Man brings vintage boat back to life
By VIVIAN (MAKELA) SAZAMA
Boats and water skiing have been a passion for Vern Hanson of Fargo/Detroit Lakes for all of his life. As a boy, Vern could be found hanging out at the former Clem’s Big Dock in Detroit Lakes. He liked to watch the inboards, and sometimes he got a ride. “If I had a quarter, I’d get a ride,” said Vern.
Vern’s great-grandparents emigrated to the Westbury/Richwood area, north of Detroit Lakes, from Norway. His dad, Lyle Hanson, grew up there and married Delores Glawe, whose parents, August and Elveda Glawe, also farmed in the area. In about 1950, the Glawes moved from the farm to Detroit Lakes where they bought a school bus and built up a fleet of buses until about 1962. The bus company is now the Olander Bus Company.
Vern’s grandfather, Ray Hanson, worked under the WPA program during the Great Depression, where he learned carpentry skills. After the Depression, Ray started a construction business and built many single-family houses on the north side of Detroit Lakes, and it became known as the Hass-Hanson Edition. In 1949, Vern’s dad, Lyle, and his uncle moved to Fargo where there was more activity and started Hanson Bros. Construction. Vern was five years old.
“I would come back to Detroit Lakes summers. My grandparents lived near the Ole Lind Boat Works, so I would hang around there a lot. Then they moved over to Lake Avenue, closer to the beach and Clem’s, so then I got to hang around there too,” said Vern.
After graduating from Fargo Central High School in 1965, Vern went to North Dakota State University for two years, before being drafted into the Army. “I wasn’t a very good college student,” laughed Vern.
In January 1968, Vern began his two-year tour of duty and went to Vietnam that September at age 20. “I turned 21 during my tour. Because I served in Vietnam a full year, I got their 90-day exemption and was done with the Army the fall of 1969.”
After his return, Vern joined the family construction business as a general carpenter. “Dad asked me if I wanted to be a finish carpenter, but I didn’t think I was that good,” said Vern. He eventually became partners with his dad until Ray retired. Vern and his brother Gerald took over the family business in 1986. Vern’s son Mike became partners with them in about 2000 and now, in 2022, has taken over the business.
“We’re a 4th generation family business. I’m retired now,” said Vern, “but I still help out some in bidding and so on.”
During the years, Lyle had a house on Big Floyd Lake, just north of Detroit Lakes. “He bought a small wooden Ole Lind motorboat, and I learned to waterski,” said Vern.
He continues to waterski and is part of a water ski club on Big Floyd Lake, where he and his wife Genece have a home they built in 2001, according to Vern. They have held a Kid’s Ski Day off their boat dock for 25 years, where they teach young children how to water ski. In the last eight years, they have also been part of a program called In His Wakes Ministries, which reaches out to and teaches underprivileged kids how to water ski.
“The ministry was started in Florida by Christy Overton, a world champion water skier, and holds A Day to Remember events all over the United States. We hold it at Sauer Lake, south of Detroit Lakes, and we have a lunch too,” said Genece, who helps arrange the day and helps out. “We started out with Boys and Girls Club and Dakota Boys Ranch kids. Now we have a teacher who lives on Big Floyd who teaches in Waubun, so has been bringing children from that area. We have between 30 and 35 kids that come every year. It is a real privilege to hold that event here in Detroit Lakes.”
About four years ago, Vern began realizing his dream of restoring a classic wooden boat. “I had first thought of buying one already restored,” said Vern. “But I wanted to bring one back to life instead.” Finding one to restore proved to be hard though, but eventually he got a lead. Friends of the Hanson’s, Barb and Harold Kaste, of Moorhead, told him about their backyard neighbor, Bud Bystrom, who’d had a wooden 1938 Chris Craft in his garage for twenty years, with the thought of restoring it. Bud had headed up the carpentry department at Moorhead Technical Institute, and had located the boat for sale in Washington state. Harold drove to Washington and pulled it back for Bud over 25 years ago. Bud retired and moved to Crane Lake in northern Minnesota. After hearing the story, Vern contacted Bud to see about buying the boat, and Bud finally decided to let it go.
“The boat had sat for 40 years before being restored,” laughed Vern. “This Chris Craft has a 4-cylinder, 60-horsepower Hercules motor, instead of a 55. It’s a 15-½ foot Deluxe with a back seat, which is what I wanted. It was built in Michigan right after the Great Depression, and they tried to make it affordable. It sold for $955 brand new in 1938.”
Initially, Vern had thought it would just be a matter of sanding and varnishing the boat and getting the motor running.
“I happened to stumble upon a book by Don Danenburg, a Bible of restoring wooden boats. That totally changed my way of thinking,” said Vern. “In the book, Don wrote, ‘If you’re going to just sand and varnish it - put it in a museum. If you plan to use it, take it apart.’ These gray hull boats were built to be just run in the water, not sitting in it over a period of time. By sitting in the water the wood would swell, then shrink back when dry again, which ruined the boats,” said Vern.
Vern ended up stripping the boat down to the bare bones.” I took pictures of each step, so I knew how to put it back together again,” said Vern. He gives a lot of credit to several cousins in the restoration.
Larry Leitheiser restored the unique gauge in the boat. “The gauge is engraved with a scenery of mountains, water, and a buoy, which is quite rare,” said Vern. “Larry restores gauges from all over the world.”
Another cousin, Merle Leitheiser, restored the engine and electrical parts of the boat. Merle’s family had Bob’s Machine located north on Richwood Road, which is now Metalworks. “Merle is an expert authority on flathead motors. I feel very fortunate to have those two guys!” he said. “I also am grateful to Genece for putting up with the process those four years!”
Although Vern was never a finish carpenter... “I’d watched enough of it being done that I had a good idea how to go about it,” said Vern. “The original wood was made of mahogany from the Philippines, but the mahogany had all been used up for landing boats during WWII, so I replaced it with African mahogany, which is actually better.
The Hanson’s seven grandchildren were involved in the process too, helping to sand and so on.
“There are over 3,000 screws in this boat,” said Vern. “And each screw needed a wooden plug over it. I spent a whole summer just working on the plugs.”
The interior of the boat and the dash is still the original wood, but Vern put in new flooring, adding carpet for comfort.
“I also put in a comfortable back seat for touring,” he said. The flag staff in the rear of the boat is original, and Vern was able to replace the glass part. The flag staff in the front is also new.
“We were able to get the original windshield from Bud so it was easier to use that as a pattern for the new one,” he said.
When deciding what to name the boat, Vern’s son Mike remembered Vern talking about getting rides for a quarter as a boy. “Two Bits” was a perfect fit.
They launched the boat in 2021.
“The first several trips we had to be pulled back in,” laughed Vern. “I had to take the motor out again, and Merle rebuilt the cylinders.”
Now you can see the Hanson’s in their 1938 restored Chris Craft in the Big Floyd Lake boat parade every 4th of July. This summer they were even able to take their good friends, Barb and Harold Kaste, for a ride around the lake. It was a fitting ride to celebrate this labor of love.