me.”
About the canoe:
- Length: 16 ft
- Beam: 37 in
- Depth: 12 in
- Bow height: 18 in
- Weight: 52 lbs (approximate)
Horace embossed every canoe he built with a code. This canoe sports “HXS QD623 0588” which, thanks to records kept by his widow, Shirley Strong, she was able to decode the following:
- The HXS is the Coast Guard assigned initials that identifies it was built at Strong’s Canoe Yard.
- The Q means the boat was made over the Hosmer Queen form.
- The D means it was what Horace called a “quick and dirty” meaning cedar was used that may have knots or other imperfections. In Horace’s notes on the boat he had written “lite weight” meaning the ribs and planking were thinned, sometimes the gunnels lowered, lighter wood was used for seats and gunnels, and a smaller deck.
- The 23 means its the 23rd canoe made by Horace and the 0588 says it was made in May of 1988.