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When the Gray family started a small side business selling canoes out of the back of their hardware store in Old Town, Maine in 1898, they likely never dreamed the company would become one of the best known in the watercraft business 125 years later. To survive for that long means a constant changing with the times. And Old Town kayaks and canoe designs have seen plenty of that over the decades, especially through the Great Depression and two World Wars.
The strive for innovation is something Old Town’s current employees have consistently stressed to me. While the company is glad to celebrate their first 125 years, it hasn’t slowed or stopped them from considering their future either.
Re-Inventing the Birch Bark Canoe
According to Old Town’s brand evangelist Ryan Lilly, the Gray family didn’t set out to re-invent canoes in 1898. But their entry into the business was fortunate timing. Their unique position on Marsh Island north of Bangor was perfect. The island is formed by the Penobscot River to the east and the Stillwater River to the west. This meant almost everyone used canoes and flat bottom bateau boats for transportation, especially since roads were still long away from being established.
“They saw an opportunity to hire some of the off-season log drivers that worked the rivers and floating the logs down the river to innovate and create a new canoe that was inspired by the Indigenous birch bark canoes of the area at the time,” Lilly said.
But traditional birch bark canoes are hard to build and maintain. The Grays hired crafters and boat builders to come up with something better. A designer by the name of A.E. Wickett developed the first canvas and wood canoe shortly after. These canoes were easier to build and maintain while still retaining some traditional aesthetics. The canoes were an instant hit with customers, although it was another five years before the company was incorporated in 1903. But by 1910, they had 60 employees working year-round in a factory.
Post War Innovations
In the early part of the twentieth century, there was a recreational canoe boom. According to Lilly, some of this was bolstered by Boston residents taking up canoeing in the Charles River. However, it wasn’t long before the company was shipping canoes all over New England. The arrival of the Great Depression and two World Wars slowed sales. But in each instance, Old Town bounced back with the prosperous years that followed.
In the 1940s, the company expanded their product line to include dinghies, sailboats, sailing canoes, fishing boats, and even offshore trawlers. It was in the post World War II years that competitors like Grumman started introducing new aluminum canoes. These boats were made from lightweight aircraft materials. The Gray family were not fans of these new crafts.
“They were really bright, they were reflective, and they were loud,” Lilly said. “And the people who owned Old Town at the time swore they would never make a boat out of metal.”
Instead, Old Town shifted into the construction of fiberglass watercraft. And in the early 1970s, a legendary designer by the name of Lew Gilman finally joined the Old Town team, right before S.C. Johnson acquired the company. You may know them for legendary outdoor brands like Minn Kota, Humminbird, and Eureka.
Old Town was a perfect fit for that portfolio. Gilman subsequently spearheaded the development of a process using a composite material known as Royalex. The material was strong, UV-resistant, and perfect for making kayaks and canoes. Gilman innovated a three-layer rotomolding process that is still used by Old Town in hull today. So while the company is constantly moving forward, some parts of the Old Town process are timeless in nature.
Fishing Kayaks Take Over
In the 1980s, Old Town launched their Discovery line of canoes named for the space shuttles NASA was sending into space at the time. It also represented a time when Old Town decided to focus more on their roots in the personal watercraft industry. Along the way, they acquired several smaller paddling related brands to get things started.
In 1995, the company started building kayaks and by 2009, the popularity of kayak fishing started to take off. Their kayak lines quickly overtook the popularity of their canoe lines. In 2013, they introduced the Predator series. This quickly led to the development of the first motorized model in the Predator MK.
“We were really ahead of the curve having one of the first fully motorized, integrated kayak experiences,” Lilly said.
While those initial Predator models sold well, it was the launch of the Predator PDL that was a smashing success. That boat ultimately set the groundwork for where Old Town is today. The company revamped their line in 2020 to simplify things under the Sportsman line of fishing kayaks. In 2020, they launched their Autopilot series, which ended up winning best in show at ICAST.
Celebrating 125 Years
To celebrate its 125th anniversary this year, Old Town wanted to find a unique way to honor its past while also looking to the future.
