The Paul Mikkelson Collection
By Tom Kapocius
Willmar, Minnesota, isn’t a prime tourist destination – even for those who have already been to the giant ball of yarn in Darwin, 35 miles to the east. Nestled among the rolling prairies and farms of south-central Minnesota two hours west of the Twin Cities, Willmar is simply a spot on the map for most travelers.
Paul Mikkelson is hoping to give those travelers, sportsman and other interested parties a reason to visit the town. Mikkelson, 64, has assembled for public display, one of the outstanding collections of classic motorboats and toy boats in the country. Located a block off the city’s main drag, The Paul Mikkelson Collection contains the country’s most extensive collection of classic “Falls Flyer” boats, built by the Larson Boats of Little Falls, Minn. between 1939 and the 1960. The retired Twin Cities businessman believes that he can capture the interest of the swarms of fisherman driving north through Willmar during the summer.
The back of the building is where the diamonds of the collection are housed. It’s Mikkelson’s collection of the classic Minnesota based Larson speedboats that are the draw of the museum. There are more than a dozen of the boats, some as rare as one-of-one, nearly all centering around the “Falls Flyer” body type.
The boats took their nickname from the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh, a Little Falls native, who was the original Falls Flyer. According to company legend, the inspiration for the hull of the boat was Lindbergh’s “Jenny” airplane which had cockpits that pilots sat back in. Prior to that, airplanes had a wooden chair in front of them with a tiller to guide the plane. The boat company copied the blueprint and set the driver deep into the craft in a more aerodynamic fashion. Playing upon the motif of flight, there was a wing cut into the front of the boats; after World War II the wing was transformed into a goose. That is one way to distinguish the model year.
Mikkelson, whose family lived on Eagle Lake outside of Willmar, started his love affair with the boats when he was in high school and his father purchased a 1956 model.
“This is my original 1956 Falls Flyer,” said Mikkelson, admiring the boat. “I bought this with my father and my brothers when I was a senior in high school . This was my sports car. That’s what started it all for me; it started my love affair. I dated my wife in this - and still have both of them.”
When marriage, fatherhood and business pursuits began to occupy more of his time, Paul moved the boat to his home in Hopkins for storage. After several years, his wife gave him an ultimatum. “She said to either fix it up or get rid of it,” he said. “I think she would have preferred the latter.”
Instead, Mikkelson found a person near Little Falls that restored classic Larson boats. He and his wife brought the boat up on a flatbed.
“A few months later he gave me a call and said, ‘your boat’s done’. We went up there immediately.” The next day they put the boat into Eagle Lake and his feelings resurfaced. “It was dèjá vu”, he said.
A tribute to Midwestern boating
While there are some great classic boats housed in other museums across the country, what distinguishes the Mikkelson Collection is its focus on the Falls Flyer and Midwestern boating in general.
“I’ve gone to boat shows around the country and have a tremendous affection for antique and classic boats. You go to the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, N.Y., – incredible,” he said. “You have 30’ long mahogany boats that could carry 20 passengers – beautiful boats – but that wasn’t what we had here.”
According to Mikkelson, the museum is an attempt to share, save and preserve Midwestern boating. “What we had around here was mostly outboards, because we had little lakes. This is an attempt to preserve Midwestern boating history.”
Of the 13 Flyers that Mikkelson has on display, four of them are from Wisconsin and the rest were purchased from Minnesotans. (Mikkelson said that he has another dozen that are restored but that he doesn’t have the space to show them.)
The Falls Flyers were among the flashiest of the sports boats that were being made prior to World War II. The uniqueness of the boat’s shape and the speed of the outboards didn’t help sales tremendously however. With Minnesota consisting of rather conservative people, the company didn’t make many of the cedar-bodied boats. They were considered ahead of their time. The company mostly made boats for the resorts that were popular around Minnesota and Wisconsin. Practically every resort owner in this area had several of the boats for fishing and pleasure boating.
“It was a situation where the timing was inappropriate (for the speedboats),” said Mikkelson. “They were very fast for the times; you sat in them face forward - that was always considered frivolous in Minnesota. Times were changing however and this was an early specter. They were radical at the time,” he said. There was a four-year span in which maybe a dozen of the Falls Flyers were built, according to Mikkelson. (There was a fire at the Larson factory in 1939 and the manufacturing records were destroyed, making it impossible to accurately determine the exact number of boats produced.) Another reason why so few boats were made before the war was that the bodies were all wood, said Mikkelson.
