Mahogamy is not a word, you say??  Well, it's really two on!  This is the story of one Cowell boat...a 16-foot King hand-built in 1957 by Cowell Boat Works.  This first twelve years of the boat's life remain a mystery.  The remaining 40-plus years are chronicled below. This story was written by David Kanally in appreciation of his father's gift of the boat in 1999. This story, and dozens of other fascinating stories about wooden boats and restorations, have been published in Bob Matson's book, What's in Your Boat House?, available here.

Mahogany Monogamy

or, The Man Who Loved One Boat

Editor's note: This story, along with many other wonderful wooden boat stories, including ones about the boats used in "On Golden Pond" are found in Bob Matson's book, "What's in Your Boat House?" available here.

"I have been here before!" exclaimed my mother as they approached the waterfall along Six Mile Creek. "I used to bring campers here when I was a counselor at the camp up the road." This unexpected connection to her past brought my mother fully into the excitement of the day. The journey had begun with a very different intent…to trace the origins of Cowell Boat Works, the maker of my father's 1957 16-foot outboard runabout.

The waterfall on Six Mile Creek

Although the Cowell name is still known in Erie, Pennsylvania, Cowell boats are all but forgotten. The family's standard bearer today is Richard Cowell, an attorney practicing in Erie. His late father Tom was the founder of Cowell Boat Works. Richard was with my parents this day, graciously accompanying them on this unannounced probe into his family's history.

Cowell Beach is accessible only by the Cowells' private drive, which my parents and their Erie friends, the Sorces, hesitantly followed through the vine-laden woods. They reached the two-story frame home where Richard grew up, and proceeded toward the bluff that overlooks the beach.


Richard Cowell and one-boat-man Dek Kanally

They passed a cottage and a barn, and then saw Richard gathering and burning driftwood on the beach. He climbed the bluff to greet them and showed them around the property, including its own natural wonder, the waterfall along Six Mile Creek.

The old pier and Cowell Boat Works buildings in '99

They gingerly picked their way down a steep path toward the beach where Richard and his wife Jane had been clearing the driftwood. There, massive concrete slabs and reinforcing steel that once were a boat slip and pier lay askew, victims of forty years of Lake Erie freezes and thaws. And a bit farther up the beach were the crumbling remains of the buildings where Cowell boats were made. Doors and windows were long gone. The paint was splotchy. The vines and bushes that dominated the property were well on their way to reclaiming these buildings as well.

Cowell Boat Works in its Heyday

A June 1954 newspaper article proudly announced the expansion of Cowell Boat Works.

Thomas Cowell had been building wooden boats at his home for about a year, largely for the boat livery trade. He had experienced sufficient demand to expand operations and employ several craftsmen.

One of those young craftsmen was Ron Smith, who honed his woodworking skills on the mahogany gunwales and decks of many boats, including the one that my father would one day own. Ron, who has been building homes in Erie for the past 25 years, cited this early work experience on the home page of his construction business web site. It was this single Internet reference to Cowell Boat Works that opened the door for our discovery of Cowell's history in the summer of 1999.

From Richard's family archives came brochures that detailed the various models in the Cowell line. "Sea Pups" were the open fishing boats used with small engines, driven from the stern. Our boat was clearly one of the runabouts, a "King".

Other materials from Richard included a publicity photo made in the late 50's with employees, neighbors and friends aboard, including young Ron Smith at the wheel.

Completing their tour of the Cowell property, my parents saw a late 1950's Cowell 19-footer, sheltered in the Cowell's barn since it came from the shop.

Dek at the stern of the Cowell's 19-footer, June '99

But our family's Cowell boat story began over a decade later, in 1969.

The Muskrats and Boat Ownership Peer Pressure

Our first encounter with Cowell boats was unintentional. Sometime early in the summer of 1969 we decided that boat ownership was desirable. Our family, together with three other families known collectively as "The Muskrats", had shared a summer rental cottage on Bemus Bay at Chautauqua Lake, New York.

Throughout these summers, the kids of all four families spent most of their school vacations at the lake. The parents, who had responsibilities to their work, rotated the weekday kid-sitting burden, each couple taking their turn watching all the kids during one week of the summer. On weekends, though, everyone from the first and second generations of Muskrats was at the lake.

In the early years, we had access to one boat, a Penn Yan 16-footer with a gutsy Johnson 60-horse belonging to Phil and Jewell Meacham, the senior Muskrats. Behind this boat, every young Muskrat learned to water ski. Soon thereafter, our bright red, square-stern fiberglass canoe, the Muskrat, joined the flotilla. No perch or bluegill was safe from a junior Muskrat dropping his line over the gunwales of this stealth craft.

Not to be outdone, fellow Muskrat H.S.J.B. (more about him later) added two crafts to our Navy: The Ramstuk, (can you find the word Muskrat therein?) a featherweight oak and plywood rowboat and Remister II, a tiny sailing tub named after H.S.J.B.'s hoss. (H.S.J.B. was bohn and reahed in Boston, but lived and kept hosses in Pennsylvania). No other Muskrat had horses or sailboats, so it was good for us that H.S.J.B. was in our midst.