“We didn’t just want to come out with a commemorative boat,” Old Town Marketing Manager Alex Sherbinow told me. “We wanted to be able to tell the story of who Old Town is, and that’s where the color comes in of the Gray Ghost.”
The limited-edition Gray Ghost color scheme features grey, black, and hints of orange. Old Town produced 125 of each scheme for five different models. In keeping with the focus on innovation, they went with recent boat lines that have pushed the boundaries. The models include the Autopilot 120 and 136, the PDL 106 and 120, and the 106 power by Minn Kota. That means only 625 boats will have this distinctive scheme.
These colors aren’t random. They tie in directly with a piece of Maine fishing history in the popular Grey Ghost fly pattern. It’s a tip of the cap to Carrie Gertrude Stevens, who first invented the incredibly popular pattern in 1924. She was a self-taught fly tier. On her first trip out with the new fly, she caught a 6-pound, 13-ounce brook trout. That fish won second place in a Field & Stream competition for that fish. Later F&S stories highlighted her fishing and fly tying skills more in depth.
“That was to pay homage to Maine ingenuity and craftsmanship,” Lilly told me. “The fly is beautiful, these boats are beautiful. We’re a pretty scrappy people who take a lot of pride in what we do and what we build, and that was a nice tie-in.”
Old Town also spells it Gray with an “a” to pay homage to the Gray family who started the company. The company also added some other final touches to each of the limited edition craft. These were to highlight each boat being made in Maine. Each boat comes with a certificate of authenticity.
“We heat press in a limited edition number so that you know that hands in Maine touched this boat, it’s signed and authenticated that we built these boats in Maine,” Sherbinow said.
A Look to the Future and Sustainability
Spend any amount of time talking to Old Town’s employees, and you’ll consistently hear them talking about innovation. It’s something that’s a heavy focus for the company in everything that they do from day to day.
“Our history has always been innovation,” Sherbinow said. “The way that kayaks and canoes are built over time, we’ve always been at the forefront of that.”
Although both Lilly and Sherbinow also told me Old Town doesn’t set out to innovate purely for the sake of doing it. And every new idea that comes to market is carefully calculated. The company does a lot of research through consumer panels, ethnography tests, and consumer research projects. It seems to be successful based on the dedicated fan base they’ve built up.
As for the future of kayak fishing, Lilly believes there will big advancements in propulsion systems, especially the pedal drives. Although he also believes brands will likely start looking more to cut weight both for storage and transportation purposes. Either way, he says they’ll be prepared.
“When we launch a product, we know it’s going to be successful because it was informed based on what consumer said that they wanted, or what their pain points were that we could address,” Lilly said.
Sherbinow takes a slightly different approach to the same question. He believes there won’t be a single mass movement towards more compact styles of watercraft. Mostly because when it comes to hull designs and craft sizes, he believes there is no one-size fits all boat. Instead, he says their goal is to build a little of everything to fit everyone’s niche.
“Our mantra internally is that we want to build a boat for everyone,” Sherbinow said.
The big movement in the outdoor industry these days is towards greener manufacturing processes that create less waste and emissions. It’s something Old Town has equally embraced in their manufacturing processes.
“Although we are a plastics manufacturer, we really only have a two to three percent scrap rate on our plastics,” Lilly told me. “For instance, if a kayak doesn’t pass our quality and it can’t be salvaged, we chop our hulls and recycle them.”
What doesn’t get recycled into another boat is sold to a plastics byproducts company to be converted into other products. It’s worth noting Old Town boats have a lifetime hull warranty. But Lilly said a boat that gets damaged beyond repair by an accident can still be completely recycled. He recommends anyone with a ruined boat contact their local recycling facility to find out how they want the craft.
The company has found other interesting ways to make a difference in their factory too. The rotomolding process creates a ton of heat. They have effectively been able to recycle that heat to warm their facilities in the winter months simply by using the 500-degree ovens. They also switched over all the facility’s lights to motion-sensitive LEDs. The lights turn off if someone isn’t using a corner of the factory. The company’s efforts at sustainability seem to be yet another way Old Town is looking to the future.
“Our eye is always on the future and innovation, and how we can build the on-water experience to be more comfortable,” Sherbinow said. “You don’t get to 125 years if you purely focus on the past.”