The Canoe Artistry of Joe Seliga (1911—2005)
And the inspiration of B. N. Morris

by Jeff Dean
Co-Founder, Wooden Canoe Heritage Association

Posed on rocks of the Canadian Shield of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the photograph below is a 17-foot wood-and-canvas canoe Joe Seliga built in 1982 for my wife, Jill, and myself.

Joe Seliga was born April 11, 1911, to Steve and Anna (Vasko) Seliga in Ely, Minnesota, and graduated from Ely Memorial High School. Seliga was inspired by the Morris canoes, which were built by B.N. Morris of Veazie, Maine from 1887 to 1920. As a child, his family owned two Morris canoes, 15-feet and 18-feet long. His first experience in canoe construction came when his family's 18-foot canoe was severely damaged, requiring twenty-one new ribs and a new cover. Seliga built his first canoe form and completed his first canoe in 1938, which he immediately sold.

Seliga built canoes from before World War II until his death at the age of 94, only stopping from 1942 to 1945, when he was forced to work as a miner. He worked in the Zenith Mine and at Reserve Mining. Over his career, he built 621 canoes, 237 of which were sold to the YMCA and church camps which used the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Quetico Provincial Park.

Seliga's wife, Nora, also assisted in building canoes.

In Jerry Stelmok's wonderful book, The Art of the Canoe with Joe Seliga, Sam Cook's foreword reads:

They are tucked away all over the north country. Hung care­fully in garages. Resting on beams in boathouses. Stowed away in sheds. Seliga canoes. Elegant, practical canoes crafted by the hands of Joe and Nora Seliga. Seligas, with their gleaming ribs the color of honey Seligas, with their perfectly upswept bows. Seligas, built for the rigors of travel in the Minnesota-Ontario border country.
And these gorgeous canoes are not found just in the canoe country. They've been tied on roof racks and hauled home to Illinois and Indiana and the East Coast, there to roost until those who own them make the pilgrimage back to Ely, back to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, where a Seliga was meant to be paddled. And you can bet, every time those paddlers in far-flung reaches of the country go out to the garage to get in the car or retrieve a rake, they look up at their Seligas and almost hear the cry of a loon.

I do not know how many canoes Joe Seliga has built [he built 621]. That doesn't matter. It was never a numbers thing with Joe. It was a matter of getting the right materials and taking the time to build a boat he was satisfied to put his nameplate on. I can remember standing in his modest garage on Pattison Street in Ely, talking to Joe, with an almost-finished Seliga resting on carpeted sawhorses nearby. It might have just needed stem bands, or maybe a light sanding and another coat of varnish. You could almost imagine the person who had been waiting for that canoe. You could imagine how much it was going to mean the day that paddler drove north, walked in, and saw his finished craft. You could see him, running a hand over it, shooting the breeze with Joe, and finally driving off, the canoe lashed on top of his rig. That would be a good day.

Below: Joe in 1982 working on a new canoe in his East Pattison Street shop, a converted cinder-block garage, in Ely.

I met Joe a few times. In 1982 Jill and I, as had many before and after us, made the pilgrimage to Ely to meet Joe and Nora and pick up a new Seliga canoe, which is illustrated at the top of this page. He was a charming and friendly man with a perpetual twinkle in his eye. Nora was warm and inviting and brought us into her kitchen to enjoy coffee and her incredible baked goods.

Out back, in his canoe shop, the smell of cedar permeated the air and Joe's canoe form dominated the space. You know when you are in the presence of a master builder, as we were, but Joe's humility and humor were completely disarming.

The last time I saw Joe was a few years ago at an assembly of the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association at Paul Smith's College in New York. He was over 90 years old then, and still an active canoe builder. Indeed, he seemed to me to be little older than he was in 1982 when was only 71. His hair was still largely brown, and the twinkle in his eye was as bright as ever. He was surrounded by admiring wooden canoe lovers. Amazingly, he still remembered me. Joe was a very special man.

The influence of B. N. Morris

Joe was originally inspired as a youth by the beautiful lines of two B. N. Morris canoes owned by his father.

The photo below is of a restored Model B, Type 2, 16-foot Morris canoe — with closed gunwales and deck coaming — that was built in 1910.

So important was the Morris influence that author Jerry Stelmok included a section on Morris in his book about Joe. Here is a part of that section:

Maine's Penobscot River, especially the stretch between Old Town and tidewater at Bangor, is recognized as the cradle of wooden canoe manufacturing. E. H. Gerrish launched the wood-and-canvas canoe industry from his Bangor shop in the Iate-I870s. In the Old Town area, both E. M. White and Guy Carlton had head starts on an eventual giant, Old Town Canoe, which would quickly dominate the business. However, in the eyes of many aficionados, the finest of all the early wood-and-canvas canoes were manufactured in the little town of Veazie, exactly midway between the two better known cities, by the B. N. Morris Canoe Company.

The graceful appearance, shapely lines, and impeccable workmanship were what made a Morris canoe special. Most were built for use as pleasure craft, as opposed to the more utilitarian design built primarily for guides, fisherman, and foresters. The leisure canoe clubs that flourished in the East placed a premium on craft that featured sweeping sheerlines, high ends, and narrow entries, yet were wide and stable enough to keep from shipping water or flipping if an amorous couple aboard got to shifting around as darkness fell. Fancy paint jobs, often with gold-leaf filigree, were also popular.

The exact date the B. N. Morris Canoe Company started appears to have gotten earlier each time the company put out a new brochure, but it's not impossible that it was launched as early as 1887, when founder Bert Morris was just 21 years old. Morris' talent and business acumen were well developed for such a young man, and by 1910 he had 35 employees in a large, wood-framed factory that had already been enlarged twice. By 1920 ... 75 em­ployees worked at the plant; that same year, a tragic fire leveled most of the uninsured facility, bringing large-scale production of the popular canoes to a premature halt. Arson was suspected but never proven.

Since Bert Morris could either not afford or was unwilling to rebuild (or both), most of his experienced craftsmen found jobs with other area canoe factories. His foreman, Walter Grant, went to work for the Kennebec Canoe Company in Waterville, Maine, and Old Town Canoe bought much of the material that escaped the flames. Bert did some work for Old Town and also set up a one-man shop near hisVeazie home, where he continued to build a limited number of designs to special order.

Morris died in 1940 at age 74, having made a big splash in the canoe industry at a very young age. After the fire, however, he lived out his life in a respectable and quiet manner. Many of his company's lovely canoes have survived to this day, and are eagerly sought by collectors.

Contemporary Builders of Wood-and-Canvas Canoes

Faithful reproductions of Morris canoes are made today in Maine by Rollin Thurlow at the Northwoods Canoe Company. New Morris models are made both in 17-foot and 15-foot versions. Scale model Morris canoes are available in 8'-6" and 4'-3" lengths.

The photo below shows a half-size modern Morris made at Northwoods Canoe to replicate the full-size 1910 Morris in the photo above above.

Island Falls Canoe Co., Atkinson, Maine, owned by master canoe builder Jerry Stelmok. “Experience the grace and beauty of a custom built wood and canvas canoe from Island Falls Canoe! We have been building canoes since 1975 and with twenty different models and lots of beautiful options we can build the perfect canoe for your paddling pleasure.” Island Falls now builds wooden canoes for Old Town Canoe Co. under contract.

Right: An Island Falls E. M. White 18'-6" canoe in Madison, Wisconsin.