The “Gypsy” – A Tale of Two Owners
The Wagemaker Company was a boatbuilding firm in Grand Rapids, Michigan which began in 1899 as a manufacturer of wooden flat-top and roll-top desks, filing cabinets and other specialty cabinet work. The company’s boat product line eventually emerged out of the furniture-building business.
The company began building Wolverine boats in 1931. Those early cedar strip boats were first nationally advertised in 1933 and gained instant popularity. When I was a kid, we had a customer who came to Norowal Marina for three weeks in August every year. He owned a 1946 Wolverine 13-and-a half-foot “Super DeLuxe” model that he bought brand-new and named it “Gypsy.”
Matt Savitch stayed every year at Mrs. Ethel Ormsby’s rooming house in Bolton Landing on Stewart Avenue. He was joined by three friends, the husband and wife duo of Harry and Sally Terris, who owned Drazen’s Department Store and Herb Graff, a great tennis player and a judge at Forrest Hills. They came from Binghamton, N.Y. and they never missed a summer while they were alive.
Matt was a creature of habit. At all times he made the trip by himself towing the boat behind his Oldsmobile (Matt alwaysowned an Oldsmobile). When he arrived in Bolton Landing his first stop was Norowal so that he could drop off the boat before going to Mrs. Ormsby’s.
Matt was well-known in Bolton Landing and people always knew when Matt arrived, Labor Day was exactly three weeks away. He came and left the same time every year, without fail. Matt was somewhat famous throughout the U.S. as well. In 1943 he was the poster boy for Uncle Sam’s War Bonds campaign for the U.S. Army. Matt was a handsome-looking young soldier with a Chiclets smile and slick black hair whose pointed finger jumped off the poster…right at you.
“Gypsy” was powered by a 1946 Evinrude 22.5 hp Speeditwinand it was fast. As a kid, I begged Matt and my father to let me operate the boat by myself. After much pleading, they both agreed that if I could start the motor, I could take it for a ride…by myself! That was 1956 and I was 12 years old.
It turns out that the two men were a lot smarter that I had perceived. I imagined I had pulled one over on them, but the tables were turned. You see, that 2-cylinder opposed-firing Speeditwinhad so much compression that I couldn’t pull it through fast enough to get it started. They always got a laugh when I tried. Everybody at the boatyard did!
In 1946, if you were interested in speed, performance and comfort the “Super DeLuxe” was for you. The boat had a long 60-inch deck with a narrow after-brace for mounting a steering wheel. “Gypsy’s” wheel was mounted on the port side along with a Wilcox-Crittenden Bowden-cable throttle assembly. The single front seat lazy-back was supported by an 18-inch wide mid-deck and the rear cockpit was devoid of seating.
The original plans for the “Super DeLuxe” called for the bottom of the hull to be made of compressed cedar strips with all the planking above the spray rails, along with the seats, lazy-backs, transom and decks constructed of genuine mahogany. Due to shortages caused by World War II, the 1946 “Super DeLuxe” was all cedar.
After Matt dropped off the boat at the marina we would use a sling to launch it as he did not want the trailer put into the lake. It would take a day or so to soak up and Matt was never in any rush to take a ride. It was I who couldn’t wait. “Gypsy” was my favorite boat!
Oftentimes Matt and I would challenge other boats in the Bolton area to an impromptu race. He would sit in the rear cockpit perched on top of one of those green army-surplus gas cans, scrunched down to cut wind resistance and I would drive. We seldom lost.
In 1957 Evinrude announced the arrival of an all new 35 hp model. We were dealers for Evinrude Motors and Thompson lapstrake boats back in those days so we had a brand-new 14-footer with one of those new motors mounted on the transom.
I wanted to race against that new motor, which had 50 percent more horsepower than the “Gypsy”. So did Matt. It was one of the few times that I saw him excited. We lined up one of the dockhands from Norowal to drive the Thompson and Matt and I hopped in “Gypsy”, he started up the Speeditwinand the two boats motored out into Northwest Bay.
On the way back to the docks, Matt shook his head in disbelief. You see, the two boats ran neck and neck…we didn’t win, but we didn’t lose either. Once “Gypsy” was back at the dock Matt had a bright idea. He concluded that if I was in the boat alone “Gypsy” would be the victor.
The fact that I couldn’t start the Speeditwin was no longer a laughing matter. By now I was 13 and had sprouted up over six inches in height since the last summer. By all rights, I should have been able to get it going. Over the next couple of days Matt gave me tips on how to “pull it through” fast enough to get it to run.
He showed me where to brace my left foot against the transom and how to “whip” the starter rope while yanking on it with both hands. Three days before Labor Day Matt was getting anxious. He wanted to see “Gypsy” beat that 35-horse motor in the worst way.
That afternoon Matt and Sally and Harry went for a ride up to Paradise Bay in “Gypsy”. Herb was off playing tennis with Jim Kneeshaw and David Rehm because only three people could squeeze into “Gypsy’s” single seat. When the trio got back to Norowal Matt suggested that I try to start the motor using the techniques he had passed along to me.
I walked to the end of the dock where he had parked the boat, hopped in, wrapped the well-worn starter cord around the flywheel sheave and gave a yank. It started! I ran back to shore yelling, “It started…It started!”
Matt was right. Alone in the boat, I zoomed past that 15-foot Thompson like it was still tied to the dock. I’ll never forget the grin on his face…from ear to ear. He talked about that race for years after.
I have “Gypsy” in my antique outboard boat collection along with the Speeditwin. Matt generously gave it to me on Labor Day the summer of 1982, six years before he passed away. I always made it available for him to use but as he got older he would say, “If I can’t start it, I can’t use it.” It had gone full circle…now Matt didn’t have the strength to pull it through fast enough…and nobody was laughing.