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The Rise and Fall of the Peterborough’s Outboard Marine Corporation

February 5, 2024

Outboard Marine Corporation, April 2, 1958. (Trent Valley Archives F340 B4 329)

In the first years of the twentieth century, the Kawartha Lakes region was named by the Trent Valley Navigation Company of Bobcaygeon, to facilitate it becoming a tourist destination, attracting visitors via steamboats and railways. At the time, before the advent of automobiles, steamers were the fastest way to reach many waterfront communities. The image of white paddlewheelers travelling the beautiful lakes of the waterway was the Kawartha Lakes region’s original marketing image.

The era of the steamboat transportation in the region was short lived. In 1909, Ole Evinrude, a Norwegian-American began to market his first mass-produced one-cylinder, 1.5 horsepower outboard motor. Ole was a pattern maker, who was interested in the internal combustion engine (then a revolutionary new technology), and came up with the idea of creating a detachable internal-combustion engine on the stern of a boat. He explained that one day he took his assistant, Bessie Cary, on a picnic to an island in Okauchee Lake, Wisconsin. She said that she would like a dish of ice cream, and Ole rowed back to shore to buy it for it, but by the time he returned, the ice cream had melted. He was inspired to create a boat engine that would have got him across the lake fast enough to deliver her ice cream. His devotion to Bessie led them to marry in 1906, and together they built the brand bearing their name.

The original outboard motors were capable of 5 miles per hour, which was faster than paddling. They were not as reliable as modern outboard motors. Local lodge owner Dan Whetung Jr. nicknamed his “You-Go-I-Go,” because it didn’t work half the time, and he would have to paddle. Early automobiles were slow by modern standards, and not particularly reliable either, but both technologies offered the freedom to have an internal combustion engine propel you, where and when you wanted to go. By the 1920s, motor boating was becoming the wave of the future, and steam boating was obviously in decline. The last scheduled steamboat service on the upper lakes ended when Charles Gray and his Lintonia retired in 1931.

Just as there were many companies inventing in improving automobiles at time, outboard motors were quickly evolving. Four brothers, Louis, Harry, Julius and Clarence Johnson started out experimenting with marine and aircraft motors in their barn in Terre Haute, Indiana. After having their plant was destroyed by a tornado, they relocated to Waukegon, Illinois and in 1922 they came out with Johnson Outboard Motors, a radical new, lightweight design, made primarily of aluminum. Their sales volume soon superseded Evinrude. As international sales increased, they were looking to set up an assembly plant in Canada. So in 1928, they purchased the former Birmingham Automotive Company building in Peterborough, and established the Canadian Johnson Motor Company Ltd.

The original factory was 30,000 square feet and employed seventeen workers. Initially, components were not made on site—they just brought in parts like power heads, gear cases, magnetos and carburetors from the American parent company, and assembled them onsite. The factory housed a voluminous water tank where they tested each motor for five hours before selling it. Initially, the factory sold 1.5, 3 and 7 horsepower outboard motors.

In the depths of the Great Depression, it was challenging to sell luxury products like outboard motors at the same prices that they fetched during the Roaring Twenties. In 1931, Canadian Johnson Motors branched out into making cedar strip boats, which were popular. But by then, a similar expansion in the United States, combined with an ambitious advertising campaign, had already made the parent company insolvent. Johnson Motors was for sale, and the Outboard Motors Company (later Outboard Marine Corporation) bought it at a fraction of its value. This completed the consolidation of Evinrude, Lockwood-Ash, ELTO (also founded by Ole Evinrude after he sold his original company), and Stephen Briggs (co-founder of Briggs and Stratton, Harold Stratton disagreed with branching out into outboards). A 1936 fire destroyed part of the Peterborough Boat Works, and later the same year the Canadian company assumed its parent company’s new name, then the Outboard Marine & Manufacturing Company. The Peterborough factory began assembling motors branded as Johnson, Evinrude and ELTO—Johnson was still the most popular brand. ELTO was the low cost option, Evinrude was marketed as premium brand, and Johnson had special features. The three brands produced a majority of outboard motors. Three years later, the plant was switched to wartime production.

The postwar boom brought unprecedented prosperity to the Kawarthas. Prior to the war, many families would travel to the region to stay at a tourist lodge for a few days or even a couple weeks. Within a generation, it seemed that just about every waterfront lot with road access was developed. A great many of these waterfront residents owned their own motorboat, mostly likely powered by an OMC motor. As people across North America had unprecedented amounts of time for leisure and enjoyed spending summer at the cottage, Outboard Marine first appeared on the Fortune 500 list in 1955 and within 5 years it was turning a profit of $13.8 million, ranking 180th.

