...Oh, gently the ripples will kiss her side,
And tenderly bear her on;
For she is the wandering phantom bride
Of the river she rests upon...
"The White Canoe"
Edward Alan Sullivan
...I dream to-night that my paddle blurs
The purple shade where the seaweed stirs,
I hear the call of the singing firs
In the hush of the golden moon.
"The Lost Lagoon"
Pauline Emily Johnson
Aviator's Cabin, Mount Seymour
The Greenwood Canoe Company remained at this location until Dad retired in 1975, at which time he was contacted by a company in Dauphin, Manitoba that manufactured paddles. They wanted to acquire Dad’s moulds to expand their business into canoe building. Due to Dad’s generous nature, an arrangement was made with the Dauphin company to defer payment for the moulds until their company began turning a profit. Unfortunately, the company went broke, so Dad was never paid. My parents travelled in their camper van to Manitoba and managed to locate one of the past owners of the company, who indicated that some fellow in Cranberry Portage, Manitoba now had the moulds. By this point my parents were exhausted and decided to just cut their losses and head home. Perhaps the moulds are just waiting to be re-discovered!
Dad primarily built canoes at this location, producing between seventy-five and one-hundred per year. He also ran a successful side business for Jones Tent & Awning, building Pioneer brand “Trapper Nelson” pack board frames, which utilized similar techniques to bending canoe ribs. Occasionally, my brother's friends would be hired to attach canvas jackets to each frame and lace them closed. The frames were then sent back to the Jones factory, where the bags were attached.
He decided to only re-construct moulds for the most popular models. Therefore, the twenty-five foot “Freight” and seventeen foot “Sportsman’s” moulds were not rebuilt. Also lost in the fire was the set of alphanumeric dies used to stamp the serial numbers. Subsequently, numbers were simply hand-written in pencil. To replace the destroyed buildings, he built a new shop at the front of the property, this time using concrete blocks.
I remember having to wade through piles of sawdust whenever I visited the shop. However, the absence of the vacuum system also resulted in two fires at this location. One occurred in 1970, resulting in the loss of the canoe shop. The second happened a few years later, in which the machine shop burned down. The fires also claimed the canoe moulds, so Dad was faced with rebuilding them.
When Mr. McDonald offered to sell Dad the land, he said something like “I wouldn’t buy this property, it’s nothing more than a pile of sand!”
Dad left the McDonald property in 1959 and purchased land on Mitchell Island, also on the banks of the Fraser in Richmond. There he established the final “Greenwood Canoe Company” location.
It was here that Dad also established “Sea Island Boat Rentals”. He would come home after a successful day of renting and empty his pockets of handfuls of crumpled up cash. Unfortunately, all too often, he would have to row out, sometimes after dark, to find renters who had failed to return on time. The rental business operated for only a few years then subsequently dissolved, partially due to Mom’s constant worrying.
The Greenwood Canoe Company operated successfully, with Dad running the shop and Mom tending to the books and the front office. One exception to this effective formula was the time Mom unwillingly ventured out of the office and into the shop. It was after dinner and Dad was working late on a canoe that was to be delivered the following day. The staff had left and Dad decided he needed some help. Without asking, he handed Mom a brush and instructed her to apply a final coat of paint. Feeling her skills were better utilized in the office, she begrudgingly obeyed, but intentionally and out of spite did a lousy job. She applied the paint too heavily and it dripped everywhere, making a mess of both the shop and the canoe. Not surprisingly, Mom was never again asked to help out with production, which suited her just fine.
There was a staff of up to 11 boat builders during full production. Even with the large number of workers, there was often a waiting period from the time a boat was ordered until it was complete and ready for delivery, since each was custom built and meticulously constructed by hand. One of the workers employed at 4th Avenue was George Fletcher, who became a significant asset to the Greenwood Canoe Company due to his unequalled skill, loyalty, and quality of craftsmanship.
This location was the largest of all the factories and produced the highest volume and variety of boats. They manufactured canoes, rowboats, dinghies, car toppers, cabin cruisers and speedboats. Canoes were custom made to order, with the Greenwood logo burned into the decks with a branding iron. As master boat builder, Dad was the only one allowed to apply the brand. Certain canoe models were also available in the unfinished state. These boats were complete except for the paint. They also lacked the brand, since Dad didn’t feel comfortable putting his name on work he didn’t oversee from start to finish.
After outgrowing the location on west 2nd Ave. in 1945, Dad purchased a half-block long piece of property on West 4th Ave. With the help of my grandfather’s construction crew, Dad built a three-storey multi-use building.
Dad’s boats were always designed and built to his own exacting standards, with one notable exception. WWII had begun, and the Greenwood Canoe Company was commissioned by the Royal Canadian Air Force to build several bomb-loading dinghies. Dad was required to build these watercraft to the specifications of the Air Force. This event is mentioned in the book “A Bridge of Ships: Canadian Shipbuilding during the Second World War”, by James Pritchard.
I don’t know much about this location, although my mother tells a humorous story about Dad’s accounting practices. They had just started dating when Dad took Mom to the shop for a tour. She noticed a roll-top desk with a slot in the top. He told her that when he received a utility bill, he would simply drop it into the slot and ignore it. Upon receiving subsequent and past due notices, he would drop those in the slot as well. It wasn’t until he got a disconnection notice that he would open the desk, fish out the original bill, and pay it. As a bookkeeper, Mom quickly put an end to this practice. From that time forward, Dad’s bills were always paid on time and his books were impeccably balanced.
