Larson Boats: A Little Falls fixture for 100 years

A loyal community supports company through many challenges

By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer

A boat is being born at Larson Boats in Little Falls, one of countless numbers produced in 100 years. Marty Nooter, left, and Bob Billig are preparing to inject a virtual engineered composite (VEC)-made hull. The VEC is a patented process which was started at Larson Boats in 2000.

Little Falls Chamber of Commerce President Deb Boelz remembers a school field trip she took as a second-grader from Rice. It included two local attractions: the Lindbergh House and Larson Boats.

“I was all dressed up for the field trip, as we used to do, and I remember walking right by the people spraying the fiberglass on the boats,” she said. “We all thought it looked like cotton candy and we touched it.”

Larson Boats has been a fixture in Little Falls for generations of people who grew up in the area, or moved here later in life, and is this year celebrating its 100th anniversary.

“It’s one of the major employers in town,” said Carol Anderson, executive director of Community Development of Morrison County. “Generations of families have worked there.”

“People working at Larson Boats had a financial foundation on which to build good homes, raise large families and send their kids to college,” said Boelz.

Company founder Paul Larson grew up on a farm on the outskirts of Little Falls. He built his first boat at age 11, a scow he could use while fishing.

At age 19, he designed and built a duck hunting boat. Other hunters and fishermen saw the boat and asked him to make them one just like it — and he did.

It was the profits from a winter of trapping which afforded him the opportunity to buy a woodworking machine in 1915. The increase in business allowed him to build his first boat works on the east bank of the Mississippi River.

Larson Boats continued to grow until 1930, when an inventory of 75 boats needed to be carried over. Larson’s bank turned him down for a loan, but he was rescued by the Little Falls Board of Commerce. They persuaded another local bank to make the loan.

“Paul Larson never forgot the loyalty and help he received from the Little Falls business leaders. Later, when he received generous offers from other towns with special incentives to expand manufacturing facilities in their areas, he steadfastly refused the temptations and loyally kept his boatbuilding company in Little Falls,” stated a Larson Boats 75th anniversary commemorative pamphlet.

That was just the beginning of a partnership between the city of Little Falls and Larson Boats.

When the Larson plant was destroyed by fire in 1949, Larson and his workers rebuilt the facility just in time for the boating boom of the 1950s and the advent of fiberglass.

When the plant began to burst at the seams during the boom years, Larson told friends on the Industrial Development Committee about a very lucrative offer he had received from a nearby city.

The city of Little Falls quickly arranged for the sale of property on the west side of the river to Larson for a new plant. In a matter of days the Committee raised thousands of dollars to build a plant which was leased back to Larson.

The company changed hands to Brunswick for three years in the early 1960s, but Larson and a group of associates bought it back. “It was the reputation of Paul Larson that would bring the company back to prominence,” said the 75th anniversary booklet.

“Paul Larson was committed to his company — and he was also committed to Little Falls. Through good times and bad times his devotion to Little Falls was very apparent,” said Mayor Cathy VanRisseghem.

In 1977, following Paul Larson’s retirement, an investment group led by Irwin Jacobs bought Larson Boats and several other companies, gathering them into one corporation.

In 1985, Larson Boats purchased the former Munsingwear facility across the road from the plant. When the largest factory expansion in its history was planned in 1987, the city of Little Falls helped accommodate the additions by relocating Paul Larson Memorial Drive so that it no longer bisected the Larson Boats property.

Al Kuebelbeck started with Larson Boats in 1969, and has worked with Irwin Jacobs since Jacobs’ group purchased Larson Boats in 1977. Kuebelbeck worked at the Crestliner plant for about 15 years, but came back to Larson when Crestliner was sold.

“While at Crestliner, I was still part of the same corporation,” said Kuebelbeck. “I’ve worked with Irwin Jacobs since the 1970s.”

Larson Boats’ parent company, Genmar, faced bankruptcy in 2010 and it was Irwin Jacobs and John Paul Degoria who purchased Larson Boats and kept it in Little Falls.

“We helped them finance that purchase,” said Anderson. “They were able to do that with loans from the city of Little Falls, the Initiative Foundation, the state of Minnesota and Region 5 Development Commission.”

In 2011, Larson Boats bought the Triumph Company, part of Genmar which had been closed and sitting empty for over a year after the bankruptcy. “They dismantled the equipment, transported it all, built an addition in Little Falls tall enough to use, and reassembled everything,” Anderson said.

Kuebelbeck is proud to be a part of Larson Boats. “After many years, it becomes a part of me — a way of life,” he said. “We look to the future and the business growing. We will get more than our market share and things will pick up and take off.”

The Triumph motto is “Here to stay.” They are being introduced in Canada, where there is tremendous opportunity with fishing camps. “They far outlast aluminum and fiberglass,” Kuebelbeck said. “There is a whole new market for Triumph.”

Kuebelbeck tells of people who were laid off who still call. They have found new employment, but want to make sure he knows that if there is an opening, they would like to be called to come back.

“We’re moving ahead into the next 100 years,” said Kuebelbeck. “We have nothing without good people. The Little Falls area people are dedicated through good and bad and we want to treat them right.”

A file is kept on all laid-off employees and Kuebelbeck hopes that the opportunity arises that some of those people can be brought back into the Larson Boats work force.

“You don’t see a lot of companies lasting 100 years,” said Anderson. “But through the Great Depression, and this great recession — Larson Boats is still here.”

“Through the years, Little Falls has been a great supporter of Larson Boats and Crestliner,” said VanRisseghem. “They knew by doing so, Larson Boats would stay in Little Falls and prosper — which they did — making Little Falls the ‘Small Boating Capital of the World.’”