by Chris Clemens
The Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, New York houses the largest collection of antique boats in all of North America. Even though I happened to be in Clayton at a time when they were closed for the season, they were generous enough to open and allow me a glimpse in to one of the most popular attractions in the 1000 Islands.
Boating and river life nearly defines the culture up and down both sides of the St. Lawrence Seaway. With hopes of preserving the history of small craft transportation and its affect on America, a small group of locals banded together in the 1960’s to lay the groundwork that would later found the museum. Today, it has grown to a 29,000 square foot exhibit space spanning ten buildings. But, what greets us today all began with a boat show on the shores of the St. Lawrence River–just a few hundred feet from what is now the entrance to the main lobby.
Visitors have access to exhibits that include films, informative panels, live demonstrations, and plenty of antique boats. Each building features a theme like “Speed Boats” or “Small Craft” with countless examples extensively representing the time period.
Though I’ve been on plenty of boats, I will freely admit that the culture of boating is one I don’t have much experience with. But, even as a novice with little past participation or knowledge, it was pretty easy to spend a couple hours walking through the exhibits. For someone who is intimately knowledgeable on the subject, I would imagine they could spend more than an entire day at the Antique Boat Museum and still not take in each detail of the displays.
Many of the items in the collection are interesting because of their relevance to the history of boating in general. Gas engines, oars, and the history of top-speed records each tell the greater story of how technology has changed both sport and leisure watercraft. But, the museum is just as much a storyteller of regional history, too. As the Guilded Age brought multimillionaires vacationing and buying up islands on the river, it also brought their boats. Within the museum’s collection exists some of the most prized examples of local boats owned by some of the wealthiest inhabitants of the 1,000 Islands.
While it was great to be able to see each of the exhibits during the off season, the summer months sound like even more fun. Classes, boat cruises, and live demonstrations all take place regularly. The culmination of their season is a celebration of that very first boat show in the 60’s. This year, the 2017 Antique Boat Show and Auction will take place the first weekend in August and will celebrate the 53rd year of the historic festival that started it all. Vendors from far and wide will have boat-related booths along with food, boat rides, and stuff for people who enjoy boating just casually, or as a deep-rooted lifestyle.
Even though my off-season visit was limited to what doesn’t get put away for the winter, what I did get to see was a glimpse in to the great work that the Antique Boat Museum staff and volunteers are doing to preserve history.
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens