History of the pontoon

August 2013 Feature

A little over 50 years ago, a small town Minnesota farmer had a thought that would completely change the history of boating. His idea of building a family-friendly vessel involved modernizing a concept that had been around for centuries. The origin of the pontoon model goes back thousands of years to ancient people using floating circular structures like logs or inflated animal skin attached to some kind of platform. Eventually this concept was used to support military bridges, allowing armies to cross rivers and other streams.

Even though he wasn't the first to fasten logs to a platform, Ambrose Weeres is credited with the invention of the modern-day pontoon. Rightfully so, as his prototype of a solid wooden platform strapped on top of two steel barrels went on to become the basis of Weeres Pontoons, the first pontoon company ever.

In 1952, in the small town of Richmond, Minn., Weeres knew that greater stability was needed if you planned on taking a family out on the water. Despite his lack of much formal education, Weeres was clever and quite adept at figuring out how things work. His ingenuity led to the first pontoon boat: two pontoons fabricated from steel oil drums welded end-to-end, with a rudimentary upswept nosecone on the front of each pontoon, topped with a plywood deck surrounded by a two-by-four wood railing. A small outboard provided the power, but creating the steering system was the big challenge. What he came up with was a vertical stick at the forward railing connected by two lines to the engine. The idea was to move the stick to the left to turn left, center the stick for straight ahead, and lean the stick right for a right turn.

Unlike the small, narrow-beam, tippy fishing boats that people were used to seeing around the lakes, Weeres' pontoon boat was wide, stable, and with the deck that sat considerably higher on the water than a traditional craft. This made it so taking on water was no longer a concern. Without a doubt, the pontoon boat was a completely new kind of boating experience.

After creating his first pontoon, he realized there were others in the land of 10,000 lakes that would enjoy his invention. He started out building just a few boats, calling them The Empress, and selling them locally with the help of a few dealers. Little did he realize just how popular these boats would become just a few short decades later.

His small shop couldn't keep up with all the orders that were pouring in, so he began Weeres Pontoons. Soon he was being called "Mr. Pontoon," a nickname that stuck with him until his death in 1991. Weeres has been elected to the Minnesota Marine Hall of Fame for his contribution to the world of boating. Weeres Industries, still located in central Minnesota, has gone on to build and sell more than 30,000 pontoon boats to date. All because a farmer had an idea that he felt was worth taking a gamble on.

While Weeres was the first, there are other companies that have been around since almost the beginning and have made vital contributions over the years. Harris FloteBote has been around since 1957, when brothers Ernie and Pete Harris founded Harris Manufacturing in Fort Wayne, Ind. They had been testing their groundbreaking pontoons in the northeast Indiana/southeast Michigan area since the early 1950's with great success and wanted to deliver their product to the masses.

Their idea had come from seeing water enthusiasts who had taken 55-barrel and drop tanks off airplanes to build up pontoon boats. The brothers thought there would be a market for that kind of thing, but wanted to build a more professional-looking boat. They started with the fences, built out of steel, and also included a motor mount so you could lower and raise the motor. They also redesigned the actual pontoons to replace the airplane barrels with more aesthetically pleasing tubes, though they were still steel and flat-nosed.

Despite the interest among locals, the first pontoons from Harris FloteBote weren't an easy sell to dealers. These people were used to selling 16-foot runabouts, so the dealers were turned off by the original 20-foot Harris FloteBote pontoons that took up valuable selling space in their showrooms. So Pete and Ernie started a grass roots marketing campaign, going directly to potential customers to spread the word. "We'd drive around the lake and see people sitting in the yard, maybe with children," Pete Harris was quoted as saying. "We asked people if they wanted to ride. Afterward, they would say, `Where can we get these?' It did take a lot of effort."

In the years following, the company continued to stay ahead of the curve, listening intently to customer feedback. In the 60's Harris FloteBote revamped the entire pontoon boat industry by installing upholstered pontoon furniture and seats on their pontoon boats.

Another company with a lot of years in the business is Godfrey Pontoons. It started out as Godfrey Conveyor Company in the early 1900s. After 50 years of making conveyors that moved coal and grain, Godfrey Marine was born and they introduced the original Sanpan, the first-ever all aluminum pontoon boat, at the 1958 World's Fair in Chicago, Ill. Owned by the Deputy family for three generations, Godfrey Marine went on to acquire Aqua Patio from Freeland Co., of Sturgis, Mich., who had been making galvanized steel pontoon boats for the US Government. These days Sanpan and Aqua Patio are still dominant forces in the pontoon world.

Everyone knows someone who thinks of a pontoon boat as nothing more than a floating barge. They don't realize the sacrifice and dedication people of past generations have put in to an industry that is now a mainstay of the boating community. Today's pontoon boats can be anything from super-simple to extremely high-end, depending on your style and budget. Powered with a high-horsepower Evinrude outboard, pulling skiers and pushing 60 mph on the open water are well within the capabilities of the modern `toon. 

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