Our History

A Proud Tradition on the Shores of White Bear Lake

Although White Bear Boat Works was formed in 1998 when Johnson Boat Works was sold, the history of this family business goes back over 100 years.

The Founder

J.O. Johnson was born in Norway in 1875, and orphaned at a very young age. He was sent off to live with relatives. At age 14, he worked as a galley boy on a mail and freight delivery schooner up and down the coast. His future employer, Gus Amundson, while on a visit to his homeland, offered Johnson a job if he ever came to the United States. In 1893, when he was 18 years old, J.O. Johnson came to his new home in White Bear Lake, Minnesota.


The Early Days

For 2 years, J.O. worked for Amundson, building rowboats and traditionally styled displacement sailboats for the inland lakes of Minnesota, but he was more fascinated with boat design than he was with construction. He was convinced that the displacement sailboats offered too much resistance and began designing a radically different type of sailboat; one that would ride on top of the water, instead of plowing through it. He proposed this new design to Amundson, who would not hear of it. If Johnson wanted to build such a boat, he would have to do it on his own time and in his own shop.

One afternoon, while conversing with one of Amundson’s customers, Johnson “leaked” his idea. This customer agreed to foot the bill for this new design, just for the fun of putting one over on his friends at the White Bear Yacht Club, the exclusive domain of some of Minnesota’s wealthiest sailors.

The Birth of the “Inland Scow”

Overnight, J.O. Johnson became self-employed. He rented a building on the site where the White Bear Boat Works now stands, and started work on his new design. At that time, he didn’t know how to draft plans, and this new boat turned out to be 38 feet long with square ends and a centerboard. Unlike the other deep-hulled, heavy ballasted boats usually raced in inland waters, Johnson’s scow had a radical dish design so it could skim across the top of the water. A centerboard provided stability.


When the Yacht Club called one of their regularly scheduled races in 1896, and with a minimum of preparation, Johnson entered his new design. Johnson’s boat looked so different that all his friends laughed and teased him saying, “It looks like a slice of bread” and “It looks like a scow”. This jeering was short-lived, however, as the Johnson Scow not only lapped the fleet, but was home with the sails down by the time the second place boat crossed the finish line.

This invention was the first sailing scow. It became the heart of a family business which Johnson established within a block of the Amundson Boat Works. His old boss became his competitor, but they remained lifelong friends.

Impressed by Johnson’s victory and apparent foresight, C. Milton Griggs, a wealthy sailing enthusiast living on Manitou Island in White Bear Lake, rendered Johnson enough financing to produce another boat. By the turn of the century, Johnson offered the sailing world a 38 foot, flat bottomed scow, named the “Minnezitka” with a profile as “low as the waves themselves”. The Minnezitka was sleek and narrow with an impressive mast, and yards of sail. She racked up victory after victory.

The Johnson Scow became the talk of the inland sailing fraternity. Orders for more scows came in and Johnson started hiring men to help him. By 1904, the Johnson Boat Works of White Bear Lake was in full production, and J.O. Johnson was recognized as one of the top designers of sailboats for racing on inland lakes. The Minnezitka became the predecessor of the legendary Class A Scow.

In the early 1900s, a 32-foot, Class B Scow became popular, along with the 20-foot, cat-rigged C Scow. Several of these Class B boats were shipped to Montreal, Canada for international races during prohibition. When they returned, they were secretly packed with liquor for the “deprived” White Bear yachtsmen.

The Minnezitka

J.O. Johnson the Inventor

J.O. Johnson was always interested in new designs, innovations, and inventions. In 1909, he designed a bi-wing airplane with a 20-horsepower engine. This design was totally unlike the Wright brothers, as the wings were arranged in front of each other, and the structure carrying the motor and the aviator’s seat hung beneath the 2 wings and right between them. In January of 1910, on frozen White Bear Lake, he flew his originally designed plane a distance of 200 feet at 20 feet in the air, making him the first Minnesota aviator to fly that distance.

In 1923, he designed and subsequently received the US patent on the first rotary snowplow. Five years later, he sold the patent for $50,000.00 and this money was used to expand and modernize the Johnson Boat Works. He was made an honorary member of the White Bear Yacht Club for this achievement. The Boat Works began to build E Scows in 1923, as well.

The 1930’s and 40's

During the 1930s, the big, stern-steering iceboats became popular. At 38 feet in length, with a 24-foot rudder plank, and 350 square feet of sail, these awesome machines outclassed the existing lateen-rigged iceboats. These Class A iceboats were produced by Johnson Boat Works for 2 decades.

In 1932, L.M. Lilly, then the captain of the White Bear Yacht Club, commissioned Johnson to design a sailboat for his children to learn in. This new 16-foot boat departed from the scow design with a pointed bow and hard chine sidewalls to the hull. This boat, the Class X boat, is still raced actively throughout the Inland.

Building C Scows in the 1940's

A Family Business

J.O. Johnson had 3 sons: Walter (Buster), Iver, and Milton, all of whom worked all their lives at the Boat Works. They were equally creative, and encouraged the growth and construction of other scow classes, such as the 20-foot D Scow, and the conversion from wood to fiberglass in the mid 1960s. One of their most amazing feats, however, was in 1972, when they produced a totally vacuum-formed, plastic 16-foot scow, from their own hand-built equipment. Unfortunately, the cost of this material was prohibitive, making it unable to compete with fiberglass.

Iver’s son, Skip, and Buster’s son, Steve, both went to work at the Boat Works in the 1960s. In 1979, Skip took over the ownership and management of the company. Skip’s stepson, Jason Brown, who grew up in the business, worked as sales manager for Johnson Boat Works, as well.

In the 1980s, the Boat Works expanded into the recreational sailing market, by building a variety of daysailors, such as the Mini-scow, Weekender 18, and Johnson J Sailor. In addition, contract work was accepted to build boats such as the Impulse 21. Outside dealer boats rounded out the recreational sailing line.

In 1988, recognizing the need to stimulate sailing, the Johnson Optimist Dinghy was first produced. This led to explosive growth in the junior sailing market. Johnson Boat Works produced over 450 Optimists in its history!

1994 brought the development of the Johnson 18. Rodger Martin Yacht Designs was hired to finalize the design concept, and 75 Johnson 18s were built in the first year and a half of production. The nationwide dealer distribution of this boat was a departure from the normal direct sales of the company, and opened many new doors. 1996 commemorated the 100th anniversary of Johnson Boat Works.

White Bear Boat Works – The Next Generation

Current owner Jason Brown began his career at the Boat Works drilling sailboat molding at the age of 5 and with guidance from his stepfather Skip and mother Marge he eventually worked in nearly every capacity at the Boat Works. Jason grew up sailing just about everything and after the Johnson Boat Works manufacturing operation was sold, he and his wife Angie opened White Bear Boat Works with a new focus: helping customers with all their sailing needs--no matter their age, ability, or interest!

For more information please call WBBW - 651.429.7221
To contact us:
Tel: 651.429.7221 Fax: 651.429.3248
4120 Hoffman Road, White Bear Lake, MN 55110



• • • Close this window to return to the main site • • •