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The Venerable Putt Putt

by: susan thornham

As I grew up on Lake Sesekinika, boats were very different from those of today. One class of boat which has totally disappeared from the lake is the "greatest little motor boat afloat", The Disappearing Propeller Boat, the Dippy, or as we affectionately called it, "The Putt-Putt.

The boat originated in Port Sandfield and the first patent was granted in 1915. It is described as "a unique contraption which would permit small rowing skiffs to be powered by small lightweight gas engines. The propeller and shaft could be raised manually into a small box fitted into the keel of the craft so that the boat could be hauled out of the water onto a wharf or beach." The propeller was protected by a large skeg which would cause the propeller to retract into the box when it hit an object- the propeller would continue to rotate in the box. This feature made it particularly attractive at Sesekinika where, at that time, few of the rocks were marked. The original model was named the Water-Ford after the Model T Ford automobile which was very popular at that time. Two additional models were added soon after- the John Bull(a fat Water-Ford) and the Uncle Sam "a sleek 18 footer with a unique alternate light and dark strip deck treatment." This model became the most popular despite being the most expensive. In the early 1920's, the Disappearing Propeller Boat Company became the largest motor boat builder in the Dominion of Canada. It had a US plant in North Tonawanda, NY.

The boats were pointed at both ends with a wooden rudder at the stern. The little gas powered marine engine (3 or 6 hp) was situated in the mid section of the vessel. There were either 3 or 4 seats and the controls were in the mid section of the boat. The rudder was activated by ropes which followed the gunwhales around to the stern of the boat. The early models did not have a gear box- so docking in the wind could be tricky. Grandpa's was of this vintage- and was made of cyprus, a very heavy wood. Because it was heavy and traveled slowly, it was a very safe boat. I recall my sister, Polly, travelling around the lake in the putt-putt by herself with Max, the dachshund, when she was very young (four or five years old). And this was before the widespread use of lifejackets! Polly was able to pilot the boat at such a tender age because Grandpa had added an electric starter- the original was a pullstart. The same qualities which made putt-putts safe also made them ideally suited for "cruising". The quiet engine made conversation easy and the slow speed ensured a peaceful ride around the lake or up the river past the railroad tracks.

To my knowledge, there were six putt-putts on Sesekinika in the 40's, 50's 60's and early 70's. They belonged to:

David Cramp (my grandfather)

Udell Thomson (Mary Celia Moodie's father)

Arnley Wright (Arlene Wright's father)

Oliver Blais (previous owner of McCallan's cottage on A-1)

Bill Sampson (Don Sampson)

Ralph Neelands (Peter Neelands and Nora Caldbick's father)

The early Sesekinika regattas featured a putt-putt race! It was a colourful event- Granpa's boat was painted a subtle orange on the inside and a bright green on the outside. Bill Sampson's was red and white, and the others were the more traditional varnished wood. What the race lacked in speed, it more than made up for in elegance!

I am not aware that any of the noble little Sesekinika ships have survived. After Granpa died, we gave his ship a proper Viking send-off. We burned her very carefully as she was well-soaked in gas and oil after many happy years putt-putting around Sesekinika!


Susan Thornham, June 2004

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Some Additional Reflections on Putt-Putts

by Celia Moodie Topping

With helpful input from my Mom (Mary Celia Thomson Moodie) and brother David.

One of my earliest memories was the boat ride each evening in the Thomson family putt-putt. Once dinner was over and the dishes were done, my grandfather Poppo - loaded my grandmother and grandkids into his shiny wooden putt-putt for a trip around the lake. There was plenty of room, but I felt most fortunate to claim the single seat in the back. You see, I could lean back comfortably, face forward and simultaneously drag both hands in the water one over each side of the boat as we wove our way among the islands, typically the ones facing our cottage on A-1. None of us can remember when my grandfather first introduced his beloved putt-putt to Sesekinika, but he bought it from someone in Muskoka where they were very popular at that time.

I recall one summer back in the 50s when a huge storm hit Sesekinika and it rained hard for two or three days. Trees fell on the power lines and there was no electricity. Someone needed to call Hydro, but the closest phone was in the village general store on the mainland. After much thought, Poppo decided the putt-putt was the safest way to reach mainland. He and my brother David headed out, and were doing all right until they passed Fees point and caught the high winds around the end of the island. The wind ripped the rudder off the back of the putt-putt forcing them to turn around and limp safely home. A photo taken later that week - a picture of David standing on our outer dock with the water level well above his knees - attests to the raised level of the lake as a result of that storm.  

Poppo died in 1959. My grandmother sold our putt-putt to neighbour Glen Code the following summer and it was only on the lake for a short time thereafter.



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