Hook, Line & Drifter

Cisco Teran, a boat welder with Willie Boats, works on a drift boat. Photo by Jamie Lusch

After spending the first three months of 1971 cutting and welding the first aluminum driftboat in his Medford shop, fishing guide Willie Illingworth launched it into the Rogue River for a maiden voyage that would change Northwest history.

The boat handled like a dream — far lighter and more maneuverable than the clunky, rot-prone wooden driftboats that were the standard for Northwest river anglers at the time.

"When we took the boat down there, I figured its time was ready," Illingworth told the Mail Tribune in 2007, shortly before his death at age 64. "After I put it in the water and took three (oar) strokes, I thought it was past due."

Illingworth's eureka moment was the touchstone for a multimillion-dollar boat-building industry that still is centered in the Rogue Valley, thanks largely to the man known throughout the Northwest boating and fishing world as "Willie."

"When it comes to driftboats, Willie's the man," says Jim Bittle, president of Willie Boats in Medford. "There wouldn't be anything around here, in terms of driftboat manufacturing, without him.

Even Illingworth's design was an adaptation of sorts.

Before metal, river rats like Illingworth rowed wooden, whitewater driftboats designed for use on the McKenzie River near Eugene.

With a high bow, low transom and steep curves, the boat was perfect for swift, shallow waters where maneuverability is important and a short draft is a must.

The oarsman sat in the middle, rowing against the current to pivot and steer the boat through rapids and around rocks between fishing holes on Western salmon streams. Fishermen sat up front, side-by-side.

But the wooden boats were bulky, easily sunk and constantly in need of repair.

Thinking aluminum would be better, Illingworth asked legendary wooden-boat builder Glenn Wooldridge to build him one.

Wooldridge declined, so Illingworth decided to build his own.

He had no money, no welder, no welding experience and only one hand because of a childhood explosives accident.

But he charmed Jim Parsons, an Ashland mill owner and regular fishing client, into advancing him $4,000 — enough to build six boats — and Alumaweld was born.

"He sold one a week for the first year because it took him a week to make one," Bittle says.

Aluminum, McKenzie-style driftboats are found throughout North America now. Though driftboat companies operate in Eugene and Idaho, the Medford area still maintains the strongest concentration of aluminum driftboat and powerboat builders.

During its pre-recession peak in March 2008, 184 people worked in seven local boat shops and earned an average annual wage of $35,456 — slightly above the average of other industry-related jobs here, according to Guy Tauer, the regional economist who does workforce and economic research for the Oregon Employment Department in Medford.

At the height of the industry here, Rogue Community College even offered technical courses in how to weld for the boat-building industry.

By 2009, six companies employed just 96 workers, but that doesn't count the oar companies, trailer builders and other businesses that cater to the builders.

Employment has been steadily increasing, with 135 employees among nine boat-building companies in Jackson County during the third quarter of 2012, Tauer says. They earned an average of $35,679 a year last year, which is lower than the nearly $41,000 average among all manufacturing jobs in the county, Tauer says.

Jackson County has nearly twice the concentration of boat-building companies as the rest of Oregon, and slightly less than that when compared to the rest of the country, employment statistics show.

"We certainly have a concentration of them," Tauer says.

And the hub remains Medford, where a man known within the sport-fishing world simply as "Willie" changed a sport and an industry 42 years ago.

"For powerboats, he was a little behind," Bittle says. "But for driftboats, he's the man."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

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