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Defoe Boat and Motor Works (1905-1972)
(Defoe Shipbuilding Co.) Bay City, MI

by Marvin Kusmierz (April 2003)

The History of Defoe Boat and Motor Works (Defoe Shipbulding Co.)
is the story of Harry J. Defoe's dream as a child to be a boat builder.

Defoe Shipbuiling Header

Harry J. Defoe

It might be said that Defoe Boat and Motor Works had its beginnings on September 2, 1875, the day Harry J. Defoe was born. He seemingly had a passion for boats from the beginning as if it was in his genes. It may be true as his father Joseph who was a tug boat captain and had a similar fascination with Lake Freighters and his Uncle John owned a small boat business. Harry's family was certainly a good source for nurturing his boating interest even if it wasn't a genetic condition.

Growing up on Bay City's west side he lived near the ship yards of James Davidson and Frank H. Wheeler, where he spent much of his play time watching watching with great interest as the workers went about making the hundreds of pieces required to put a ship together. In Harry's mind it may have been like doing a three dimensional puzzle, initially guessing where a piece might fit and in time -- eventually knowing exactly where it would be used. An early indication that Harry was destined to be a boat builder was whittling. At a very young age he grabbed a piece of soft pine and a knife and began shaping it into a replica of the boats being built in these yards. Each new creation improving with experience from the previous. As a teenager, he moved on to modeling -- he built scaled parts out of wood and metal. Now he was able to simulate the building process, each a fine replication of the real thing. His youthful interest in shipbuilding was more than a passion for Harry, it was a part of his being. Harry knew that one day he would build the real thing.

Harry attended Western High School. Western was located on Wenonah street where the Allen Clinic is today. Graduating in 1892, one would have thought Harry's first job would be at one of the local ship yards. Inexplainably, he entered the teaching profession instead? Whatever the reason, Harry continued to express his passion for boats. He still visited the ship yards, it may have been to hone his own knowledge as during much of off time from teaching he could be found building his own boats. The first being a row boat to get his feet wet, then a small fish skiff, the onto a couple of small motor boats. Maybe this was Harry's plan all along -- using teaching to support himself while he honed his boat building skills. During this period, Harry progressed from teaching to being principle of the Park School on the west side of Bay City.

In 1905, Harry answered his calling! He resigned his position as principle and gave up the financial security along with it. With $100.00 in his pocket, he got together with his with his brother, Frederick Defoe (a New York lawyer), and his brother-in-law, George H. Whitehouse (a fish wholesaler) and created a partnership. Defoe Boat and Motor Works was officially born. It was a decision that Harry never regretted -- he was rewarded with many years of great satisfaction for his work and blessed with wealth for his skills. Because he realized his dream, thousands of others benefit as well. During its history, the Defoe ship yards provide worked supporting thousands of families the means for a good life, supported thousands of jobs of its suppliers and enhanced the pride of the community that he grew in.

Defoe's Shipyards

Defoe shipyard locations.
Click Map to see larger view.
1918 Saginaw River map showing historical locations of Defoe's shipyards.

(1) First yard was at end of 5th Ave.

(2) In 1908 they moved to west bank south of railroad bridge.

(3) Final relocation was to the east side north of Woodside avenue.

The fledgling business began operations near 5th avenue on the north portion of what is now Wenonah Park. The company was forced to move in 1908 when the city claimed the land to build Wenonah Park. They found a two acre spot across river just south of the present railroad bridge and close the Wheeler property.

Among the first boats they built were trap net skiffs used by the Saginaw Bay fishing industry. These boats featured a nearly flat bottom hull to allow maneuvering close to shorelines and they were well suited for handling fishing nets. Most boats smaller boats at this time still used sails. However, new gasoline engines had been develop for small boats and it wasn't long before most new sales were for gasoline engine which provided reliable power. This was an advantage for the new company as Harry being mechanically inclined and had considerable experience working with engines. Building knockdown frames for boats became a major business. These were essentially prefab boats available at lower cost. The yard build the major sections which were shipped to the customer who then did the final assembly. Most of sales for these boats came from ads placed in popular boating magazines like "Boating". The company was now drawing orders from areas outside of the Great Lakes and each sale helped to spread the word to new customers. Within a decade, Defoe Boat and Motor Works had become a well established business recognized as prominent shipyard capable of supplying boats of various designs and sizes.

Government Work

The year 1917 was a benchmark for the company, it marked the company's first government contract for a 40-foot Spent Torpedo Chaser to be delivered to the U.S. Navy at the port of New London, CT. A year later, they landed another government contract. This time from the U.S. Army Transport Service for eight 98-foot steam mine planters. The good a news had the company scrambling as the west side yard was to small for a new iron works building that would be needed to handle this order. However, good fortune continued -- a deal was worked out with New York Central railroad to swap properties. Operations were quickly set up at their new home across the river just north of Woodside avenue with more than sufficient room for setting up an iron works building. This became the companies permanent location for the balance of its active years.

