ATKINSON – Jerry Stelmok never thought he’d become one of the masters of an iconic Maine tradition. But building replicas of a 130-year-old Maine canoe is carried on at his home at a steady pace.
The classic wooden canoes he produces at Island Falls Canoes are modeled after some of the oldest Maine-made products and even in the worst times, Stelmok’s trade has persevered.
“I’ve been through three recessions and lasted. It’s a precarious market. But people always want canoes,” said Stelmok, relaxing at his kitchen table in rural Maine.
For 35 years Stelmok has built wood and canvas canoes that not only harken back to a bustling industrial age — these historic watercraft represent an ancient way of being outdoors.
A year ago when Old Town Canoe and Kayak closed its 100-year-old manufacturing plant in downtown Old Town and moved up the road to a smaller facility, for the first time in a century the Maine company needed an independent artisan to produce its wooden canoes.
Stelmok was chosen for his attention to detail, as well as to history.
“We wanted to continue our heritage of wooden canoes and wanted someone who was as good a craftsman as Old Town has been known for, or better,” said Scott Forristall, the company’s watercraft business director.
In many ways Stelmok’s entire career has followed the course of history.
The canoe designed by Edward M. White of Gilman Falls in the late 1880s has been the primary craft made by Stelmok at Island Falls Canoe. The classic sturdy guide canoes were designed after the ones used by Abenaki Indians. The original 130-year-old E.M. White molds sit in Stelmok’s workshop.
“I don’t know how he had the wisdom to purchase them, to perpetuate that canoe for a long, long time. They’re really quite special,” said outdoorsman Warren Cook of Kingfield, the former manager of Saddleback and Sugarloaf ski areas and owner of two Stelmok canoes.
Stelmok said his canoes are an expression of his love for Maine’s wildlife and wild places, and that message echoes in other lands. His guide canoes sit in fishing camps in upstate New York, North Carolina and Germany.
“Those are the ones people would have seen in railroad magazines at the turn of the last century,” Stelmok said.
Raised in the farmland around Auburn, Stelmok grew up like a lot of Maine country kids: fond of wildlife, fishing and canoes. He bought his first at age 14 with $75 he made bailing hay.
But today, Stelmok is not only one of the most prolific wooden canoe builders in the country, he’s one of the last big Maine producers. And like his canoes, he hasn’t lost the inherent spirit of the quiet North Woods.
His factory sits amid conservation land in Atkinson, which is on a thoroughfare to nowhere.
His home sits behind it, back in the woods reached by a deer path.
Inside his home, past the ornamental ash snowshoes, sits the first of his Millennium canoes, an elaborately painted and carved wood and canvas design he first made 10 years ago.
He enjoys showing his depiction of Maine’s native animals painted on it.
But when he steps into his kitchen to discuss his 35-year-old business, Stelmok is matter of fact.
He pauses his life story to gently direct his blind 20-year-old Maine coon cat, then he jumps instead into the history of Maine’s wooden canoe heyday.
“During the 1920s, White, Morris, Old Town and Skowhegan were producing a thousand canoes every year, even during the Depression,” Stelmok said. “Now I have to try new things I have to keep my name out there. It’s a very small market, the people who are building the best canoes in the world.”
There are in fact only a handful of individual craftsmen across the country whose lives are devoted to wood and canvas canoes.
That Stelmok is one of them is not lost on the leaders of the canoe industry.
“The reason we continue with (wooden canoes) is because it’s our heritage,” said Forristall of Old Town Canoe and Kayak. “It is certainly a niche group, the people who enjoy paddling wooden canoes. There is not a big market, but we feel it is important to the heritage of Old Town Canoe. So we will continue with them.”
Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at: