By DONNA HUNT, used with permission from the the Denison Sherman Herald Democrat
Just in case anyone in this area has a wooden boat stored away in the garage with “Yellow Jacket” on the side, there’s a Dallas club wanting to contact you. From the number of Yellow Jacket Boats built near Red River in the 1950s, surely there are some still around.
David Kanally, a member of the Wooden Boat Association of North Texas, a group of about 60 active members who restore, preserve, display and as David says, most importantly enjoy antique and classic wooden boats, contacted me wanting to locate Yellow Jacket owners here.
He said since the Yellow Jackets, evidently named for the Denison High School sporting teams, were native to North Texas, they think it is important to include those wooden boat owners in their membership.
David said he has met a few Yellow Jacket owners during their displays at the Texas State Fair and other area boat shows.
The Yellow Jackets actually got their start in 1949 in a small workshop in the back of the building at 216 West Woodard. Three men began the operation by sawing and planning many board feet of birch.
R.A. McDerby, former PT boat test pilot, his brother-in-law, Bill Conatser, and designer and model boat builder, Edwin Beugler designed and made the first boat and the trio tested it on Lake Texoma. The test was successful and McDerby was ready to go into business.
A small manufacturing plant was set up just off U.S. Highway 75 South. One hundred ninety eight boats came off the assembly line during the first year and lots of orders were coming in for more. It wasn’t long before more space was needed and a site below the dam near Red River was established. This site had been the laboratory used by the Corps of Engineers while the Denison Dam was being built. By now it was 1953.
McDerby was taking his boats to national races and while in California he met a racer known to just about every youngster across the United States. Actually, he was known more for his love of a Palomino horse named Trigger than for racing boats.
Roy Rogers and McDerby struck up a friendship and before long Roy became a partner in the Yellow Jacket Boat operation and McDerby built a model line that included The Bullet and The Trigger for that Palomino.
When Roy Rogers came to town he stayed at the Denison Hotel, a pretty classy spot with its own very nice restaurant. This writer was working in the Denison Federal Savings & Loan office that had a door opening into the hotel lobby. We saw all the famous and not so famous who came through the hotel doors.
One day in 1955 a particularly large group came through and stopped at the registration desk. Someone excitedly said “There’s Roy Rogers.” All work stopped and we took turns going into the lobby to see Roy. For a young girl just out of high school, who loved westerns – especially those with Roy and his wife, Dale Evans, or Gene Autry – life didn’t get much better than that day. We all followed him to the elevator and watched the door shut to take him up to his room. While Dale came to Denison with Roy several times, I don’t remember ever seeing her here.
Roy’s involvement garnered much publicity for the boats, but McDerby had a few tricks up his sleeves too.
Knowing that then-President Dwight Eisenhower was Denison’s favorite son even though the town didn’t vote heavily for him when he was elected, McDerby gave the President a new Yellow Jacket Boat appropriately called “Mr. President” and with “Denison, Texas” on the back. That presentation was called “an advertising man’s bonanza.
Later McDerby was watching television in New York City, where he was attending a National Boat Show, and heard Steve Allen on the Tonight Show say he had been given a new Evinrude Outboard Motor by his sponsor. Allen jokingly said, “Now, all I need is a boat to go with it.”
McDerby’s ears picked up and the next week on network television, McDerby’s wife presented Allen with a brand new Yellow Jacket Boat. A year later Allen bought a second one.
Several years ago I received an e-mail from Tom Smith in Hartford, CT, who had owned a 14-foot model in 1955 and wanted more information about the boats. He had not known where the boat was manufactured until he read a column we wrote in 1998. He wanted to know if the boats were commonly found for sale in Denison. He said his boat was the fastest on the bay in his area of Long Island Sound until about 1962 or so.
Tom said he wasn’t surprised that McDerby was involved with PT boats during the war, because on a calm day his Yellow Jacket actually used to look like a PT boat in the way it leapt out of the water and planed off. Actually he said that could have been his teenage imagination at work, but the boat was definitely PT boat inspired.
In the early 1980s Roy Rogers went to a nearby town in Connecticut to dedicate two of his new restaurants and Tom decided to take his wife and son to see him and maybe talk with him about the Yellow Jackets. He had no such luck, but got within a hundred feet or so from him. The crowd was unbelievable, he said.
1957 was the banner year for the Yellow Jacket Boat Company with production figures nearing 7,000 boats and 400 employees on the payroll. But fiberglass made an appearance and the fiberglass hulls became the wave of the future because they were so maintenance-free.
The company closed its doors in 1959 and McDerby moved back to his hometown in New Orleans, where he passed away several years ago. Roy and Dale also have passed away.
Surely some of the thousands of Yellow Jacket Boats are still around Denison, where they were built by Denisonians. Anyone wanting more information about the Wooden Boat Association can contact David Kanally at 940-395-2742 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
He said the Association has been around since the 1970s and members meet monthly in North Dallas. They have shop facilities with shared power equipment near Allen and many are accomplished in woodworking and mechanics. They have an annual “Ride ‘n Show” weekend every August with a barbecue, boat show and Sunday morning run across Lake Lewisville in their boats.
The club has a website, http://www.woodenboatassociation.com.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at email@example.com.