The unpopular Prohibition Law enacted after WWI, provided an unexpected benefit for the company. They received an order from the government for fourteen wooden rum runner chasers, two 75-foot wooden hulls and twelve 100-foot with steel hulls. These were delivered during 1924-25. The company's primary sales during the years that followed were for yachts. This market had become large and was highly competitive. The company was able to successfully compete with major ship yards such as: Lawleys, Chas. Seabury; Luders; Bath and Pusey; and Jones. The company invested in a joiner and finishing department that helped to give it a competitive edge and contributed to continued growth. Yachts built by the Defoe Boat and Motor Works peppered were now peppering the water ways. A number of these classic yachts are still in use today to the satisfaction of those who proudly own a unique product of maritime history.

Probably the most well known yacht is the "Honey Fitz". It was built in 1931 for Sewell Avery who named it the "Lenore". It eventually became a presidential yacht, President John F. Kennedy during his term named it the "Honey Fitz". Another yacht worthy of mention is the "Olive K" built for Chas. Kettering and used as a pilot ship in the Port of New York. And, in 1930, Isadore Zellerbach of San Francisco took possession of the "Janidore". Yacht sales helped to minimize the effects of the depression years on the company's business. Further good fortune came from the U.S. Coast Guard. They had developed new specifications for steam turbine cutters and placed orders for the company to build the cutters "Escanaba", "Onandaga" and "Tohoma." This kept the yard busy during 1932-34. Additional work continued in the years that followed for work building a variety of ships, including Light tenders "Hollyhock" and "Elm", the "Busse" delivered to the City of Chicago, and the "Mook" - a small mail boat used on the Detroit River, and the two 90-foot ice cutters, the "Raritan" and "Naugatuck", delivered to the U.S. Coast Guard.

World War II Defoe symbol

Defoe brochure.
1943 company brochure.

In 1939, Hitler's Germany invaded Poland marking the beginning of WWII. The United States was able to avoid a direct engagement in the war, instead it took on the role of supplying war materials for the effort in Europe. On December 7, 1941, that dramatically changed when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The Defoe shipyard became a major player in supplying vessels for the war effort. Its first war contract was in 1940 for two PC boats, "451" and "452" delivered to the Navy's Norfolk, Virginia base. This was followed by an order from the Navy for three 100-foot diesel electric tugs and four 220-foot diesel-electric mine sweepers. Reorders followed shortly thereafter for 56 more 170-foot PC boats. To keep up with the growing wartime demand, the company expanded its capacity and employment climbed to 4,000. A new innovative method for building hulls was devised using a cradle -- the hull was built upside down which speeded up the welding process, it also improved the quality of the welds. When completed, the hull and partial deck was rolled over to install machinery and finalizing the building. The new method was capable of producing one ship per week placing pressure on engine suppliers to keep up the demand. In 1942, the company changed its name to Defoe Shipbuilding Company.

The yard was bustling with activity during this time which could be easily seen by those using the Third Street Bridge or downtown shoppers that drove onto Washington from Woodside. The property had many tall steel buildings for parts producing the thousands of parts required for ship assembly. It was a delightful experience to view the ship skeletons taking shape that was only exceed by watching them being launched. Their maiden voyages were on the Saginaw river as they went through trial testing on the Saginaw Bay. They provided a steady source of excitement for those caught view of their many trips from the yard on the Saginaw river out to the bay before being release for the war effort. Some of the larger wartime production lots were -- 28 steam turbine destroyers (309-foot), 4 diesel electric tugs (143-foot) and 47 diesel landing crafts (220-foot).

Post War Years

The end of WWII brought great elation to everyone, but the sudden drop in the demand for war vessels left the company with a great shipbuilding capacity which could not be supported by peacetime demands. The government canceled orders and was forced to reduce its costs of operations and its work force. The company turned again to yacht sales for work. It began an advertising campaign in magazines to promote sales. However, yacht orders were sufficiently profitable to support what was now a very large operation. The company struggled through this period building yachts and servicing smaller contracts such as:

  • City of Milwaukee for a fire boat (Deluge).
  • Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co. for two diesel tugs ( John A. McGuire and William C. Gaynor)
  • Great Lakes Steamship Co., freighter (R.M. Marshall)
  • Pioneer Steamship Co., for 643-foot freighter (Charles L. Hutchinson)
  • Repair work on ferries for the Straits of Mackinaw, and cities of Petoskey and Munising.
  • U.S. Coast Guard, two 120-foot ships (Diamond and Pollack).
  • U.S. Navy, repair work on PC boats and a new experimental mine sweeper.
  • U.S. Steel for a diesel tug (Limestone)

The company saw a pickup in its business during the middle 1950s. However, they lost their founder. Harry now 81 years of age was still active in the company. While in Washington working on another Navy contract for the yard, he died on March 21, 1957. His sons took over the business, Thomas as president and William as executive vice-president. In 1966, a grandson, Thomas E. Defoe joined the business.

The company went through a small boom period landing contracts from the U.S. Navy for guided missile destroyers and a significant order from the Australian Navy to build seven 438-foot warships. However, the competition in the industry was great and the cost advantage of ocean based yards along with stiff foreign competition took its toll. Employment that reached a peak of 4,000 during WWII had dwindled to 100 by 1976 -- in December Defoe closed its operations, ending a long local history of major ship builders on the Saginaw river.


