Rural Missouri Magazine

The APPLEBY Legacy
J.B. Appleby's aluminum boat compay
paved the way for a Missouri industry

by Jeff Joiner

J.B. Appleby stands with a group of employees as a load of new Appleby Boats is prepared for shipment. The company grew quickly in the 1960s until it was producing 60,000 boats a year by 1967 and became the world's largest aluminum boat maker.

There's little chance someone driving through Lebanon on Interstate 44 can miss the importance of the boat industry to the Missouri town.

The highway is lined with boat factories — Tracker Marine, Landau Boats, Generation 3 and Lowe Boats. Elsewhere around Lebanon is Osage Canoes and Sundancer Boats. It's easy to see why Lebanon is considered the aluminum boat capital of the world.

"It all started with J.B. Appleby and Appleby Boats," says Carl Lowe, founder of Lowe Boats and a member of Laclede Electric Cooperative, sitting across a kitchen table from his father-in-law, also a co-op member, who started the first boat manufacturing company in Lebanon in 1960. "Just about everything here sprang from that."

Appleby, now 84, thumbs through a thick scrapbook of photographs, newspaper clippings and colorful boat brochures documenting the amazing story of Appleby Manufacturing. In less than a decade the company grew to become the largest aluminum boat maker in the world and spawned an industry that today remains one of the largest in southern Missouri.

Missouri's aluminum boat industry got its start in the nearby town of Richland where Rich Line Industries manufactured a line of jon boats and a new pleasure boating phenomenon, the house boat.

Appleby went to work for Rich Line in 1955 and headed the sales department. Appleby traveled the Midwest and South selling Rich Line's all-aluminum boats. At the time aluminum was considered a revolutionary material for boats because of its durability and light weight. In 1959

Appleby left Rich Line and started his own company in Lebanon. In March of the next year he shipped his first load of 10-foot aluminum jon boats to Sears & Roebuck Company in Kansas City. From that day Appleby never looked back.

A 1964 ad for Appleby Boats which played on the company's speciality — small, affordable boats.

In its first year in business the fledgling company sold 1,300 boats. A year later it was producing more than 100 boats a day and by 1964 production had grown to 35,000 boats a year. Just six years after its creation the boating industry declared the company the world's largest maker of aluminum boats.

"My wife's father said at one time he thought we had too many boats," says Appleby. "He thought once everyone had one we'd be out of business."

"People would ask us, 'Where in the world are you shipping all those boats? It looks like everybody would have a boat by now,'" says Lowe, recalling the heady days at Appleby when production barely kept up with orders.

"J.B. was known for being able to sell," says Lowe, who married Diane Appleby in 1959 and went to work for his father-in-law as general manager. "Marketing was everything and that was his specialty."

Appleby's daughter followed in her father's footsteps and eventually took over the company's sales efforts and led the company to its record of more than 60,000 boats sold in 1967. The company found itself selling the right product at the right time. More people than ever found time on their hands and money in their pockets which led to the amazing growth of the sport fishing industry in the 1960s and '70s.

Appleby Boats was so successful that it attracted the attention of one of the country's largest manufacturing companies. Standard Industries of New York bought Appleby Manufacturing in 1964. Carl and Diane Lowe continued to operate the company under the Appleby name until 1971 when the couple left to create Lowe Boats in Lebanon. Standard Industries continued to make Appleby Boats in Lebanon until the mid-1970s when the company went bankrupt, taking the Appleby name with it.

Though the name existed for less than 20 years, the company and its founder left an indelible mark on Lebanon. When Appleby left Rich Line Industries he brought to Lebanon the skilled employees necessary to start a new boat company. And with the amazing success of Appleby Boats other entrepreneurs, including Carl Lowe, began building boat plants. Nearly all those early boat makers had ties to J.B. Appleby.

"We trained all of our own welders," recalls Lowe. "We started welding classes and if a guy wanted to learn he could work on his welding after work and the trained welders would help. Then he'd get good enough and pretty soon we'd put him on the line."

J.B. Appleby and his son-in-law, Carl Lowe, were in the boat building business together for nearly a decade before Lowe started his own company. Appleby started the first boat company in Lebanon in 1960.

Lowe says the boat plants were close-knit, family businesses where employees felt they had a stake in the success of the business. Both Appleby and Lowe credit their employees for helping make the boat industry so strong in Lebanon. The strength of the work ethic in the industry as well as the pool of skilled workers attracted company after company to Lebanon including the current record holder as the world's largest aluminum boat maker, Tracker Marine, a division of Bass Pro Shops.

Tracker opened its boat plant in Lebanon in 1982 and today employs 550 workers who make about 18,000 boats a year.

"We've got people here who've worked in the boating industry for 35 and 40 years, from the early days of Appleby," says Jim Rabe, manager of the Lebanon Tracker plant. "There's an experienced work force here and especially aluminum welders. These are guys that can take a sheet of aluminum and make a boat out of it whether it's a pontoon boat, a canoe or a bass boat."

Today nearly 2,000 people in Laclede County work in the boat building business including people who work for other companies that make parts for the boat plants. Those companies make electric components as well as boat seating and trailers. Most of the companies on the outskirts of town and in the county are served by Laclede Electric.

The legacy of Appleby and Lowe boats remains in Lebanon though family members are no longer in the business. Lowe sold his company to Outboard Marine Corporation in 1986 but he wasn't the last Lowe in Lebanon to make boats. Brent Lowe, Carl's son, started a boat plant named after his family's legacy — Generation 3. Brent Lowe sold G-3 Boats, as it's commonly called, in 1997.

The success of all the boat makers in Lebanon can be traced to a combination of a strong entrepreneurial spirit and just plain good luck.

Lowe says the Lebanon plants, beginning with Appleby, were coming on line at a time when sport fishing was entering a new age.

"We were fortunate enough at Lowe, and that's true for others, to hit a period when all these new lakes were opening up around the United States," says Lowe. "At the time at every sales meeting we ever had there would be talk of a lake opening in Kentucky or Texas or somewhere in the country."

Success can also be traced to the ideas of J.B. Appleby who developed a line of small, affordable aluminum boats that virtually anyone could buy. In 20 year's time more than 100,000 boats were sold.

Beginning with those early 10-foot "Car Top" boats, generations of boat buyers continued to buy the product that made Lebanon a boat building capital of the world.

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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