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The Dyer Legacy

Joseph M. Dyer

(Ed. Note:  This warm and anecdotal biography of Joe Dyer was written by Joe's son Tom.  It is excerpted with permission from Tom's manuscript.)

Joseph M. Dyer creating the Columbia River One Design, 1934

Joseph M. Dyer was born in 1898, in South Bend, Washington, the son of a pioneer sawmill family.  When he was a small child his family moved to Astoria, Oregon, to a home overlooking the Columbia River.  Joe’s father was the manager of the Clatsop Mill, a large facility on Scow Bay.  Scow Bay was a shallow bay dividing Astoria from its upriver appendage known as Uppertown.

Joe fell in love with boats, and at a very young age built his first boat out of a salmon packing crate.  He made friends with other boys who were so inclined, in particular Acme (Ac) and Clair Mansker. The boys spent many hours around the various waterfront activities, especially Tim Driscoll’s boat shop.  Tim’s father had been an English seaman, his mother a local Native American.  Tim’s father had taught him how to build boats, and he shared much of his knowledge with Joe and the Mansker boys.

Joe was propelled into adulthood at fourteen when his father died, leaving his mother, Annie, with three children.  He began working on the beach seining grounds in the Columbia River. When he was 18 he joined the Navy Reserve, just in time to be called up for World War I duty.  He spent the war on the USS Goldsborough on the Washington coast, where he was trained, and in turn trained other recruits.

After the war Joe enrolled at Oregon Agricultural College, now Oregon State University, where he studied Mechanical Engineering on an Oregon program that foretold WWII’s GI Bill.  He continued working on the seining grounds in the summers.  After college he returned to Astoria as an engineer, designing buildings to replace those lost in the disastrous Astoria fire of 1922.   Meanwhile he and the Manskers dreamed of opening their own boat yard.

Joe and the Mansker brothers tried their hand at the shipbuilding business with a venture they called Astoria Shipbuilding.  This first attempt resulted in the acquisition of the first bit of property that was to grow to accommodate Joe's second and more successful company, Astoria Marine Construction Company (AMCCO).  

During these early years, Joe lived in a cottage at the shipyard with Brian Ross, until his marriage in 1929 to Genevieve (Geno) Thompson.  After their wedding, they lived with Joe's mother Annie for five years while Joe completed a larger house across the road from AMCCO. 

Life with Joe

Joe Dyer was first and foremost an artist.  His medium was wooden boats, and a somewhat compulsive perfectionism drove him.  This perfectionism stemmed from both his artistic pride, and from his knowledge that a well built boat could perform difficult tasks well.  He knew that a poorly built boat might fail its owner and certainly would not last.  Joe was well known for demanding that any less than perfect job be redone, even when it was only a matter of appearance such as the alignment of deck plugs. 

Although everyone around him understood his perfectionism, when once asked, “How did you inspire your employees to do such high quality work?” Joe did not seem to understand the question.  After some thought he said, “They were all such fine craftsmen, I only let them do what came naturally.  In fact I sometimes had difficulty convincing them not to spend too much time making things just right”.  Apparently Joe and his people were meant for each other.

Joe had a quick temper, quick to rise and equally quick to subside. When really angry, he raised profanity to an art form; but his cussing was always aimed at inanimate objects, or the world in general, never at individuals.  It was his way of blowing off steam.  His chief naval architect in later years, Heine Dole, tells of the day he and Joe got in a row.  Joe said “Dole you’re fired”; Heine said, “The hell I am, I quit”. 

Joe stormed out of the engineering office, slamming the door with such force as to break its window.  Heine heard him storm down the 14 steps from the office to the shop below, and then heard him retrace the 14 steps back up. He put his head through the broken window and said, “Don’t forget, Geno’s expecting you for dinner tonight.”  He was already over his anger and ready to get on with the plans for the day.

While his employees learned to duck when Joe was angry, which in fact was seldom, they had the utmost respect for him. Most earnestly believed he could do their job better than they could.  This was a legend Joe was happy to let stand.  To be sure he had worked on the tools in the early days, but more importantly he understood what it took to do a job right.  Joe never thought of himself as being fundamentally any different than his employees.  He had the utmost respect for their skills, and for their dignity and worth as human beings. 

He approached each of them as a friend, treated them very fairly, and in 40 years never had a strike.  Whenever a union agitator made himself known, the old timers made a practice of explaining how well they were treated, and how very unkindly they would feel toward anyone who disturbed that relationship.  Even when he was president of a company employing over 1000 men, he was known simply as Joe.  He did however begin wearing a necktie, under is bib overalls.  He never had an office, just a corner desk in the engineering department.

