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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 ever since." However a U. S. Bureau of Fisheries publication dated 1919 shows the term "john boat" was in use long before this.

The boats were known to native Ozarkers as "jack boats" in earlier years when they burned "jack" pine knots in a metal basket for nighttime fishing or gigging, and that, too, may have been a source of the johnboat name.

Where other builders used wood supports in the interior of their johnboats, Charlie Barnes used iron. "The interior of the boat, to make supports, you had scrap iron," Bill says. "Some of it was made from old buggy wheels. Dad would go to blacksmith shops and find things to get his iron. They come up the side of the boat so far, across the bottom and up the other side to support the gunwales."

All of Charlie's boat work was done with hand tools, and Bill says his father was choosy about the lumber he would use to build boats. Charlie needed three 20-foot-long boards for the bottom of his boats and two 20-footers for the sides. One of David Barnes' clippings notes that Charlie remembered the days when he could build a johnboat with $3 worth of materials.

"Those boats were so easy to handle on the water," Bill says, "it was amazing." One old timer said of the boats, "There's nothing quite like `em." The amount of "rake," or upward curve on the front of the boats depended on what the boat would be used for. A fishing boat had more rake; a commissary boat, full of tents and equipment, less.

And even though black tar was melted and put on the tongue-and-groove seams on the bottom of the boat, the boats had to sit awhile in the water to seal. They sometimes leaked a bit, but Charlie Barnes put duckboards on the bottom of the boats so his clients feet wouldn't get wet.

Charlie bought a Model T Ford, a used one, about 1915. He later bought a new car in Kansas City and drove it back to Galena. He was so taken with the automobile that he became a Ford dealer. David Barnes has a photo of the Ford garage in Galena. Bill remembers, "That was his first garage that he rented on the west side of the square in Galena. Later we built our own building on the east side."

Bill and his brother David (young David's father) were auto mechanics in the garage. "At one time," Bill says, "the cars were shipped stripped down, and we had to assemble them. Model A's came along and dad took me to Kansas City with him to drive one home. After that, I went for the new ones on my own." Bill remembers fishing with his dad quite a bit in those days. "Sometimes we'd close the garage for the afternoon and make a half day float back down to Galena. I had the nickname of Dick ... my name is really Bill ...he'd say `Dick, don't you think we ought to take the afternoon off and go floating?' Other times we would wait until the end of the day and we would go out camping and trotlining at night."

While an auto dealer, Charlie Barnes was also in the float trip business, and he continued to build boats for his own use. "He was busy from the first of June through October," Bill says. "He not only took people himself, but he had a list of guides who would take floats. Fishermen came from Kansas City, Springfield, St. Louis, Joplin, Wichita, Tulsa and even Chicago." Bill remembers moving a car for some people from Canada - the steering wheel was on the wrong side of the car.

The National Geographic article notes, "With Charlie Barnes 39 years a White River guide if you cast all day and never got a strike, that broke his heart." A Kansas City Star article, in later years, said, "The 78 year-old Barnes had a special hankering ... since the age of eight he has probably spent more time than anyone else on the White and James rivers with float fishing his main purpose. As for the johnboat he's no doubt the world's number one authority; all he did was introduce it to the Ozarks some 58 years ago."

Bill says his father's float trip business extended all the way to Arkansas. "It was about a week on the James and White rivers from Galena to Branson, and a two-week float trip to Cotter, Arkansas," Bill says. "In the early days they would get quite a number of boats accumulated, and they had a deal with the Missouri Pacific Railroad to put them on flat cars and bring them back home." Trucks and trailers were later used to haul the johnboats, the clients and all the equipment back to Galena.

Barnes' guests traveled in comfort in the flat-bottomed boats. "You didn't have to worry about them tipping over," David Barnes says. "The pictures show people standing up fishing and they had no trouble at all. The boats only had two seats ... they used folding director's chairs for the other seats." David Barnes does remember a story from his childhood about cowboy-movie star Gene Autry falling out of one of the boats. Other entertainers who were clients included Forrest Tucker, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Gene Autry sidekick Smiley Burnett.

Of the hundreds of people who Charlie Barnes took down the Ozark rivers, one suspects that some were not fun to be with, but Bill Barnes says that his dad knew how to handle them. "He was not a man of many words," Bill says. "If he had complaints you didn't know it ... very likely he said nothing."

Charlie Barnes furnished everything necessary for camping on a float trip. He not only built his own boats, he made all of the other necessary equipment, including tents, for taking people on a one- or two-week trip.