This floating frenzy culminated in a trip to the Starbrick Marina in Warren, Pa. by my father, my younger brother Kevin and me, in June of 1969. We drooled a bit over the new-looking and new-smelling boats in the showroom, but our budget led us quickly to the back parking lot where, sitting alone and sorely neglected, was a blistering and peeling wooden runabout of noble lineage. A swooping script logo, "Cowell, Erie, Pa." was affixed to the rear hull, on the port side. We immediately saw the potential and overlooked the shortcomings of the slightly shabby craft. A few hundred dollars later, we drove off with the boat, a 45-horse Mercury outboard and a Cox trailer built for the millennium. (Thirty-one years later, all three items would prove themselves to be Y2K compliant.)

When we pulled into the driveway, my mother's expression let me know that no parental pillow talk had preceded this purchase. This "honey, guess what!" buying technique has served me well over the ensuing years.

Kevin Kanally effects the first restoration, 1969

We set straight to the work of restoration. A stained blister on the front deck plywood was injected with glue with a veterinarian hypodermic needle, pushed flat with weights, then sanded. All topside surfaces received several coats of spar varnish. The hull was painted with white marine enamel. In short order, the new old boat was ready for launch.

The Muskrat, the Olds and young Muskrats David, Kent and Kevin in 1969

H.S.J.B., denatured alcohol, and the "fish-pound" theory.

"Handsome Smiling Jerry Bozzo" he signed his cards and letters. An engineer by training and a corporate executive, gentleman farmer, building supplies retailer, and hoss owner by profession, H.S.J.B. had knowledge of most subjects, especially those involving mechanics, electronics, chemistry, boats, dock building, and horses.

This knowledge impressed us young Muskrats deeply, and came in particularly handy on the day we launched the new old boat.

It is important, albeit irrelevant, to insert a brief expose of H.S.J.B.'s "fish-pound" theory at this point:

Any given body of water (in this case Chautauqua Lake) is capable of supporting a certain poundage of fish life. This poundage could be comprised of (a) a large number of small fish or (b) a small number of large fish. Since any self-respecting fisherman would prefer the latter scenario, it is important for all fishermen (especially young Muskrat fishermen) to do their part to eliminate undersized fish from the population. This way, the fewer remaining fish could grow bigger, to the benefit of everyone. It is due to the practice of this fish-pound theory that between 1965 and 1970, scores of hapless late-blooming adolescent Chautauqua Lake bluegills were mercilessly slammed against the planks of the Muskrat boat dock, where they briefly twitched, then met their maker.

The Launch and the Sputter

Hesitantly, with multiple re-orientations, we backed the trailer down the public boat ramp at Bemus Point. The fresh varnish reflected the upstate New York partly cloudy skies. The fresh, new American flag fixed to the stern light snapped in the lake breeze. After the ceremonious shove-off, we cranked the Merc and she turned over just as she had done at the Starbrick Marina. My brother, my buddy Kent (elder son of senior Muskrats Phil and Jewell) and I were to pilot the boat back to the cottage.

The fateful first launch, 1969

But then our hearts sank. The motor would run only at half throttle. We chugged around the bay a bit, pulled the cowling from the motor and pretended to adjust things, to no avail. Dejected, we returned to port and trailered the boat back to the cottage.

H.S.J.B. and Senior Muskrat George "Casey" Case (who left this life way too soon)

on the day of the carburetor miracle

H.S.J.B. to the rescue. His expert diagnosis revealed that the lower carburetor was clogged with "vahnish", the dried residue of the 28:1 gas/oil mixture that the 1960 power plant burned. He also determined that denatured alcohol would make a suitable solvent for said vahnish, because it was "sufficiently volatile." We young Muskrats accepted this diagnosis at face value.

Kent and David ream the carb jet with denatured alcohol while H.S.J.B.

conducts a volatility evaluation on a Manhattan, 1969

With youthful bravado and close coaching by H.S.J.B., we pulled the lower carb, dismantled it and reamed out the jet with a denatured alcohol-soaked broom straw. Following careful reassembly and remounting of the carburetor, we dragged a 55-gallon drum to the stern of the trailered boat, pulled the drum up and around the lower housing of the motor, and filled the drum with water. This time, the Merc not only turned over, but whined into the highest rpm range, churning and spewing water like a possessed eggbeater. We were mechanics!

All thanks to H.S.J.B.

The "Middle Years" and the Mortician

As young Muskrats grew into adulthood, the Chautauqua summers came to an end. The new old boat was due for another restoration. The blister on the front deck had risen again, and the stains just seemed to get worse and worse. We were understandably concerned for the boat's health, but nothing could have prepared us for the day the Mortician showed up. What relief we felt when it became clear that Frank Switzer wasn't there to bury the boat, but to improve it. You see, in a town the size of ours, there aren't enough people dying to keep a mortician busy full time. So Frank laid tile and did upholstery on the side. His solution to our blemished front deck was to cover it with a high-quality nut-brown colored vinyl upholstery material, which he did, quickly and masterfully. Seats, gunwales and other remaining woodwork received numerous new coats of spar varnish, and the new old boat was ready for the middle years.