Of course the depression made it possible for those who had money to have yachts built at very reasonable prices.  Joe took enthusiastic advantage of this fact.  Although many people did not know it, he was a fundamentally shy man.  He hated pushing himself on to others, but knew he had to do it to survive.  He and Geno (who was very outgoing, and thus his perfect helpmate) began visiting all the yacht clubs anywhere near Astoria.  This, plus advertising in magazines like Pacific Motor Boat, paid off, first in repair work, and then in design and construction contracts.

In 1934, Joe was approached by a group of Portland sailors known as the Columbia River Yachting Association.  They wanted him to design a boat especially suited for the Lower Columbia River.  She was to be a one-design class boat to encourage racing, but was also to be a family cruiser.  She was to have low freeboard to facilitate swimming and fishing; with shoal draft and a centerboard to accommodate the river’s many sandbars; a galley, head, and room to sleep 4 to 6 people; and she was to be simple enough to build in a back yard.  She had to be stable and safe to handle the lower river’s strong summer nor'westers, and she had to be able to jump a gillnet.

This was a challenge Joe relished.  It called on all his experience, not just as a naval architect, but also as a kid from Scow and Youngs Bays.  The result was the 28’ Columbia River One Design, affectionately know as a CROD.

All the requirements were met, even if sleeping four (never mind six) required a great deal of cooperation and friendship, and even if the cook had to stand with his or her head and shoulders out the large trunk cabin hatch.  The boats were meant to be an “everyman’s” boat, and they were.  They were an immediate success. 

Joe was now an established yacht designer and builder.  During the ‘30s, his yard was commissioned to build several boats.  (See Astoria Marine Construction Company page of this website)

In February 1941 Joe Dyer flew to Washington, DC for a builder’s conference with the Navy, Gibbs and Cox (the designers), and shipyards interested in building wooden minesweepers, YMS’s. AMCCO had only enough money for a one-way airfare, figuring if they got the contract Joe would fly home, if they did not, he would return by train or bus. 

At the relatively young age of 42, and representing a small town in Oregon virtually unknown in Washington, Joe ventured forth.  But while he was shy regarding most subjects, he was passionate regarding wooden shipbuilding.  In New York he was in the company of the famous east coast yards such as Luders and Nevins.  But just as he treated his employees as equals, he treated the Navy and the great names as equals as well.   He quoted a conversation with a Capt. Phillip Lemler 

 Capt. Lemler: “What do you know about building boats?”

Joe: “I know plenty about building boats”

Lemler: "What the hell do you have to work with?"

Joe: “I’ve got men who can build boats in their sleep."

The contract was awarded to AMCCO. (See Astoria Marine Construction Company page of this website)

One of the duties of a shipyard owner during these years fell heaviest on Geno.  There were always crews arriving to take the new ships off to war.  It was expected, and in fact just common courtesy, to entertain the officers, and their families if they were in Astoria.  Fortunately Geno was a very social person, and although it was often very hard work, she relished it.  She purchased several sets of Franciscan “apple” pattern china, more glasses, and what ever else she needed and could afford, and began to entertain as much as she was able to do.

In 1940 she and Joe and Tommy were still in the house across the street from the shipyard.  Although larger than the cottage Joe had shared with Brian Ross, it was small: a large “keeping room” that served as kitchen, dining room, and living room; a bedroom and bath, and a small addition for Tommy. 

Things really got cramped when Dave Thompson arrived to work on the CVE’s.  Dave was Geno’s brother, and given the wartime housing shortage, the only thing to do was for Dave, and his wife and two young children, to move with the Dyers.  A hurriedly built garage and shop were added to the house (in fact to store the Thompson family furniture and belongings) and the attic was converted into the Thompson bedroom.  A search was then initiated for other more spacious quarters. 

Finally a large house in Astoria, suitable for conversion to a duplex came on the market, and the Dyers and Thompsons moved in to Astoria.  The move was desirable for other reasons as well.  For years AMCCO worker had walked across the street to ask Joe a question if he was not available in the yard.  Now the plant was operating three shifts, and even the graveyard workers occasionally came with a question.  It was time to move.  

Joe inspecting the Trask, a 70' fishing boat designed by Heine Dole, 1945

(See Astoria Marine Construction Company page of this website for more detail on the TMS construction program of AMCCO during WWII, and the subsequent minesweeper program during the Korean conflict.)

In the spring of 1947 Joe decided he had earned a rest and he, Geno, and their son Tommy, moved in with Joe’s sister in Honolulu for a three-month vacation.  A three-month absence made Joe realize that he could now do other things besides run AMCCO. 

He had been active in some community activities, in the past, particularly the Astoria Regatta.  The regatta was more than a boat race, it was Astoria’s trademark civic celebration, featuring a queen a parade, parties, as well as fish boat races, towboat tugs-of -war, outboard hydroplane races, and of course sailing races with a heavy representation of CRODs.

