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Frank White and his handmade model York boat, one of his favorites.  Photo:  Todd Moe
Frank White and his handmade model York boat, one of his favorites. Photo: Todd Moe

The lure of model boat building

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TAUNY celebrates the 20th anniversary of its Salute to North Country Legends on Sunday at SUNY Canton. One of the North Country Heritage award recipients, is Canton model wooden boat builder Frank White.

Now 94 years old, White grew up on a farm near Pyrites, in St. Lawrence County, hearing stories of logging camps and river drives from his French-Canadian grandfathers. He's been hiking, fishing, and paddling canoes around the North Country since the 1930's. His passion for canoes has taken him on solo trips on major rivers across North America.

White was one of the founders of the annual Rushton Canoe Races in Canton. His wife of 65 years, Beulah, passed away last December. As Frank says, they spent most of their marriage outdoors paddling local lakes and streams.

After retiring from a career as a florist in 1984, he took up model making, starting with kits of famous vessels like the Halfmoon, and the USS Constitution. He's taken top honors at international model boat building contests and his models are on display at SUNY Canton, St. Lawrence University and museums around the country. Todd Moe has more.

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Todd Moe
Morning Host and Producer

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arts · boats · wood · canton · white · stlv · tauny

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There are nearly two-dozen model ships, rowboats, and canoes lining bookshelves and windowsills in White’s living room. These include whaleboats, Lake Champlain sailing barges, a Viking long ship, and several canoes. His favorites are his own version of Rushton canoes, of which he has a half dozen. He lost his right thumb years ago but that hasn’t slowed his passion for model boat building.

“I like boats and wood, and I like working with my hands. I worked with my hands all my life.” White says model boat building is “a lesson in patience.”

The boat he likes the best is the York boat, which he said was designed by the Hudson Bay Company over a period 20 years, to replace the bark canoe. The boats had to carry immense weight, as well as be lightweight, and have the ability to sail several hundred miles on Lake Winnipeg. It was still being used when the Seaway was built.

White explained he taught himself, and how he goes about creating his model boats, “I can picture in my mind what has to be done, and then I have to figure out how to do it. I need to do something to keep busy.”

His workshop is located in a spare bedroom, which has more model boats and many different types of wood. There are about nine different types of wood in his workshop including basswood, mahogany, cherry, and rosewood. “The modelers favorite is apple wood.”

His ancestry is French Canadian, tracing back to some of the first men, Voyageurs, who settled in Canada, in what is now Quebec. “I don’t hold it against anybody if they like a four-wheeler or a snow-machine, but me, no. I want to walk or canoe or ride the bike, this is what I do.”

Three rivers he would like to boat down again are Missouri River in Montana, the Green River in Cayonland, Utah, and the Buffalo National River in Arkansas.

“We live in a bit of history. Someday, it might be a collector that wants it. They are all signed some place, they’re singed down inside, I sign all my boats.”

The Salute is this Sunday at 2 pm in the Kingston Theatre, located in the Miller Student Center at SUNY Canton. Also being honored are the Schroon Lake Square Dances and the Watertown Red and Black semi-pro football team.

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