"Grandpa built a big box they took on floats, and they filled it with ice to keep food and drinks cold," David Barnes says. "He made camp stoves that you could set over a camp fire, and a griddle that had legs. They slept on cots. Grandpa said if it was cold, they would take a lantern and turn it down real low, and put it underneath the cot and put covers over it ... he said you could keep as warm as could be."

The White and James river valleys were "awfully pretty country in those days," David Barnes says. It's not hard to visualize the long green boats drifting on the White River on hot, cloudless days, turkey buzzards turning circles on updrafts as fishermen cast wooden plugs from their director's chairs for smallmouth bass. The fish were scrappy and fun to catch; the fish were also good to eat, if Charlie Barnes, who had a reputation as a good gravel bar chef, had anything to do with them. "He was a great cook," Bill says. If the floaters got tired of eating fish, the guides shot a squirrel or bought a couple of chickens from a farm along the river.

Barnes' agility with wit and frying pan was illustrated in a newspaper story by Branson outfitter Jim Owen. "Charlie Barnes, one of the best guides I ever had, was the commissary man and cook on this party. He was hunkered down over the open fire cooking pancakes and a woman member of the fishing party stepped up to watch. When she saw the size of the pancake she told Charles, `I just want two.' This stopped Charlie, and after giving it some thought, he looked up and said, `Lady, they only come in threes!'"

Barnes didn't limit himself to the James and White rivers. He also took people on float trips on the Current, Jacks Fork and North Fork rivers. "He had guides on hold when he needed them," Bill says, "in Galena, Cape Fair, Reed Springs ... different places, he had guides he could call on." People loved the trips, some of them coming back year after year. One manufacturing company in Kansas City brought a group to Galena for float trips every year, so many people it took up to 15 boats to accommodate them.

In 1932, saying he wanted to spend more time fishing and floating, Charlie Barnes closed his Ford dealership and retired. He and his wife moved to Branson, and Charlie began building johnboats for outfitter Jim Owen, a local celebrity and one-time mayor of Branson who could put up to 35 boats on the White River at one time. A carved plaque on display in the museum at the College of the Ozarks notes that Owen brought float tripping "to its highest degree of perfection."

A quote often attributed to Jim Owen was that, "If you were too busy to go fishing, you were just too busy!" The guides who worked for Owen, people like Charlie Barnes and his son David, made $3 a day at a time when floaters paid $5 to $12 per day for the trip. Later, when Owen's clientele included the wealthy, he provided the best food and drink, and a float trip for a small party for five days could cost several hundred dollars. The guides' wages rose to $10 a day.

Jim Owen may have been the top float outfitter in the Ozarks, but he was no craftsman. "Dad was building his boats and Jim decided he was going to help dad." Bill says "He got a new pair of overalls, went down to where dad was putting a boat together - it was just about completed - and dad gave him a paint brush and said, `You can paint this boat.' By the time the boat was thoroughly painted, so were the new overalls. "He didn't come back the next day," Bill says with a broad smile.

Both David's father and his uncle Bill eventually moved to Kansas City, where David worked for an airline and Bill maintained a fleet of school buses. The younger David was born in Kansas City, but he has memories of visiting his grandparents in Branson, often spending summers there. His sister was born there. His scrapbook includes two letters and a Christmas card from Jim Owen, and a post card from the old White River Hotel, once a Branson landmark.

Charlie Barnes left his mark on the Ozarks. One of his boats is on display, with a collection of fishing lures and tackle, at the museum at the College of the Ozarks in a building that includes exhibits of Rose O'Neill's Kewpie dolls and memorabilia from the Ozark country music scene. A picture in this display also shows Charlie Barnes and a woman standing next to a sign that says "Boats - Guides - Bait." Charlie is not identified in this picture, nor is the johnboat attributed to him. David and his family were surprised to find a picture of Charlie cooking on a gravelbar fire, on a table top in a restaurant in the Bass Pro Shop's store in Springfield, but it too, lacks his name.

Charlie Barnes, the inventor of the Ozark johnboat, died in Branson in 1964. Will he be forgotten? Not likely. "To this day we keep being surprised by finding his name or picture in books," David Barnes says. Charlie Barnes is gone, and the White River lies sleeping beneath a series of reservoirs, but as long as David and his family care, Charlie Barnes' name, and his carefully crafted boats, will be among the legends of the Ozarks.

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