The buildings on Greenpond Road sit back a leisurely distance from the asphalt pavement that snakes its way through the city of Fountain Inn. Were it not for a vivid crimson paint job, the structures might barely be noticeable amongst the cluster of wild shrubbery and imposing trees. Well, that and the small arsenal of watercraft lined out front.
Inside this makeshift workshop, Ralph Mitchell and his son Matt diligently construct their masterpieces. The father-son duo is the sole operator of Santee Boats, a fledgling company dedicated to preserving craftsmanship and tradition on the open water. With the delicate precision of a surgeon exacting the first cut, they coat a mold with layer after layer of berglass fabric, set with resin, shoot it with color, and wait. The floor is littered with shards of material, the air heady with the smell of chemicals mixed with summer humidity. It takes about a week’s worth of nine- to ten-hour shifts to complete one vessel, but according to Mitchell, the “hands-on process” is a cornerstone of the business.
All in the Family // Driven by a passion for making well-built skiff boats, Matt and Ralph Mitchell work diligently as the sole craftsmen of Santee Boats, based in Fountain Inn, SC.
“Some manufacturers start out small, and lose their sight as they expand. That’s when everything crumbles,” he explains. “Our passion is doing one thing really, really well instead of chasing dollars.”
Mitchell’s storage warehouse is rife with remnants of what he refers to as his “past stints”—the ears of a Bugs Bunny mold from days in the amusement park industry poke out from a cardboard box alongside a custom motorcycle tailpiece. But for a man who professes to have always “enjoyed being around boats,” the transition from a longtime career in berglass to the development of his own line seemed only natural. That, coupled with the necessity for smaller skiffs in a market dominated by expensive large-scale models, make up the origins of Santee Boats. When Mitchell’s son Matt decided to trade serving for seafaring, everything else fell into place.
“What I was looking to create was a product that was economically priced and could be used for anything from freshwater bass fishing to skimming the coastal marshes or casting shrimp nets in the deep ocean,” Mitchell says. “Our boats have that crossover quality.”
The Santee style, he continues, was conceived with the “active outdoor sportsman” (or woman) in mind, and can be tailored to the buyer’s specificities. Need a camo wrap for duck hunting? They can do that. Want a dock box for easy boat-side storage? Yep, they make those too. Although he admits his own fishing endeavors have since taken a backseat to the growing business, Mitchell is relishing the recent resurgence of enthusiasm for outdoor recreation in the Upstate.
“I think there was a time when the onslaught of computers and video games really ate into the outdoor industry,” he observes. “Now, with the economy picking back up, people are taking more of an interest in their boats and shing, which has been great to see.”
Hands On // Ralph Mitchell and his son Matt currently make two models, the Santee 160 with tiller steering and the Santee 160 Center Console. The boats are simple and functional, but exceptionally well made: one requires about a week’s worth of nine- to ten-hour shifts. Focus is on craftsmanship and customer specifications.
For now, the line comes in two iterations: tiller steering for increased speed and space, or the center console model for longer hauls. And don’t be deceived by the vessel’s canoe-like shape—the wide, rounded bottom provides more than enough stability and balance. Don’t believe it? Just check out the YouTube video of Mitchell’s son Matt steadfastly circling the boat’s edge with little more than a wobble.
Mitchell is already planning ahead for the future expansion of Santee Boats, with more varieties in design and dealers to move the product. The mechanics and technologies may change, but like the Santee—“people of the water”—from which the company derives its name, the passion for boating culture will remain a constant.
“Having access to water certainly makes boating more appealing, but it’s still something that’s big all across the country,” Mitchell says. “When my son and I visited the area around the Cooper River, he remarked that there were boats in nearly every driveway. Those are the people we’re trying to reach.”