By the 1950s and 1960s, OMC was not only the dominant manufacturer of outboard motors, they produced lawnmowers and chainsaws. Ole Evinrude had also introduced the Lawn-Boy brand by 1932, and the company went on to produce Pioneer chainsaws. All of the company’s principal brands had developed a great reputation for quality, and a loyal customer base, particularly in the Kawarthas. In part because of the local connection, many consumers in the Trent Valley would buy a Lawn-Boy mower, Pioneer chainsaw, Evinrude or Johnson outboard.

By 1970, the Outboard Marine Corporation of Canada had expanded to have a 340,000 square foot factory, a second at 161,000 and the former Peterborough Canoe Company building, which served as a parts and service depot (purchased 1964). That fall it produced its 1,000,000th outboard motor, at a time when the Canadian population was about 21,000,000. Many of those million motors would still be on the water. 2,000 people worked for the company, and it had 5,000 Canadian dealers. The company made chainsaw chain, lubricants, and marine accessories like steering systems, instruments, heads and bilge pumps.

Outboard motors were invented in an era with very different pollution standards than today. Back then, it was socially acceptable to dump all kinds of industrial waste, and even to release untreated human waste into the same watercourses that were used for drinking water. By the 1960s, times had changed, as environmentalism became a commonly held ideology. Outboard motors were developed as two-stroke powerheads, fitted with a carburetor, because this simple design was reliable, inexpensive and lighter than alternatives. The downside was that they were loud, and a lot of unburned oil and gasoline were released into the water. Even by 2000, outboards released 10-25% of their fuel unburned into the water. Environmental impact studies often reach the conclusion that this does not reach the point of toxicity for marine ecosystems, though it may effect eggs and plankton.

In response to these concerns, OMC went on the offensive in the early 1970s, claiming that there were “no apparent effects whatever on fish, microscopic aquatic life or marine vegetation.” Moreover, the company asserted that it was “a guardian of our waters and our wildlife, our forests and our fresh air, for future generations.” As a marketing tool, this propaganda seemed to be effective—people wanted to believe that the outboard motor they were buying was good for the environment. But anyone who stopped to think about it might have a hard time explaining how outboard motors were good for fish or aquatic plants like rice—which was locally important.

To some degree, OMC may have been a victim of its own success. They made a high quality product, which tended to last. Having grown largely to meet the demands of recreational boating, a lot of boaters did not put many hours on their outboard. Why buy a new motor as long as the old one is still running? They are discretional purchases, and many people would hesitate to buy a new outboard when their finances were tight. The company diversified, producing golf carts, snowmobiles, and Trade Winds campers, but outboard motors remained the most profitable part of the company.

In 1976, OMC was cited by the United States Environmental Protection Agency for PCB contamination at Waukegan. Facing the bad press and a lawsuit for environmental contamination, the company was also having a difficult time competing against Yamaha and Mercury, who co-operated to produce the Mariner. Increased competition made it difficult to charge enough for outboard motors to make the company profitable. Once offshore competition became a factor, it was challenging to build the best products, paying good (North American) wages, sell them at a competitive price and still remain profitable. By the late 1980s, the Peterborough factory was beginning to shut down, and closed in 1990.

In 1989 OMC was ordered to establish a trust to clean up Lake Michigan, which coincided with a period when the company struggled to profitably sell outboard motors. As the company retooled its plants, it sold off Lawn-Boy, but persisted in posting staggering losses. In 2000, the company sold 100,000 motors, and still represented one third of the American outboard market, but filed for bankruptcy on December 22. The Johnson and Evinrude brands were purchased by Bombardier the following year. Since then, the former OMC plant at Waukegan has become an EPA Superfund cleanup site. Ironically, some pundits suggested that the company’s eagerness to comply with new environmental regulations contributed to its demise.

When the company went bankrupt, there were also legacy contamination issues at Peterborough, but the company could no longer be held responsible. Canadian courts appointed engineering firm Dillon Consulting to assess and clean up the site. They found contamination from lubricating oils and degreasing fluids, estimated at 10,000 litres, primarily trichloroethylene (a degreasing compound), which impacts the nervous system and is carcinogenic. They also found a plume of volatile organic compounds in groundwater reaching 800 metres from the plant into the surrounding residential area. One of the former OMC buildings became the Canadian Canoe Museum.

The Outboard Marine Corporation was a very influential contributor to local history—millions of people used their products in Canada and many other countries. Their outboard motors made a lasting contribution to local culture, and the experience of boating with an Evinrude or Johnson was a big part of what it was to enjoy summer in the Kawarthas. The corporation rose at a time when manufacturing was becoming very important to the local economy, then became insolvent as so many other local manufacturers struggled to compete. Over the years, a lot of local residents worked for OMC. The company certainly was not the only one to leave behind an unfortunate environmental legacy. In many ways, the company reflected life in the Kawarthas in the twentieth century.

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