boatsProgress: Local manufacturers once made waves

Posted on Apr 2, 2015 by Red Wing Republican Eagle.
By Ruth Nerhaugen, contributor

Any collector interested in finding Red Wing marine products had better be prepared to travel.

The company that started in 1903 as the Red Wing Boat Manufacturing Co. built boats and motors that were sold to governments and boating enthusiasts all over the world.

The history is recorded in documents on file at the Goodhue County Historical Society and reminiscences available at the Red Wing Marine Museum and on its Website.

Boat and motor manufacturing was a likely venture for the growing river town of Red Wing at the turn of the 20th century.

A Winona, Minnesota, man, John Trautner, built his first boat with $50 borrowed from an uncle. He went into business there, but in 1902 a group of Red Wing businessmen lured the new industry upriver. The existing inventory — boats and equipment — was loaded onto rail cars and shipped here.

Trautner organized the Red Wing Boat Manufacturing Co. with a group of local partners. It started out at 114 Main St., under the old High Bridge, but quickly outgrew that space. A larger plant was built in 1906 at 1000 Levee St., with a ramp that allowed boats to be launched directly into the Mississippi River.

The business’ brochure boasted, “It is now one of the best equipped boat, launch, and engine factories in the Northwest, and its gasoline launches are shipped to all parts of the United States, and Canada, to Australia, New Zealand and Japan."

At first the company made a 16-foot fishing runabout and cabin cruising motorboats ranging up to 40 feet. The boats were powered by two- and four-cycle Red Wing engines with a maximum 76 horsepower.

In 1906, a Red Wing-made motorboat powered by a Red Wing engine captured the Mississippi River speed record.

The company underwent several name and product changes over the years. In 1910 it became Red Wing Motor Co., and soon after the business began focusing on the manufacture of four-cycle marine engines known as Red Wing Thorobreds.

The various components were cast at regional foundries including one in Lake City, but the molds and patterns were made at the factory in Red Wing.

As the product continued to evolve, Red Wing Thorobreds became increasingly popular for commercial fishing and government agencies, including the Canadian Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard. From around 1915-1920, implement dealers in Kenyon, Wanamingo and New Ulm, Minnesota, mounted them on grain binders.

During World War I and WWII, the plant functioned as a machine shop. In the first war, the focus was on making gun carriage parts; during the second war, engines were built for the Coast Guard and the Air Force.

Among other things, the Red Wing business made engines for lifeboats.

Red Wing Marine Corp. was the company’s new name in 1953. The manufacture of Thorobreds continued, and a new venture was explored — houseboats. Some of the steel-hulled Casa Cruisers are still in service.

From 1958 until the operation closed in 1965, the company also was a dealership for Mariner boats, Mercury motors and Owens yachts.

Though production had ended, the business continued. Wayne Moreland bought all the Thorobred parts and records in 1962 and formed Red Wing Engine Parts Co. at 710 E. Seventh St. Some of the excess inventory went to salvage yards and some machinery ended up in local machine shops.

Another change came in 1969, when Virgil Mischke and Kenneth and Richard Behrens of Behrens Auto Supply Co. bought the corporation and moved it to 211 Main St. They produced engines and parts, including diesel engines for the Chilean Navy in 1971.

Mischke bought all the Thorobred parts and records in 1979 and moved them to his home. He and Harry Munson, another collector, began operating as Red Wing Motor Company Thorobred Marine Engines, and began communicating with owners of Thorobreds all over the world.

In February of 2011 Mike Wilson of Wilson Oil Co. purchased the entire collection from Harry Munson, who had refurbished Thorobred motors and displayed them on trailers at public events and shows.

The collection and other historical materials can be seen today at the Red Wing Marine Museum.

Museum preserves locally made motors

The Red Wing Marine Museum, one of the city’s newest historical ventures, celebrates one of its oldest manufacturing enterprises — the boat and motor business.

And even though the original manufacturing plant is long gone, the museum occupies an equally historic structure very close to the site where Red Wing-made boats and motors once were launched via ramp directly into the Mississippi River.

According to a history on the Marine Museum’s Website, “Harry Munson and Virgil Mischke, both of Red Wing, are the most recent in a long line of local business entrepreneurs who maintain a continuing interest in the story” of Red Wing’s marine manufacturing operations, which started in 1902 and continued until 1979.

Munson started picking up Red Wing boat motors in 1981 and ended up with huge collection including motors, spare parts, documents and memorabilia of Red Wing Motor Co.

To preserve the local industry’s legacy he also refurbished the Red Wing Thorobred motors and displayed them on three trailers that he hauled to public events and shows.

Mike Wilson of Wilson Oil Co. purchased the entire collection from Munson, including the parts inventory, and created the Red Wing Marine Museum project.

He obtained permission from the city to convert the former Red Wing Water Works building to a boat and motor museum. Located at 935 Levee Road, the rusticated stone building was erected in 1884 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The museum opened informally in October 2013 and enjoyed a good turnout during the summer season of 2014. More than 30 fully restored Thorobreds are on permanent display, along with photos, documents and other mementos.

For the inaugural season he also displayed materials on the High Bridge, Wilson said. This year’s feature will be local river history, focusing on old marinas.

Also, Wilson said, he plans a special exhibit on sport fishing in the annex building. It will include outboard motors, fishing gear and tackle.

The museum is open for special events and by appointment during the winter months and weekdays.

The 2015 season will kick off the weekend of May 30-31, during the second annual Red Wing Museum Crawl. Summer hours are noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays and any time the American Queen steamboat is in town, since the museum is a popular destination for passengers. Admission is $5 for adults, free for children.

He’d like to be open Sundays, too, Wilson said, if he can line up enough volunteers. Anyone interested should contact him at Wilson Oil Co. More information also is available online at www.redwingmarinemuseum.com.