The Boat Builder From White River

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Published on: Jun. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 21, 2010

The origin of the johnboat, the slender craft with the gently raised bow, is lost in pioneer times. Boat builders somehow made the jump from native pirogues, heavy shells hollowed out of logs, to graceful 20-foot boats built with long, clear boards sawn from old growth pine trees.

The late Charlie Barnes of Galena, an ardent floater, river guide and boat builder born in 1878, may or may not have invented the johnboat, but certainly he defined its form on the White River. Barnes probably built over 500 of the boats in his lifetime. He guided large numbers of people from all over the United States on James and White river float trips. His clients included industrialists and movie stars. He lived in an era that ended forever in the 1950s, when the gates closed on Bull Shoals and Table Rock dams. Though Barnes is gone and his wooden boats are only a memory, he lives on in the bright imagination of David Barnes of Lee's Summit. David is Charlie's grandson, and he is an avid collector of anything relating to his grandfather. He will quickly show visitors a scrapbook of magazine articles and photos and a model of one of his grandfather's boats that he built himself.

The clippings come from sources as varied as National Geographic, the Kansas City Star and Life Magazine. David Barnes' best resource, though, is not in the yellowed columns of news clippings, but the living and breathing form of his 86-year-old uncle, Bill Barnes, one of Charlie Barnes' sons.

Several of the clippings in David's scrapbook suggest Charlie Barnes invented the johnboat in 1904. According to Bill, "The way he started on these johnboats is that he lived on a farm near Galena, and it was only a short distance from the farm to the James River. They decided it was easier to catch fish out of a boat, so they built their first boat."

David says the boat may have gotten its name many years later when a writer asked Charlie - who was hard of hearing - what kind of a boat he was looking at. Charlie thought he asked who the boat belonged to, and told him it was "John's boat." A clipping from a boat builder's annual magazine says, "The famous sports writer and author Robert Page Lincoln, who frequently floated with Charlie, gave the craft the name johnboat, a name it has carried

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