Wooden boats tied to history of Flathead Lake

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Mason Niblack pauses while restoring the "Never More," a 1960's Century Utility boat he purchased four years ago. "For me, this is a labor of love," said Niblack. "It's something to be done for the sheer joy and satisfaction of doing it."

Mason Niblack spent most of a lifetime working at universities all over North America, but whenever and however he could, he returned to Flathead Lake.

The lure of the lake has been unrelenting, pulling at his soul like the tug of an ocean tide ever since he first set eyes on the wondrous body of water at age 7.

For nearly a decade now, he’s nestled his life not far from the southern shore of Flathead Lake in Polson, where he spends time preserving classic wooden boats when he’s not teaching psychology at Salish Kootenai College or conducting his church choir.

“I returned to the Flathead Lake area for the last time in 2003 for one of my last futile attempts at retirement,” he said.

Classic boats aren’t the only thing Niblack aims to preserve. He also sees the importance of preserving the connections between Flathead Lake and those who use it.

“Water is a means of getting people together,” he said. “Boating is just one activity. It’s a unique and historic use of the water and it’s connected with how cultures communicate with each other.”

It’s not surprising to Niblack that interest in classic boat shows has been growing in recent years. Those classic beauties, whether it’s an original StanCraft built on the shores of Caroline Point on Flathead Lake, or what Niblack considers the “’57 Chevy” of the lake — a 16-foot Lee Craft runabout — are becoming more valuable over time. These days, many wooden boats are considered works of art from a bygone era.

Niblack owns seven classic boats.

“I had nine until a couple weeks ago,” he noted, saying he sold one and gave one away. “It’s an avocation more than a vocation.”

He knows a fair amount about classic boats, so when someone wants to sell one of their own beauties, they often connect with Niblack.

“I’m really interested in getting as many people out on the water as possible, and doing so inexpensively,” Niblack said.

He himself finds not enough time these days to get on the lake.

“The problem is I’m always working with someone else’s boats,” he said. “People seem to need the help.”

Niblack doesn’t profess to be an expert restorer. There are many others who have a keener touch for restoration, like Mark Buck of Missoula, he pointed out.

“When he decides to restore a boat, it’s absolutely beautiful,” he said. “There’s nothing more aesthetically pleasing than wooden boats, so if you want to enjoy them, you’d better enjoy heavy-duty maintenance.”

Niblack toils away on his own projects, the latest a 1960 23-foot Century wooden boat of mahogany and oak that’s about two-thirds of the way done. He purchased the classic boat about six years ago.

“I’ve wanted to have it finished. Every year I thought I would have it ready for the next boat show,” he said.

Maybe next year will be the year, he mused.

The thing about wooden boats is that there are stories, lots of stories that come with the wood, weathered or polished.

One of Niblack’s most memorable boat trips on Flathead Lake happened when he was a young man, working at the Biological Station at Yellow Bay. He and a buddy were coming back from Woods Bay after dark when his wooden runabout hit a log in the darkness about a quarter-mile off shore.

“It poked a hole in the bottom and water gushed in quickly,” he recalled.

Somehow they were able to point the nose of the boat upward to keep the hole out of the water and inch their way back to shore. In those days, there were no cellphones to call for help.

Niblack also tells the story of conversations he’s heard through the years at the local gas station. As a young boy he remembers a father advising his son that he’d always want at least a 14-foot, 5-horsepower boat on the “big and dangerous” lake. Five or six years later he heard a similar conversation, except this time the man giving advice said nothing smaller than a 16-foot, 25-horsepower boat would do on Flathead Lake.

And just a few months ago he overheard a boater say the only watercraft he’d take on Flathead was a 25-foot boat with twin in-board motors. The lake is no rougher these days than when Niblack was young, but apparently bigger boats offer more assurance to those on the lake.

“Our perspective of the lake has changed, the weather hasn’t,” he observed.

Niblack is well aware of the unpredictable weather patterns that can challenge skippers from time to time. He learned the nuances of the lake early on when he “spent as much time on the lake as my parents would allow.” His extended family owned property on Wild Horse Island, and for a couple of years the Niblack family used the island as its permanent address to keep the Montana connection.

“Flathead Lake is unique, and what makes it particularly desirable is that it’s big enough to do some major boating,” he said. “There is very good public accessibility, and that’s getting rarer and rarer elsewhere.”

The history of Flathead Lake intrigues Niblack to no end. The first wooden boats on the lake no doubt were tribal canoes used by the Salish and Kootenai tribes. Those gave way to more than 200 commercial boats navigating the lake in the late 1800s.

“It was the most effective means of moving people and goods,” he said. Flathead Lake also played a key role in the early-day timber industry.

For much of the 20th century Lee Craft Boat Co. and StanCraft Boat Co. were among the top builders of wooden boats; both companies were located in the Somers area on the northwestern shore of Flathead Lake.

Niblack said his own “love affair” with wooden boats began during one of his earliest trips to the Flathead when he took a ride on a mahogany StanCraft that operated as Flathead Water Taxi.

“It’s a fascinating subject,” he said about the classic boats. “I think the history of boating goes along with the history of Flathead Lake. My hope is that people would be interested” in preserving that history.

Mason Niblack of Polson carefully cleans over the ornate name and stencil of the "Never More" a 1960's Century Utility Boat on Thursday, August 9, in Polson. The boat came to Montana direct from the factory, but the stencil was added in 1988.

 

Mason Niblack works on the "Never More" on Thursday, August 9, in Polson. He hopes to have the boat out on the lake next spring.

 

Mason Niblack works on the "Never More" on Thursday, August 9, in Polson. He hopes to have the boat out on the lake next spring.

 

Mason Niblack shows off the original Century logo for the 1960's Utility boat the "Never More" which he is currently restoring. The restoration was begun by Lou and Bill Borchers from whom Niblack acquired the boat.

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