By Larry Dablemont
Somewhere out there, there is someone who owns a boat I am looking for. The history of that boat is something that goes back to my grandfather more than 100 years ago. He and his brother built his first wooden johnboat when they were kids living on the river before World War One. Grandpa became a riverman who built and sold wooden johnboats in years to come, living his life as a riverman on the Big Piney, raising sons who guided fishermen in them.
He sold them with his handmade sassafras paddles to newly established resorts springing up after World War Two on the Piney, the Gasconade and the Meramec. He was a river trapper, set river trotlines for giant flathead catfish which he sold, and made money anyway he could from his life on the river. For a while back before it was illegal, he sold bullfrogs to the Melito seafood company in St Louis during the summer, and even wild ducks in the winter when they passed through.
But the wooden johnboats were his thing. In the late forties and fifties, when they were the only craft available for floating the rivers, he would keep 4 or 5 on hand to rent to river fishermen for the handsome sum of one dollar per day, a dollar and a half for a whole weekend. His four sons and a daughter all took part in guiding fishermen who wanted a paddler. That added three more dollars to the cost. When I came along, my dad began to build and rent johnboats too. I was available as a guide, if you wanted a 12-year-old boat paddler. You could get me, in the early ‘60s, to paddle you down the Piney all day for 50 cents an hour if you paid Dad 3 dollars for the boat rental.
Then about that time a fellow from Lebanon by the name of Mr. J.B. Appleby came up with the idea of making an aluminum johnboat. One day he showed up at Grandpa’s place on the banks of the Piney and spent the whole day watching my grandfather build a boat. He took measurements and learned about the details of making a boat run the rivers with little more than rake on both ends and sides that were slanted and bowed, and how it was done.
He asked Grandpa if he could use his measurements from that boat to design his aluminum river boat and Grandpa said it would be fine with him if… “you will build something that common poor Ozarks folks like me can afford?” Mr. Appleby said he would, and he made the first one at his small plant in Lebanon which, in the 1960s became known as the Richline-Appleby boat company. In fact he built his first one designed after my grandfather’s wooden boats in 1959, about 3 or 4 years after his visit.
You can read all about Mr. Appleby on your computer, but no one will ever know about his day spent with Grandpa watching him build a riverboat. His first ones became known as “Paddle-Jons” and today if you want to float a river anywhere, that’s the one you need to get for the job. It is just darn near as good as those wooden johnboats I guided fishermen in as a boy.
My dad bought his first “Lowe Paddle-Jon in the late 60’s. The name Lowe was the result of Mr. Appleby’s daughter, Diana, marrying Carl Lowe, who took over the fledgling boat building enterprise which became one of the biggest aluminum boat companies in the country.
When my father died a few years ago, he left me that old Lowe Paddle-Jon, battered and dented from thousands of river miles over better than 40 years. It wasn’t much to look at, but it had floated hundreds of different waters over those years, in Canada and 5 states.
It meant a great deal to me because it was my father’s boat. A few weeks ago, some low- life thieves stole it from a neighbors’ fishing pond where I had left it for many other local folks to use to fish from. I would like to deal with them, but I will never see my dad’s boat again, nor them. God will deal with them for what they are, and if bad things happen to them, as they will, it will be because they deserve it for being thieves. I am offering a substantial reward for information leading to the return of the boat I spent so many years in with my dad.