Ray Hightower proudly sits in his 17-foot, custom-made wooden White River fishing boat. He built it from scratch in 1981 and did a resurrection-rebuild of the craft in 2014. It is a clone of early twentieth century White River commercial fishing boats.
Sunday, October 25, 2015
Pine Buff, Arkansas
In 1981 auctioneer, skydiver, and consummate good ol’ boy Ray Hightower decided he wanted to build a boat like the ones his father used back in the day to catch White River catfish around Gillette, Arkansas. Through back and forth self-argument regarding length, he settled on 17 feet. The fact that he had some cypress planks that would make a 17-foot hull were probably the tipping point for his decision.
Look Closely and You Might Find a Tool Room.
Here’s a closer look at Ray Hightower and his craft. Since the vessel is a work in progress, he carries a virtual tool room with him for his trips.
“A scavenger came on our place in 1957 and cut down an old-growth cypress just to get the honey from a bee hive in the tree,“ Hightower said with a disapproving snort. Though miffed at the tree-transgression, the practical-minded Hightowers had the tree cut into lumber. By 1981, Hightower figured the planks that were left had seasoned long enough, so he went to work building the boat.
The big cypress planks made the sides. Other parts of the boat were oak, maple and plywood. Asked if he had plans for constructing the boat, he allowed as how “it came from memory.” His memory must have been on the spot because the boat has the look and feel of the original White River boats.
Looks Like a Johnboat
Hightower's boat shows the distinctive and highly favored johnboat appearance.
As he remembers it, power for the boats of his father's day came from Motorgo Marine Engines. He found a one-cylinder, water-cooled, four-horsepower Motorgo that would do the trick. The engine hooks to the propeller shaft via a universal joint. The brass propeller is three-bladed.
A Favorite for Small Craft
Motorgo Marine Engines were a definitive favorite for small craft in the early years of the twentieth century.
When he finished the boat, just for grins, he took it on a 100-mile trip along the Arkansas River from Murray Lock and Dam in Little Rock to the mouth of Big Bayou Meto downstream. Between then and 2014, the history was not plain, but in that year, Hightower's boat-building came out of hibernation and tickled his fancy to rebuild the boat which, with the exception of the cypress parts, were not much better than rotten splinters.
Enough Words to Go Around
Hightower provides a ready stream of information for a steady stream of curious admirers of his boat and handily fields a plethora of questions. As a former auctioneer, being at a loss for words is never a problem. It appears that the complete exhaust system is a length of custom bent two-inch galvanized pipe.
Going into turbo mode, rebuilding the craft took about three months. When he was ready to fire the motor up, he observed that a sin of omission quickly became a stumbling block for the time when the engine would again pop and sputter. “After I stopped using the first boat, I neglected to put a few drops of oil on top of the piston.” As a result, the engine was frozen. Despite that unfavorable condition, he managed to disassemble the engine and break a piston ring in the process.
The Maintenance Department
Here’s a closer look at the maintenance department of this craft. The black stuff along the bottom is roofing tar. Remember Moses’ baby basket coated with “tar and pitch?”
Luck was on Hightower’s side. He found a supplier that miraculously had rings for the old motor. After that he had the ancient, noisy twirler twirling again. He made some short test runs and trips, and now assures his curious audiences that the boat dependably does what it is supposed to do.
From the Stern
Here’s a look at the stern where you can see the rudder and propeller. The outboard is a not-too-long-after-the-turn-of-the Century Scott-Atwater. Seems like Ray told me it was one-horsepower, but I won’t swear to it.
Ray Hightower enjoyed a steady stream of curious on-lookers giving his craft the once-over at the 2015 Grand Prairie Rice Festival in Hazen, Arkansas. He should probably name the boat “Tenacity,” after his determination to build it in the first place and then breathe life into its second-coming.
The 'Engine Room'
Here’s a look at the front of the “engine room.” The flywheel on the old engine looks like something I would avoid attempting to lift short of bodily harm threats.
A Closer Look from the Stern
Here’s a glance from the stern. Lighting conditions were not the best in the west, but you get the drift.
A Splash of Video
But wait, there's more —
See a good collection
of bits and pieces
of the rest of the 2015
Grand Prairie Rice Festival
in pictures and videos at Weekly Grist for the Eyes and Mind.
You’ll see a real hoot-owl, a running antique rice well engine taller than your house, a working antique threshing machine and more. Go forth, click and enjoy.
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