After regaining limited mobility, Dad pondered a career in boat building. As part of my grandparents’ efforts to assist with his rehabilitation, Grandma boiled water on her kitchen stove so Dad could steam bend canoe ribs. Through patience and perseverance, Dad realized that a career in boat building was achievable. Not only was he successful, but he ultimately became a master in this field.
Dad and his long-time YMCA friend and colleague, Stu Carruthers, arranged a tour of the Old Town Canoe Factory in Bangor, Maine. Dad wanted to study their techniques because he felt they were the finest canoes ever built. According to Stu, who drove them, Dad was still in pretty rough shape. He required two canes in order to walk, so it’s easy to imagine how non-assuming he must have appeared to Old Town. Upon his return to Vancouver, and after further improvement to his mobility, Dad rented a small shop in Vancouver in 1939, founding the first commercial location of the Greenwood Canoe Company.
Dad was competitive and a bit of a daredevil and originally planned to attend Brown University to become a physical education teacher. However, in his mid twenties, he suffered a stroke while skiing with friends at the cabin they built on Mount Seymour in North Vancouver. It took 24 hours to get him off the mountain and to the hospital, since this was before the time of ski lifts or even roads up the mountain. The ordeal left him partially paralyzed on his left side so he no longer felt that becoming a P.E. teacher was viable.
In order to improve his own knowledge of canoe construction, Dad "rode the rails" back east. He visited the Peterborough Canoe Company in Ontario in order to learn more about building quality canoes. It’s been said that Peterborough quickly realized what he was up to and “kicked the spy out”.
Dad realized that there were an insufficient number of boats and canoes to adequately serve the camp’s needs, so he implemented a program of teaching boat building and wood lore. The outcome of this initiative resulted in effective team building and an increased fleet size for Camp Elphinstone.
He was also a member of the YMCA Intermediate Leaders' Corps and became a councillor at Camp Elphinstone. His knowledge of boat building and passion for athletics were assets to the program.
It was in my grandparent’s basement during the depression that my dad started building boats as a hobby. I speculate that he sold them to neighbours, friends, and family. Dad was an avid outdoorsman who enjoyed fishing, skiing, and mountaineering.
When Dad purchased the property on Mitchell Island, it consisted of a cottage and large garage. The cottage was built on pylons right over the river. Dad used the cottage as the canoe shop, added a finishing room, and converted the garage into the machine shop. Although he brought the cyclone vacuum with him to this location from 4th Ave., he never installed it.
Back of shop - cyclone on roof
© Susan Greenwood
According to canoe expert Mike Elliott of Kettle River Canoes...
“Unless you live in British Columbia, you probably never heard of Bill Greenwood or Greenwood Canoes. And if you want to start a fight amongst wood-canvas canoe enthusiasts, just ask them to name the prettiest canoes ever made. In Maine, you would hear names like Morris, Gerrish and White. In Ontario, Peterborough Canoes are the top of the list. But in British Columbia, people speak of Greenwood Canoes in hushed tones and bow down to Greenwood’s exquisite watercraft. Not surprisingly, the lines and details of Greenwood’s Canoes borrow heavily from the ‘Maine Guide Canoes’ of Old Town and other builders in Maine. They sport wide, flat bottoms and have very little rocker. The stem profile is heavily re-curved and the hulls all contain a lot of tumblehome. The workmanship in Greenwood Canoes is outstanding. He used aircraft quality Sitka spruce for the double-tapered ribs. The wide planking was made of old growth western red cedar (edge-grain). The stems (and slat seats) were white oak, while the rest of the canoe was trimmed in Philippine mahogany. All of the woodwork was flawless – tight planking, graceful lines, and elegant detailing. His contribution to the world of wood-canvas canoes is significant here in British Columbia. People bow their heads in reverence to these stunning works of art.”
With the materials he salvaged from the 4th avenue shop, Dad built a series of small buildings. Although rustic, these structures served their purpose, as the company remained at this location with steady production volumes for seven years.
The company remained at this location until 1952, when the city of Vancouver expropriated the property in order to build the 4th Avenue off-ramp for the new Granville St. Bridge. Dad asked if he could tear down the building himself, and the city agreed. Dad and his crew dismantled the building board-by-board and window-by-window and moved the materials to rented land at the foot of McDonald Road on Richmond’s Sea Island on the north arm of the Fraser River. This was near the present location of the McDonald Beach boat launch.
Given the large size of this shop, Dad was able to incorporate his own resaw operation. As Mom tells it, Dad would go to the Fraser River, walk out on the log booms, and hand-pick the logs he wanted. He would only choose the best logs, and could estimate how many boats or canoes each would yield. Once he had selected the logs, he would instruct the mill to quarter-saw them into four-by-fours, which he would later resaw at the shop. Due to the large amount of sawdust created by this operation, Dad purchased and installed a sawmill-style cyclone vacuum system. Additionally, an interior slide was incorporated into the building, allowing easier movement of the boats between floors.
The main floor consisted of the boat factory and showroom. The second floor was shared between the paint shop and finishing room, office space, and a small apartment. The offices were rented out and my parents lived in the apartment with my eldest brother Michael.