Tucked off of Highway 25 in Travelers Rest, in a nondescript brown warehouse, a few men handcraft some of the nation’s finest canoes. I have difficulty finding the building, expecting a brightly colored sign, a showroom, something to scream Merrimack Canoes made here! I don’t notice the building until a second drive-by.
“Hi! I’m Andy!” Locals know Merrimack owner Andy O’Mara as a prominent fixture in the TR community, first for relocating the canoe company from Tennessee, and, second, for founding the artisanal Sidewall Pizza Company in the old tire building on Main Street.
Once inside, I meet Nathan Mimms, composite specialist, who tightly weaves nylon for a canoe seat. Further in, I meet woodworker (and sculptor by trade) Waylon Bigsby, who adheres black cherry to a composite hull.
Boutique Boats // The Merrimack Canoe Company of Travelers Rest handcrafts canoes from modern composite materials reinforced with ribs made from sustainable woods. Each boat is unique, built as heirlooms and made for water.
O’Mara shows me the difference wood-framing makes. Previously flexible and pliable, the hull takes shape and strength as soon as the wood is attached. I admire the subtle beauty of a white ash yoke waiting to be applied.
“Obviously, we are not an assembly line,” says O’Mara, who bought the company from third-generation canoe craftsman Randy Pew four-and-a-half years ago.
O’Mara leads me over to a finished canoe, the Souhegan, and points out Mimms’s, Bigsby’s, and operations manager Jason Kusak’s signatures inside the hull and a solid brass medallion affixed to the cherry deck: finishing touches that epitomize the quality in every Merrimack canoe.
“It’s gratifying to see that [he points to spools of fabric and lengths of locally harvested wood] turn into this,” O’Mara says. “There’s nothing like seeing a customer’s expression when he first sees his boat.”
The canoes are not just beautiful; they are equally designed for optimal function. As one customer said, “[Merrimack] makes a canoe that could rightly become a museum piece. But it’s not too precious to launch, nor be defiled if dinged.”
The company has been around since 1954 when founder L.H. Beach had the idea to reinforce a thin fiberglass hull with wood ribs. Today, the canoes are crafted in a similar process, using modern composite materials and sustainable woods.
The crew constructs only 120 canoes each year, and they aren’t interested in boosting production for the sake of profit or market share.
“We don’t just build canoes,” O’Mara reiterates. “We craft family heirlooms.”
Perhaps it’s fitting that the Merrimack building doesn’t flag cars from the road with flashy signage, and instead sits unassuming, the folks inside quietly preserving a tradition worth saving.