Volume I, No. 2, Winter 1973


Edited by Stephen Hough

Photography by Robert McKenzie

We spent several mornings working with Emmitt on our johnboat. Since most of us knew nothing about johnboats and carpentry, we were full of questions. In between the noise of the power tools and hammering, we did a lot of visiting. Turned upside down on saw horses near where we worked was his aluminum johnboat.

What's the difference between the wooden and aluminum johnboats?

Well, the wooden johnboat is about a hundred pounds heavier than an aluminum boat.

Which boat would you rather have?

A wooden boat. It don't make near the noise that a metal one does on the river. It doesn't rattle like the metal one does scraping over riffles. It just kind of thuds when it hits something and that's all there is to it. Also the wooden ones actually handle easier.

How many johnboats have you made?

Oh, I've made twenty-five or thirty. No two of them alike. You know, in building a boat, you throw away your square and rules and just build them with what you got to build them with. Actually there's no straight lines on the boat; they're all curved lines, so when you go to square up your boat you eye-ball it.

How many people can this boat hold?

Well, three, comfortably.

Can it still carry a lot of supplies like when you were trapping?

Oh sure. We had as many as ten or twelve people in them playing around.

What did you go trapping for?

Mink and muskrat mostly. Trapped on the river for it,

What river did you trap on?


Osage Fork and Gasconade.

How Fast will one of those boats get up to?

You couldn't go very fast. They aren't made for speed. Even if you tried you'd run into a log jam or a big rock, unless it was a big river.

Did you ever have your boat to tip over?

Yes. It wasn't the boat's fault. It was my fault. Here's the way you get into trouble with a boat on the river. They'll be a limb or a tree over hanging and a swift place, and you run underneath that and get the boat kind of turned. The fast current then can fill the boat, swamp it or flip it over easy.

It's pretty hard to turn over a johnboat, isn't it?

Oh yes, it's awfully hard. Just stay half way awake and you won't have any trouble.

Tell us about a log jam.

Well, it's just driftwood or logs and things that's gone down the river and they'd just started building up. One would land, then another, until the jam might get as high as this building. Of course the river would run under it and all around it. It makes it kinda aggravating to get your boat around it. You couldn't go under it, you had to go around or over the top of it. Hauling these boats over a big pile of logs isn't easy.

Back when you didn't have these power machines to tongue and groove with what did you do ?

We made lots of boat floors by butting the edges together.

Wouldn't it leak?

Not much when they swell up.

Did you used to use cyprus?

No, it was too hard to get. We very seldom got cyprus here then.

What did you use?

Well, we used blackgum.

Do you know what blackgum is like?

I not really.

Well, it doesn't have any grain to it. It looks like a sycamore. It gets real hard and you can't use ordinary nails. Sometimes we drilled holes to drive nails because it would be so hard we couldn't drive nails without bending too many. Lots of times we used them rough and didn't plane them.

Will blackgum resist the water as well as cyprus will ?

Well, yes, it is pretty good; now it's better than oak or anything we could buy on the market. We didn't have a lot of money to spend, so we just built them out of whatever we could get to build them out of because we very seldom ever took one off the river.

Did you cut your own trees?

Yeah. We'd use linn (linden) and butternut. You know what butternut is. It's really light. They was always a saw mill around close. We used maple, soft maple, cause we didn't have any hard maple. Once every couple of years, we'd get out and hunt us a tree, take it to the saw mill to have it sawed into lumber and we'd stack it up in the barn loft or some other building to dry it. We'd usually get enough out of a tree to make a couple, sometimes three, boats. The problem was finding a tree tall enough to get an eighteen to twenty foot log.

How does water affect lumber?

Well, you take any other lumber besides cyprus and redwood and it'll absorb water. You can paint it and it helps, but it still absorbs the water. And it dries out, then absorbs water, then dries out, and after a bit that does something to the cells of the wood. It just comes to a certain place and stays there, usually leaving a big crack. When pine or other wood comes to that stage it loses its elasticity, becoming kind of crumbly. This'll never do. The only fault with cyprus is it's soft and wears a little faster, but it'll still outlast pine or most other lumber, because after a year or so it just--well, I don't know actually what happens, but something happens to the cells of the wood that it becomes soft and just crumbles off. Anything that hits it takes out a big chunk.


How long would it take you to wear one out then?

Oh, we trapped a lot and in the winter gigged. Three or four years. Back home the river was shallow and we were always dragging over the riffles. Usually after we wore the bottom down and renailed it two or three times, they got to where they leaked constant we'd talk there was no way to stop them. Then we take them to the house and make a feed trough and build a new boat.

What's the reason, beside the fact that it's awfully heavy, for leaving the boat in the river all the time?

The wood stays swollen up all the time. You just flip the water out of it if it rained in it. If they're out of the river, of course, they're going to dry some and when it dries, the lumber shrinks and it's apt to leak.

How would you leave the boat on the river?

Well, we'd just pick out a place along the shore, the bank we called it, a good place to get in and out, and just take the padlock and padlock it to the tree.

And the boat would just stay out in the river?

Yeah, it'd be out in the river.

Did anybody ever steal your boat?

Oh yeah, ever now and then. Never did lose but one; what I mean is plum lose one because usually if somebody got your boat, when they got through with it, they'd fasten it up to the bank. Course maybe they'd pick the lock or something, but usually they'd tie it up, because they'd want to use it again. They never take them up the river, that's too hard work. They take them down the river, so, we'd just take down the river. Usually someplace around the bend we'd find it.

Did the high waters ever take your boats away?

You know, we was lucky. We never even lost a boat due to high water. They was a place down in the field, well, you'd call it a little cove, and we usually tied our boat up there. We'd reach up as high as we could. 'there was a little sycamore tree there and we'd fasten the chain. Well, as the river comes up and the boat floats up and being in that little cove, very seldom did anything ruin our boat. If a log or tree comes down the river and get against it, you can imagine what that does to it. Just caves it in, tears them all to pieces.

How much did the boats you used to make cost you since you cut your own lumber?

Oh, five dollars, maybe, for sawing, nails and screws.

How much will this boat we're making now cost?

Emmitt looked at us with a twinkle in his eye. We knew the cost of materials alone would be close to sixteen times what it cost when he was in high school.

Well, if you've got to ask, you can't afford it.

Interview by Terry Tyre, Suzanne Carr, Robert McKenzle and Steve Hough


Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.

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