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Willie's Legacy

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

Instantly, 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. "After I put it in the water and took three (oar) strokes, I thought it was past due."

Illingworth's eureka moment is the touchstone for a multimillion-dollar boat-building business that still calls the Medford area its hub.

Despite taking huge hits in the lagging economy, Jackson County remains home to six companies that build at least some driftboats — along with aluminum powerboats — creating an industry that is 4.5 times more concentrated here than the statewide average, employment statistics show.

They all can trace their roots and designs to Illingworth, who formed Alumaweld in 1971 and later his Willie Boats line before dying of cancer in 2007.

"When you add them all up, there's a real cluster of businesses here," says Ron Fox, executive director of Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc. and a Willie Boat rower himself.

"Willie was clearly the one who came along and figured out how to go from a cedar plank or plywood driftboat to welded aluminum," Fox says. "Everything else is, basically, adaptations from that design."

Even Illingworth's design was an adaptation of sorts.

At the time, river rats like Illingworth rowed wooden, whitewater driftboats first designed for use on the McKenzie River near Eugene.

With a high bow, low transom and steep curves, the boat was perfectly designed for use in swift, shallow waters where maneuverability is a premium.

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.

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 set to build his own.

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

Aluminum McKenzie-style driftboats are found throughout North America now. Though pockets of driftboat companies exist in Eugene and more recently in Idaho, the Medford area still maintains its strong concentration of aluminum driftboat and powerboat building.

During its peak pre-recession employment in March 2008, 184 people worked in seven local boat shops and averaged an annual wage of $35,456, according to Guy Tauer, the regional economist who does workforce and economic research for the Oregon Employment Department in Medford.

That compares to 2008 average annual wage among all industry-related jobs here of $33,398, Tauer says.

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

By last September, employment had slumped to 100 jobs among six companies. But that doesn't count the oar companies, trailer builders and other businesses that cater to the builders.

And the hub remains Medford, where a man known within the sport-fishing world simply as "Willie" changed a sport and an industry one day 39 years ago.

"I'd blame it mostly on Willie," says Jim Bittle, now the president of Willie Boats.

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

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

Willie Boats employee Tony Shaw welds on an aluminum drift boat at the company owned by Willie Illingworth who invented the boat. Jim Craven 1/12/2007