Empty nesters Kanallys, Delacours and Paynes cruising Kippawa Lake, Quebec, 1981

Since we kids were grown and gone, my Dad used the boat for two main purposes: to take a couple of other people's young kids fishing at Chautauqua Lake from time to time, and to travel with my Mom and several other empty nest couples to Kippawa, Quebec, for week-long fishing trips.

At some undocumented point during this period, the boat and trailer both received a coat of cream-colored paint to match the new Olds station wagon.

Hagar's Magnificent Obsession

Something came over my father in 1985. He had a vision of a completely restored new old boat. He began a process which would fill our garage, consume his time and challenge my mother's patience for nearly two and a half years.

At some point during this time, my mom began calling my dad "Hagar" after the boat-loving Viking of comic strip fame.

She laminated and displayed this and other Hagar comic strips on the wall of the garage as her quiet vigil continued.

Hagar and Helga set the tone for all boat restoration projects to come, 1100 A.D.

A hardy band of guys led by Bob Hartle, our town's second underemployed mortician, came to help Dad flip the boat so he could begin removing the multiple coats of paint. With a heat gun and scraper he spent evening after evening scraping through layers and layers of cream, white, green, yellow and other colors of enamel until he reached bare wood.

My father-in-law, Ken McLaughlin (who also left this life way too soon) and our

sons Eric and Brian atop the partially scraped hull, celebrate Dek's progress in


Once the scraping phase was complete, the guys re-righted the boat. Dad removed the troubled front deck entirely, and replaced it with brand new marine mahogany plywood and trim that he had to drive 9 hours—all the way to White Plains, NY-- to get.

For all the Hagar teasing he got, it is important to note that my dad is a skilled and fastidious woodworker. He boiled and bent new oak ribs to replace the rotting members in the stern. He designed and built new gas tank holders and created a new seat to cover them. He raised the rear seat to accommodate both cranking and accessory batteries. He plugged screw holes with bungs, trimmed them with a tiny Japanese back saw and sanded everything until it was perfectly smooth.

Dek plugs screw holes with bungs, 1987

During this period, Dek subscribed to Wooden Boat magazine, where he found sources for modern epoxy hull coatings, durable enamels and ultra-violet light-resistant spar varnishes.

Dek and H.S.J.B. inspect the new mahogany front deck, 1987

He acquired all these products by mail order, and painstakingly applied them all to his new old boat.

The result was a mahogany jewel, glistening with a mirror finish.

Mom and Dad launched the boat at Kinzua Dam near Warren, Pa., where Mom officially christened the boat "Hagar".

Troubled Trip to Texas

Hagar (the boat, not the Viking) made a few trips during the years between 1987 and 1999…mostly day trips or weekends to Chautauqua Lake or Kinzua Dam. Lately, though, the new old boat had been in storage most of the time, and my dad thought it was about time to pass it along. I was thrilled at the prospect of being the new owner of the boat, but one major logistics challenge lay ahead…how to get the boat from Pennsylvania to Texas in a time-efficient and economical way.

Brian and David: Texas or Bust, June '99

After considering several options, we decided that it would be best to acquire my brother's 1988 Isuzu Trooper (which he was looking to sell anyway) , tow the boat to Dallas, then sell the Trooper. Our elder son Brian and I would do the driving.

Good plan, but the Trooper didn't have a rear bumper, and the hitches that were locally available in Pennsylvania required one.

Hitch Solution #1

So we had to add a supporting member to the rear frame of the Trooper to support the hitch. This modification held up for the first 250 miles of the trip, getting us to the west side of Akron, Ohio, Medina to be precise. At that point the rusting rear frame gave way, and we needed the intervention of some professional welders to reinforce the hitch to make sure we could finish the remaining 1200 miles of the journey.

Hitch Solution #2

We found a welding shop that would do the work, which caused a half-day delay in the journey, but only a minor blip in the project budget. We finished the trip without further incident and found a new home for the new old boat in North Texas.

Finding the Good Life in Texas

Since coming to Texas, the Kanally Cowell has become affiliated with the Antique and Classic Boat Society (ACBS) and the Wooden Boat Association of North Texas.  The Cowell has been in several shows, including the Texas State Fair, the Annual WBA Show & Ride at Lake Lewisville, and the Annual Keels and Wheels show at Clear Lake.

New coat of Epifanes Spar Varnish, November 2000

The boat that one man loved is now safely in the loving care of another. The new old boat is plying the new millennium in ship shape. The new owners are thankful that Dek's craftsmanship and care have made this all possible.

On Lake LBJ in Texas, October, 2012.