Humble Craftsmen, Visionary Builders — Hafer Boatworks


Over the beautiful, glistening waters of West Lake Okoboji, boats are a common view. Laughter and enjoyment abound from the varieties of boats gliding over the water. Even in the late 1800’s, boats were used for work and enjoyment throughout the Iowa Great Lakes.

Back in 1894, the Hafer family ventured to the Iowa Great Lakes area in hopes of finding work and establishing a new home. John Hafer was an exceptional carpenter and he quickly found work in the area. During the winter months, the humble man spent much time on his first love – building boats, something he had done when the family lived alongside the Missouri River in South Dakota. In 1896, John turned his energies on building boats year-round and opened a small boat works alongside East Lake Okoboji, near the swing bridge on Highway 9. His first boats were built upstairs in his home.

“As a boat was completed, John ‘launched’ it out through the home’s double windows and down skids to the ground,” Mary Kennedy, Curator of the Iowa Great Lakes Maritime Museum said. “It has been said that many residents of the ‘Iowa Great Lakes’ would have no other boat but a Hafer, whether it be a launch, sailboat or fishing boat.”

In 1906, John built a visionary speedboat that was considered one of the fastest in the Midwest for many years. Initially called the “White Flyer,” until “Senator” Francis bought it, the “Francis Flyer” would speed through the waters at a brisk 26mph – a record not to be broken for quite some time.

“She was 40’ long and 6’ wide and took my dad a whole month to build,” John’s son Glen wrote. “The Flyer was powered by a 55 hp, 4-cylinder engine called a Doman and tipped the scales at 2,160 pounds, 8” bore and 6” stroke.”

Glenn added how the engine parts were so heavy, at age eight, he couldn't lift one of the engine's connecting rods.

Hafer’s small row boats and fishing vessels were known for durability and quality craftsmanship. The row boats were stable and despite standing on the side gunwale, the boat wouldn’t tip over.

“Even today, these are some of the best row boats ever built,” Mary added.

When Hafer started crafting motorboats, John insisted on the same quality workmanship for his quick runabouts and long launches. He built each boat by hand, individually securing each board and pounding every nail with special care and technique. Each speed boat had a ¾-inch cedar strip for the hull and was topped with beautifully polished mahogany decks.

When John’s son Glen raced the Flyer, he’d let other boats take off and gain a lead. When they thought a win was inevitable and close to the finish line, Glen would ‘gun’ her and come racing across as the winner.

Glen grew up alongside his father, learning the craft from one of the best. The father and son pair would style their early boats after the Gar Fish, long and narrow. The first boats were heavy and tended to plow through the water. The Hafers built hundreds of 21’ to 24’ family launches,  designed with a double-end and styled similarly to other large excursion boats used at the time.

“Since they were pointed like a canoe on each end, the boats were said to slip through the water as effortlessly as a ‘jewel thief at a charity ball!’” wrote Glen. “The engines ran at a top speed of 550 revolutions per minute and were rated at about five horsepower.”

In 1953, John Hafer was awarded the Kiwanis "Citizen of the Year" award at the age of 89. The award was presented for his many volunteer services to the community. The Kiwanis members presented the award to Hafer's daughter, Mrs. John Webb.

Hafer served on the Spirit Lake School Board from 1910 to 1938, and at the time, was instrumental in the many improvements of the school facilities during and after his service on the board. He served as the architect and building inspector for the present high school structure and was responsible for much of the athletic equipment.

The high school football field was appropriately named "Hafer Field" in honor of John Hafer's contributions to the school and a Hafer boat still stands guard today at the south entrance, in honor of a hard-working, innovative craftsman.

The Hafer’s worked hard, and their dedication was known throughout the Iowa Great Lakes. Every year, the number of orders placed for Hafer boats steadily increased, and it wasn’t long before it was the only boat locals would consider owning.

Before long, the Hafers began building larger and more deluxe launches, ranging from 24’ to 36’ in length and included engines as large as 40 hp. In 1927, they started building a new type of boat—the runabout. This experimentation created all-mahogany speedboats of various lengths and horsepower.

“Some of these boats were powered by converted Mercury car engines. They were all hand built and would rival anything created by the major builders of the era,” Mary Kennedy shared.

During the family’s peak building periods in the winter, they employed an average of seven men. Hafer Boatworks would build 15 large motorboats and over 100 rowboats in a busy year.

Glen enjoyed racing Hafer Craft boats on the Midwest circuit from 1925 through 1944. Among his awards were five states championships in Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Nebraska. He had the pleasure of racing at the “World’s Fair.” Glenn wrote, "I was leading the whole pack, but I picked up a chunk of rope, in the propeller."

He added during the 1920s, “it was rare to see nothing but Hafer launches, row boats and outboards out on the lake.”

During World War II, the production of pleasure boats was prohibited. Many locals still used their Hafer crafts around the lake, when John reopened the boat works in 1945, but people were looking for new and improved. The family concentrated on building runabouts and worked day and night to complete 25 boats for that season. They also created innovative small 14’ inboard speedboats powered by 45 hp Gray engines that quickly became popular.

For over 70 years, Hafer Boatworks painstakingly crafted each boat by hand, rejecting easier techniques found on an assembly line to concentrate on the more trustworthy benefits of handmade craftsmanship.

"Hafer Boats weren't a mass-produced boat," wrote Glenn. He explained that the workers started from the bottom of the boat and worked up, individually fitting cedar strips to form the boat's hull. “Making a good Hafer Boat took both fine craftsmanship and materials. It was all hand-done and we used to rip the cedar strips with a rip saw," he explained. "The strips were 40 feet long in the old launches and the largest boats used 80 strips for each side. The hull was made of seasoned western cedar, and the frame from sturdy white oak."

Throughout Hafer Boatworks’s existence, each board was secured by nails and pounded in by hand. They made each of their own molds and casting for the boat’s metal pieces out of wood, whether wood or aluminum, steering rod or rudder—it was cast by hand.

“Their craftsmanship was second to none. You can talk to anybody around the lake, what they aspired to have was a Hafer runabout,” wrote former Captain of Queen II Steve Kennedy.

Hafer Boatworks closed its doors for good in 1968, and at the time, was one of the oldest industries in the Iowa Great Lakes. Still today, it isn’t uncommon to spot a highly crafted mahogany wooden boat making its way amongst the glistening waves or being showcased at the Antique and Wooden Boat Show in late July, along the docks of Arnolds Park Amusement Park. Hafer boats are truly a proud memento from the past this area still cherishes even today.

To view Hafer Boats in person, visit the Iowa Great Lakes Maritime Museum in Arnolds Park.