How Two Rival Maine Canoe Makers Nursed a 50-Year Friendship

Jerry Stelmok and Rollin Thurlow started as partners and became competitors.

Jerry Stelmok and Rollin Thurlow
By Peter Van Allen
Photographed by Alberto Lopez
From our November 2021 issue

Jerry Stelmok and Rollin Thurlow might have been bitter cross-town rivals. They both make timeless wood-and-canvas canoes that typically sell for about $6,000 apiece, and they both have workshops a few miles apart in the 300-person Piscataquis County settlement of Atkinson. But they’re also old pals going back five decades, and neither has let work get in the way of friendship. “Having Rollin down the road has enhanced the experience,” Stelmok says. “When we were younger, the relationship was a little more competitive, but we managed to carve out separate specialties and were able to remain friends, which only strengthened over the years.”

He and Thurlow originally connected through their wives (in Stelmok’s case, his first wife). Then, in the early ’70s, they both ventured off to study boatbuilding at the Boat School, in Lubec. Major canoe companies were converting to fiberglass hulls, and this was the only wooden-canoe program of its kind. The two students soaked it up, and upon their graduation, the head of the school sold them his business, Island Falls Canoe.

The duo built a range of classic canoes, including designs from the E.M. White Canoe Company, a trailblazing Maine paddling brand that has been defunct since the ’40s. The process was painstaking — selecting the right cedar and hardwoods, steam-bending the wood, finessing the dimensions just so, smoothing the balky canvas hulls — but they found a growing audience for their work, with avid paddlers buying not only their canoes but also their books. Their 1987 volume, The Wood and Canvas Canoe: A Complete Guide, is still in print.

The ’70s kicked off a wooden-boat revival in Maine: in coastal Brooklin, WoodenBoat magazine’s first issue was published in 1974.

Over time, their interests started to split. While Stelmok gravitated toward new construction of classic styles, Thurlow found his niche in restoring old canoes. Then, in the early ’80s, they decided to part ways. Thurlow started Northwoods Canoe Co. in a post-and-beam workshop he built himself, and Stelmok kept on with Island Falls Canoe. Although both continued to do builds and restorations, their divergent interests kept any sense of rivalry at bay. Thurlow branched out into selling canoe parts and hardware. Stelmok, meanwhile, honed the artistic flourishes on his canoes and also acquired the rights to designs of discontinued Old Town wooden canoes. There were no hard feelings, they insist.

Rollin Thurlow
Jerry Stelmok

Occasionally, a customer mistakenly shows up at one shop thinking it’s the other — GPS is spotty in Atkinson — but neither minds sending someone off in the right direction. “We both have more work than we can handle, so there really has not been too much difficulty being so close together,” Thurlow says. They often talk shop and swap technical advice, and they still get together for dinners. “Our kids grew up together as best friends,” Stelmok adds, “so that was another plus.”

From our special “70 Over 70” feature, profiling dozens Mainers from all walks of life, all of them over 70 years old. Find a few “70 Over 70” stories here on the website, and pick up a copy of our November 2021 issue to read them all!