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Winsted auction reveals man’s quest to preserve boat history
Oct. 4, 2010
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By Linda Scherer
Staff Writer

WINSTED, MN – Because F. Todd Warner of Mound understands the importance of preservation as opposed to restoration, he will leave a lasting legacy to the boating industry through his upcoming Winsted auction which will offer his 37-year collection of antique wooden boats.

The auction is being advertised as the first and largest of its kind in variety and value.

Warner has appreciated the custom-built workmanship that went into the older boats beginning at a young age, helping his father rescue several antique wooden boats from being burned behind the marina on Lake Minnetonka because their owners considered them worthless.

“In many cases, these boats were like destroying a Duesenberg car,” Warner said.

He has traveled the world collecting some of the rarest antique boats, hoping to preserve the art forms for history.

“I couldn’t save them all, but by God, I gave it a go,” Warner said. “I tried.”

Warner’s collection, currently at 127 vintage wooden boats built from 1897 to 1996, will be auctioned in Winsted by Mecum Auctions of Illinois at the old Sterner Lighting building, just south of the water tower.

A preview of the boats is scheduled for Friday, Oct. 15 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the auction will take place Saturday, Oct. 16 beginning at 10 a.m. Included in the auction are rare outboard and inboard marine engines, hardware, and parts. All boats will be offered at no reserve. For more information, visit www.mecum. com.

Selling his boat collection was not Warner’s original plan. It had been his hope to fund a museum or attraction where his boats could be displayed for future generations to appreciate, but the economy has not helped his cause.

However, Warner is looking forward to the upcoming auction as an alternative plan.

“I am excited about what this (the auction) is doing to the industry as a whole. This is being done more to bring a spotlight and a lightning bolt on this important history,” Warner said.

“It will be a great success for me to be able to share it this way and have people at least understand and know how important this story is.”

Warner has been around boats his entire life, enjoying life on the water at his family’s summer home on Lake Minnetonka.

“We did everything with boats,” Warner said. “We waterskied, we raced, and sailed.”

He recalls being 5 years old, paddling around in an 8-foot punt, that he describes as a flat-bowed little rowboat that was orange and red.

When he was 7 or 8 years old, he learned the art of rowing from his grandfather in a canvas-covered Larson rowboat.

The first time Warner used a 2.5 horsepower Johnson outboard engine, it opened up another world to him.

“That was amazing,” Warner said. “To go across the whole bay under power, after having participated at sailing school at the Minnetonka Yacht Club and remembering how many days, in a dead calm, my cousin, Chuck, and I would swim that boat home. After I got exposed to power, I knew I had found my niche. I liked being a master of my own destiny.”

Later, he replaced the 2.5-horsepower with a 5-horsepower motor, and later, a 10 horsepower was replaced by a 25-horsepower Johnson.

“I remember, at 70 pounds, my dad saying, ‘when you can start that 25-horsepower motor by hand, you can drive that boat,’” Warner said.

He practiced for a whole summer, eventually figuring out a way to start that engine.

At 13, Warner confessed to doing some “blasphemous” things to a 1947 17-foot Higgins, called the Rebel, which he has since restored to its original design.

It was the first boat that he owned, buying it for himself for $500. It will be part of the Winsted auction.

“I had fixed it up by cutting out the front seat and putting in bucket seats and a wrap-around windshield, a hot rod steering wheel, and an 8-track tape player,” Warner said. “That is what you did to stuff back then because you didn’t care about it. You didn’t want old stuff – you wanted new, cool stuff.”

The “first harvest of classic boats” in Warner’s family was attributed to his father who, as a hobby, began collecting wooden boats when the fiberglass boats came out. Boat owners, who were tired of the upkeep on the wooden boats, believed fiberglass boats were better.

“Dad would tell me to pick up a boat because they were going to burn it behind the marina,” Warner said. “They would burn the wood and take a shovel and scrape together all of the metal and take that and sell it to the scrap metal dealer. That was all it was worth.”

One of the reasons Warner’s dad treasured the old boats, was because he had grown up on the lake around them and knew how expensive it was to buy one back in the ‘teens, ‘20s, and ‘30s.

“If you owned a boat back then, it was generally somewhere between three and 25 times the price of a new car,” Warner said.

Warner’s dad had a building in Tonka Bay where he stored them, and 10 of the boats were in slips in front of their house.

“We had a Chris-Craft, a Riva, which was an Italian built boat; and a Hacker; all of these great boats my dad had picked up because no one wanted an old boat. You couldn’t give an old boat away, and here I was, in and around, enjoying them,” Warner said.

With the knowledge that he had gained from helping his father and being around boats all of the time, he decided to start his own boat business, Mahogany Bay, in Mound. He owns that business today, buying, selling, and restoring classic boats.

“It has been quite a ride. I think I have owned, worked on and restored over 1,000 boats,” Warner said.

“I liken myself to the Indiana Jones of the antique boat world. I have been able to travel to Italy, France, England, Holland, Canada, Germany, and Australia, and probably been to 40 of the 50 states, where I have found boats in the last 37 years,” Warner said.

From early on, Warner has worked to get exposure for classic boats.

In 1976, he founded the first antique and classic boat show at Lord Fletcher’s on Lake Minnetonka, which celebrated its 35th show recently.

The following year, he started the third chapter of the antique and classic boat society of the Land O Lakes chapter. He was the first president of the chapter, where he met and later worked with Robert Speltz on the first volume of the “Real Runabouts.”

A runabout is a wooden boat with an inboard engine built in the early 1900s to about 1950.

Together, using contributions from part of Warner’s library, they worked on the first book, and Warner wrote the foreword for Volume I. Later, Speltz wrote six more volumes on the boats.

“I think it is important that we teach this history and share these stories about the boats, the builders, and the families that owned them,” Warner said.

“There have been over 238 boat companies that have started here in Minnesota and we have nothing to celebrate any of this history that is so rich,” Warner said.

Because of the many “great” people he has met, who share his love of boats, and the families who have kept their boats as family treasures for generations, Warner has learned how important it is to preserve this part of history.

“We are very temporary in all of this,” Warner said. “The boats will far outlive us and they will be here to teach and tell the story of our time.”

According to Warner, some of the boats to be auctioned are the only examples left in the world of their “art-form,” including his grandfather’s 1926 Ramaley.

Warner believes that a classic wooden boat investment is better than having cash in the bank because he has seen the values rise over the years.

An example Warner gave was of a 1939 or 1940 19-foot Chris-Craft Barrel Back boat. When it was brand new, it was about $1,800.

“So that was an expensive boat and at some point that boat had zero value and they were burning them for the hardware,” he said.

In 1980, Warner had a difficult time selling the boats for $5,000.

“Today, those boats trade regularly for $75,000 to $150,000. There are only so many of them out there and the price on these old boats just continues to rise.”

There will be something for everyone at this auction, according to Warner. From duck boats to outboards, and from unrestored project boats to the rarest boats in the world.

Does Warner have a favorite boat?

Not really. He considers each boat unique and needs to be appreciated for what it offers – from canoes to commuters.

“And I believe this auction is going to do more to raise awareness and save more boats and get more people involved and, if it does that, then I have accomplished part of what I had hoped to do,” Warner said.

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