J. Henry Rushton (1843-1906)
Canton's World-Famous Boat Builder
*By Atwood Manley (1893-1989)
The name of Rushton dates back to 1828 in St. Lawrence County, the year when John Rushton, a former English wheelright, settled at Edwards with his family. His grandson, J. Henry Rushton, was born near the village of Edwards, St. Lawrence County, in 1843, educated in a country district school. As a youth J. Henry Rushton became skilled in woodcraft, in hunting, in fishing. Cranberry Lake was his favorite stamping ground. It was there he met two Canton merchants, J. B. Ellsworth and M. D. Packard. By this chance meeting he came to Canton in 1869 to clerk in Ellsworth's store. He stood barely five feet tall and weighed scarcely 100 pounds, was frail and hounded by a dry, hacking cough.
J. Henry Rushton was a craftsman extraordinary, self-trained and possessed of rare genius. In 1873 Rushton decided to seek health and rest within the big south woods, the country he knew best. To do so he required a boat or skiff, durable and light, one he could yoke over forest carries from stream to stream. From Tom Leonard of Morley, a veteran guide and boat builder, he obtained the patterns from which he made the forms on which to lay up his skiff. Before this boat was completed, he had sold it locally. Then he started another, and sold that. The die was cast. From that time until his death in 1906 Rushton never stopped building boats and canoes. Canoes were added to his output in 1876, quite by chance, when he built two cedar hulls for Louisville, Kentucky, parties, in which they arrived at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial. That year became Rushton's launching pad. His work and his canoes attracted an ever-widening coterie of admirers from that time on. In four years, he had become famed for his work. Forest and Stream stated in 1886 that Rushton's name was a household word wherever canoes were used throughout the world.
The Rushton Boat Shop
J. H. Rushton
From his boat shop in Canton, originally no more than a small, empty horse barn on State Street; and finally, his large three story factory once located on the Flatiron Corner, at the junction of today's Riverside Drive and State Street, he turned out craft which made canoeing history: one of his first and most noted canoes was the Kleiner Fritz, said to have logged over 10,000 miles on water and overland, it was one of three cedar lapstrakes Rushton canoes made in 1879, claimed to be the first made by white man to cleave the waters of Lake Itasca, the headwaters of the Mississippi; the Alice which in 1881 cruised from Itasca down the Mississippi to the Gulf; Nessmuk’s (George Washington Sears) famed Sairy Gamp, 9 1/2 ft. long, 10 1/2 lbs., now in the Adirondack Museum, Blue Mountain Lake, N.Y.; Charles Neide's Aurora in which he cruised from Lake George, via the Erie Canal, the Ohio, Mississippi and along the Gulf to Pensacola, 3,500 miles, in 1883; and the Vesper which won the First International Sailing Canoe Cup Race held off Grindstone Island on the St. Lawrence River in 1886.
Of Rushton, Nessmuk once wrote, "He builded better than he knew." Of his pride in his craftsmanship and the products for which he became famous Rushton, himself, said that he strove to accomplish the impossible, the perfect canoe. This marked the type of man he was, the master craftsman who gathered about him men he could train in the skills of the trade. Rushton built on honor. He was a perfectionist. He never sought wealth, and died with only a modest estate. He was ever-ready to discard one canoe design for another if he thought it marked an improvement over the old. He would build almost any type of canoe for a customer, and as the customer desired, but only as Rushton was willing to build it in measuring up to his high-quality standards. His reputation was first established by the choice cedar canoes and boats which came from his shop. His celebrated Indian Girl canvas-covered models at the close of his career added more luster to his fame. Over the years, orders were received from the world over: the Philippines; Mexico; New Zealand; Australia; Venezuela; France; and England. August Belmont, Jr., in 1881 purchased a Rushton boat for use on the Nile.
The Taylor boathouse on the Little River and a fleet of Rushton's canvas covered Indian Girl canoes
There is no record of the number of thousands of craft the Rushton boat shop produced. It was not in numbers but in quality that the name of Rushton attained its magic, and won its place in history. For many glorious years Rushton's boat shop was Canton's largest industry, and “wherever the name of Canton was known around the world it was due to Rushton", so it was stated in the St. Lawrence Plaindealer in 1889.
Time, health and a growing number of new pastimes, as well as strong competition sounded the death knell of the Rushton boat shop. J. Henry died in 1906 just as the boat shop's peak-year was in full swing. His death was like pulling the bung from the barrel, the cider began draining away. The bicycle craze, and the coming of the automobile, plus a national business depression, were handicaps which Rushton's son, Harry, who succeeded to the helm, could not withstand. Harry was succeeded in 1912 by his uncle, J. Henry's half-brother, Judd W. Rushton, and in 1914 Sidney Rushton, the youngest of J. Henry's two sons, endeavored to salvage the business, but the World War I was in progress and in 1917 Sidney entered the service. The key had been turned in the boat shop door. The shop never reopened.
The late A. Fred Saunders, Commodore of the ACA 1917-1919, and its historian for forty years, stated in 1959 that when he joined the ACA in 1910 Rushton's name "was still magic" though J. Henry had been dead four years.
In 1926 Rushton's huge, three-story frame boat shop was sold for lumber. A once-thriving famous Canton industry had departed, but the name of Rushton and the craft he made refused to die.
Many fine old Rushton boats and canoes are still in existence today, many of them still in use, testimonials to the remarkable methods of construction Rushton employed. Today Rushton's name still is magic among the canoeing fraternity.
*Adapted from an article published by Atwood Manley in the 1987 Canton Canoe Weekend 26th Annual Rushton Memorial Races program book, and an article in the 2011 Canton Canoe Weekend 50th Anniversary program book, with minor editing.
Reference: Manley, Atwood. Rushton and his times in American canoeing. With the assistance of Paul F. Jamieson. Syracuse University Press. 1968. 203p.