One day Joe was complaining to friends about the condition of Oregon state politics.  Someone suggested he run for the state legislature, which he did successfully.  He served two terms in Salem (1948-1952), and became well known for his staunch support of the fishing industry, in particular demanding that all dams on the Columbia River be equipped with fish ladders.  Geno knew how fearful he was of public speaking, and quietly cried with pride when he gave his maiden speech on the floor of the Oregon House of Representatives.

Service in the legislature, and learning public speaking, had placed him in a position of civic leadership he never again left:  United Way Chairman, recipient of Astoria’s First Citizen Award, first chairman of the Oregon State Marine Board (charged with overseeing state regulations governing pleasure boat activity), founding member of the Columbia River Maritime Museum, to name a few of his civic accomplishments. 

In the late 50’s Joe began to think of slowing down a bit himself.  In 1957 he again took an extended vacation, this time spending a summer cruising Puget Sound and Lower British Columbia aboard the Merrimac.

One aspect to Joe’s career that gave him real pleasure were the good friends he made across the country as a result of the various boats he built.  Whenever he traveled he would stop and pay them a visit.  They included some of the best known naval architects in the country, among them were: Phil Rhodes, Bill Luders, Walter McGinnis, H.C. Hanson, George Nickum, and Gordon Snyder.

The glory days of wooden shipbuilding sadly was destined to end.  The forests no longer could supply enough beautiful clear, tight vertical grain, wood necessary.  The men who had learned their trade in World War I were all retiring.  Steel and fiberglass were proving themselves to be excellent materials for the construction of workboats and yachts.  The building of wooden ships was over, survived only by a small custom yacht construction business in a few centers such as Port Townsend, WA. or down east in Maine.  Joe knew it was time to retire. 

He had no interest in learning steel or fiberglass boat building.  Tom was pursuing a career in naval architecture, and was too young to take over the company.  But Joe felt a firm loyalty to his employees, and to his repair customers along the Lower Columbia.  He knew the thing to do was to sell the operation to a group of his key employees, at a price they could afford.

A new chapter

After nearly 40 years at the helm, Joe turned over the reins of AMCCO to a group of his employees. He remained available as a consultant, and kept some choice lumber stock and a small engineering office in the upstairs office that had once been the cottage he shared with Brian Ross.  He and Geno began to enjoy retirement. 

Joe did build one more yacht.  Ed Ross, an advertising executive, who had retired to his hometown of Astoria wanted Joe to build the Mary Carol, a motor yacht.  He contracted with Joe and AMCCO to do the job.  They set up an area in the former AM glue shop, and AMCCO workers under the direction of shipwright Ron Larsen, built the boat.  Joe did the lofting, and was on the job most days lending advice, Ed Ross came most days too, and the coffee pot was always on.

Joe’s health began to fail in 1969.  His activities were increasingly curtailed.  He did get to Seattle occasionally, where he visited Ac Mansker, H.C. Hanson, and Tom, who was building steel boats at Marco Shipyard in Seattle.  Tom and his family made frequent trips to Astoria as well.  Joe died in 1974.  Geno continued living in Astoria until her death in 1983.

  Thomas R. Dyer

Below is bio information on Thomas R. Dyer, Joseph's son, who lives and works in Seattle.  Tom contributed an article in the History of CROD section of this website, and, through years of hands-on experience, is an authority on the construction, maintenance and sailing of CRODs.)

Biographical Sketch of Thomas R. Dyer

Tom Dyer

Tom Dyer has remained close to his family's vocation throughout his career.  For many years, he owned, maintained and piloted CROD #10 that his father named for him, the Tom Tom.  Today, he heads a marine consultancy firm, Headway Marine, LLC, in Seattle.  He provides consultancy support to large marine projects and serves as an expert witness in marine-related legal disputes.

Growing up in his father's shipyard, Astoria Marine Construction Company, Tom received:
BS in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford
Commission as a naval reserve officer
MS in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering from MIT.
Fulbright Scholarship to study in Holland
After naval service, Tom worked his way through the shipbuilding ranks as a naval architect, estimator, superintendent, project manager, new construction program manager, shipyard general manager, and finally as president and owner of a small yard. He has also served briefly as a principal in a leading naval architecture firm, and was engineering vice president for a heavy lift contractor. He holds a Professional Engineer's license in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering.
Tom has overseen the construction of 28 steel and aluminum vessels, and supervised numerous vessel repairs and major conversions. He has managed heavy industrial construction projects and the lifting, transport, and sea-fastening of oversized marine cargos. His projects have involved all aspects of shipyard operations and business, as well as the engineering, construction, conversion and maintenance of fishing vessels, tugs, barges, ferries, pilot boats, sailing and powered pleasure craft, and of aluminum, wood, and steel hulls. With 50 years of experience in operating and maintaining wooden pleasure boats, both sail and power, Tom has made voyages in sailboats, fishing vessels, tugs, pilot boats, and naval and merchant ships.