“It’s an elaborate process. They were all cedar strips with
white oak frames and then a canvas skin stretched over them. It was the same
kind of process that was done with airplanes.”
Paul Larson was finally convinced late in the 1950’s that it was much more cost effective to start building the boats out of fiberglass.
If Mikkelson seems to know a lot on the subject of Larson boats and the company’s history, it’s because he does. He does meticulous research on the boats and keeps files on everything from manufacturer’s specs to print advertising.
“Part of what I do involves a lot of research so that I can get the story straight,” he said. “I’ve collected a lot of Larson literature and the end result is that these things are done to the best of our knowledge,” he said. “That’s the purpose of all this: trying to save history that’s unique to this area. This is about saving Midwest boating history. There isn’t a boat in this room that wasn’t built in the Larson factory here in Minnesota.”
The first boats that Mikkelson takes you to on the tour are the original speedsters, the 1939 vintage. On the earliest models, the helm was located in the back so that the driver could access the pull-start motor that was located in the stern. Mikkelson has two of them - with consecutive serial numbers, coincidently. The second one wasn’t even accounted for by collectors but turned up in a barn in Wisconsin, with trash covering it.
The rarest of Mikkelson’s boats was never produced for consumers. It’s Paul Larson’s very own racing boat, The Boondoggle. “The founder and owner of the boat company used to take the bullet-shaped craft with him during the winter to race down in Florida”, according to Mikkelson. The boat is very compact and only seats one person. It came into Mikkelson’s hands through the Chuck Steele family of Madison, Wis. The story, as Mikkelson tells it, is that he had sent Christmas cards to the family every year and ended it with the tagline “Don’t forget me when you decide to sell the boat.”
Then, one day while he was going through the classifieds in an antique boat magazine, he spotted an ad and a picture for The Boondoggle. “I called him up and said, ‘What are you doing to me.’ He said ‘Don’t worry, you’re first in line; we’re just trying to find out what it’s worth’.”
A week later he got a call back from the boat’s owner who said. “We’ve got a doctor in Florida who will pay $30,000 and a doctor in California who’ll pay $35,000. It doesn’t belong in Florida or California; it belongs in a Falls Flyer museum in Willmar, Minnesota. So if you can put together $20,000 and come on down here we’ll sell you the boat.” “He could have gotten twice for that boat. I couldn’t believe it. I told him that I’d go to my bank right away and be down there tomorrow afternoon.”
The boat sits regally in Mikkelson’s museum now. “It’s the ultimate for a collector,” he said. “Nothing’s rarer than one-of-one.”
Another of the museum’s treasures is a 21-foot Larson that Mikkelson calls the “Queen of the Fleet.” “It’s the one I take out on the Fourth of July and for parades.” Mikkelson said that he knows of only two made by the company. “I have one and a gentleman in Rice, Minn. owns the other. That one’s being restored now. This has a 140hp Gray Fireball, 6-cylinder. Gray Fireball wasn’t considered a performance (engine); it was a high-quality marine engine. The deluxe part is the interior – all mahogany. The deluxe models also had jeweled dashboards. This one was a ‘42 – one of the last ones they built for pleasure.”
There’s also the 1955 Outboard Cabin Deluxe. The Cabin Deluxe has cedar stripping and mahogany finish and could seat eight people comfortably. There were eight of them built, according to Mikkelson, all for luxurious lake tours.
The only non-Larson boat in the museum is a 1956 Inland Marine hydrofoil boat with the decal still intact. It was intended to be a demonstrator model. The Baker Motor Company in Madison, Wis., bought the boat and added the hydrofoil. Once you got it going and lifted it on the foil, the speed doubled, according to Mikkelson. Near the boat there are photos on display of the Baker family testing the hydrofoil boat on Madison area lakes.
“They were testing (it) for the Navy,” he said. “They were trying to design a system where they could inject and remove Navy SEALS. It turned out to be a very workable process but it had no sporting tie-ins. You couldn’t fish in it and you couldn’t water ski off it. We think they made only two. Its uniqueness was that it was rare.”
In the late 1940’s, Larson tried to do something to quiet the noise that the outboard motors made and to give the boats a more streamlined look. They tried adding a hood over the engine. It didn’t account for the engine burning hot, however, and the shrouds captured the heat. The hoods wound up deteriorating and most people discarded them. The museum has two boats with the hoods.