Defoe Shipbuilding Company is indeed the story of Harry Defoe. Its significance goes beyond its obvious historical value. Harry's story is "real life" lesson that reminds us that dreams can come when fueled by passion. It is the type of story that children should be made aware of as good nourishment for their own dreams to come true.

Note: Many families have members that once worked for the Defoe Shipbuilding Company. Don't let these memories fade away with time -- record them in a family journal while you still can. Then consider sharing them here as well.

Defoe Shipbuilding Pictorial: {View}

Viewer Comments:

April 18, 2013, by Robert G. Jerore.

    My father, Daniel Jerore, worked at Defoe during the 1950s. He was a welder and within a short time became foreman of the welding department, where he came up with an improvement for welding seams.

    Ordinarily when plates for the hull are welded together, they had a tendency to warp inward at the seams, due to great heat at that area. This gave the ship a ripple effect along the hull, from plate to plate. Dad invented a "Saddle" as he called it, which was mass produced and welded straddling the open seams before welding. As the plates were joined with weld, this prevented the inward bowing, due to extreme heat, and gave the hull a much smoother appearance. After which the "Saddle" were cut loose and the hull was ground smooth of the remnants. Mr. DeFoe congratulated Dad, telling him it was the most beautiful ship they had ever turned out. The system was used for other ships to come.

Defoe Menu

Henry Joseph Defoe

Defoe Historical News
Ships Built Database
Defoe, Joseph (father)
Related pages:
{Pictorial: Defoe}
{Ships Built in Bay City}
{Bay City Shipwrecks}
People Referenced
Avery, Sewell
Davidson, James
Defoe, Frederick
Defoe, Harry J.
Defoe, Joseph
Defoe, Thomas E.
Defoe, Wm.
Elm light tender
Hollyhock light tender
Kennedy, John F. Pres.
Kettering, Chas.
Wheeler, Frank H.
Whitehouse, George H.
Zellerbach, Isadore
Subjects Referenced
Allen Clinic
Bath Shipbuilding
Chas Shipbuilding
Chicago, IL
City of Milwaukee
City of Munising
City of Petoskey
Detroit River
Great Lakes Dredge/Dock Co.
Great Lakes Steamship Co.
Jones Shipbuilding
Lawleys Shipbuilding
Limestone tug
Luders Shipbuilding
New York Central R.R.
Norfolk Naval Base, VA
Pearl Harbor
Pioneer Steamship Co.
Pollack CG ship
Prohibition Law
Pusey Shipbuilding
Seabury Shipbuilding
U.S. Army Transport Svc.
U.S. Coast Guard
U.S. Navy
U.S. Steel Co.
Wenonah Park
Western High School
Wm. C. Gaynor tug
Boat, Deluge (fire)
Boat, Mook (mail)
Cutter, Escanaba
Cutter, Naugatuck(ice)
Cutter, Orandaga
Cutter, Raritan(ice)
Cutter, Tohoma
Ship, Busse
Ship, Charles L. Hutchinson
Ship, Diamond CG
Ship, Kinsman Independent
Ship, PC-479
Ship, R.M. Marshall
Ship, USS Burdo
Ship, USS Rich
Yacht, Honey Fitz
Yacht, Lenore
Yacht, Olive K
Tug, John A. McGuire
Bay City Tribune
Tues., May 25, 1909

Rushed by Park Commission, Transporting Buildings By Lighter.
The Defoe Boat & Motor Works whose shops have been at the foot of Fifty avenue on the ground to be used for the new Riverside park, are moving to a point across the river, having purchased a portion of the old Flood mill site.

Work is being pushed on the park and the dredges tiling in rapidly. The firms propose to construct new buildings immediately but as prompt movements are necessary to make way for the park, and some place must be had to carry on their work the old buildings which they have used up to the present are being cut into sections, and taken across the river by lighter, to be occupied temporarily. The office for the present will be left where they now are, in the Brotherton building on Water street.
Related References
  • APD-133 Burdo
  • USS Wilson DDG7 History
  • WWI Sub Chasers
  • Article Sources
    "The Defoe Story", paper, F.A. Swanson, V.P. Defoe Shipbuilding Co., presented May 21, 1964 before the Society of Naval Architects & Marine Engineers at Bay City, Michigan.
    "The Bay County Story -- From Footpaths to Freeways", book, Leslie Arndt.
    "Ship Building On The Saginaw", pamphlet, 1974, Catherine Baker.
    [Defoe Shipbuilding Company Website] - An extensive repository of information about the company and vessels its built. Created by David Defoe, great-grandson of Harry Defoe.
    [The Bay City boy who became a major shipbuilder] Excellent article from the Detroit News (www.detnews.com)
    [Harry J. Defoe] by Bill Ballard (www.wwcacbs.com)
    [NavSource Naval History] - Photo archives, use Search - type in "Defoe" for listing.

    {Yacht Lenore} - Pictures and history of a presidential yatch built by Defoe. (home.mchsi.com)
    HELP US IS YOU CAN -- Contribute content to Bay-Journal.com