By 1956 the hoods got wider and taller because they now housed electrical starters and recharging systems. They were starting to completely enclose the engines to deaden the sound. The difference was, the engines were improved; they stopped running hot.
In the late 1950’s, Larson tried to follow the automobile industry with its design innovations. The boats began to look more and more like luxury automobiles; one model from this period that Mikkelson owns has car-like features such as turn signals.
The Larson Company
After the U.S. entered into WWII in December 1941, the construction of pleasure boats across the country came to a halt. The company’s marine building efforts were then geared toward helping the military effort and 100% of their production went toward construction of Coast Guard and Navy ships.
When the war ended, the company resumed making pleasure boats
but the country and the consumers – soldiers returning from the war in Europe –
had been altered.
Larson came back after the War and things had changed. Returning G.I.’s had separation money from the government and they wanted to purchase homes, which were made very inexpensively.
“You (also) could buy a car for what one of these boats cost – and that was pretty luxurious,” said Mikkelson. “And people in Minnesota didn’t like the pretense of driving around in a big, fancy boat. People would think, ‘Who does he think he is; he must be charging too much for what he does.’”
Still, the company kept producing boats. Their design and shape changed as technology, particularly with the outboard motors, advanced. According to Mikkelson, Larson was the first Johnson engine dealer in the state. Every boat that was purchased from Larson came with a motor built by the Wisconsin based engine company. “It always came with a Johnson motor unless you told them – insisted on – a different motor. If you were going to buy it they’d put any motor you wanted on it.” Similarly with any other bell or whistle a customer wanted on the boat.
"If you told Larson Boats, ‘I’ll buy it if you have seat cushions’, they’d have the salesperson take you to the Black and White Café down in Little Falls and buy you a $.35 cheeseburger and a cup of coffee,” said Mikkelson. “And by the time you got back there would be seat cushions on the boat. Their whole life was built around getting that boat sold. They didn’t care if they sold a light or a horn, but if you would buy a boat that had a light or a horn, then it had it. They didn’t let you leave town until you were ready to leave with the boat.”
Over the years the company had its trials and tribulations and
they had their money problems. It started as a family-owned operation,
predominantly run by Paul Larson, but other brothers worked in the business. The
company changed hands over the years, being sold to Brunswick (bowling balls)
then to a bunch of bankers. It came back to the family for a while before being
purchased by its current owner, Irwin Jacobs, who owns about 16 other boat
At first, Larson boats were only made in Little Falls so they were very regional, mostly Minnesota. They then expanded and built a plant in Georgia, in Canada and on the West Coast.
For many years, boat companies were a cottage industry in Minnesota. Mikkelson estimates that there may have been around 50 in the Gopher State over the years. With boats becoming mass-produced and cheaper, Larson was reconciled to making boats out of fiberglass. It wasn’t much longer until they made boats out of aluminum as well.
“He (Paul Larson) found out that he could make one of those wooden Falls Flyers or he could make six of these,” said Mikkelson, refering to the fiberglass hull. “Suddenly economics made it impossible to keep making them out of wood, because other manufacturers were making them out of fiberglass. And you couldn’t compete if you didn’t follow suit.”
Extensive Toy Boat Collection
In addition to his life-sized boats, Mikkelson’s museum includes one of the most extensive “public” collections of toy boats in the country. “There may be larger private collections,” he said. “But I don’t know of any that are open for the public to see.” All of the boats, which range from a few hundred dollars to $3,000 in price, are in working order. “To me, it has to run or I don’t want it. All of these toys work.”
Mikkelson started to get heavily involved in toy boats through Bob Speltz, who wrote the compendium of antique boats. Speltz was the organizer for the Real Runabouts Boat Show in Albert Lea. When Speltz’ health failed, he began to have toy boat shows. That’s when Mikkelson got involved. When Speltz passed away, the organizers of the event asked Mikkelson to take over.
“I didn’t say ‘no’ loud enough,” Mikkelson said. “I didn’t really want the job. 1995 started the toy boat show. Bob had done three shows. I took over the fourth show. That’s when I picked up most of my toy boats.”
The show moved to the Hopkins House in 1995 (the show wasn’t held last year as a result of ownership problems with the hotel).
“I spot them here and there – at flea markets and sales. I also have friends, whom I met through the toy boat shows; they’d call me and say ‘I found something’. You see, I’m an early-starter and I’m usually involved in an endeavor that’s doing something.”
His various collections are an example of just that.
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