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History Afield: Duke's Outboards

Jim Montgomery

An outboard motor hung on the back of a well used fishing boat is an iconic symbol of summer in the Northwoods.  For years in the Northcentral Wisconsin lakes country of Oneida and Vilas counties, if someone had an outboard motor in need of repair, there was no question of where to take it - Duke’s Outboards.  Dukes was a Northwoods institution for more than 60 years. 

Duke Montgomery’s shop was easy to find—you followed the white arrow signs from the main highway to the Wisconsin River just north of Rhinelander—and anyone could tell you that if you brought your outboard to Duke Montgomery it would be fixed, and fixed right.

I had had the opportunity to visit with Duke and his wife, Dorothy late in their lives at an assisted living facility in Rhinelander. Though age and poor hearing made it difficult for Duke to communicate by that time, his passion for outboards was conveyed through his smile and shining eyes as he quietly told me about the early days.

Vernon “Duke” Montgomery was just nineteen years old and a recent high school graduate in 1934 when he started his Evinrude dealership and outboard repair business in the midst of the Great Depression.

Duke told me that his original shop - one of the first Evinrude dealerships in the area - was behind his father’s café in the old Commercial Hotel on Brown Street in downtown Rhinelander.  Smiling, he told me about throwing a small Evinrude over his shoulder and walking up and down Brown Street with it to promote his shop and the Evinrude product. “It was something different,” he said. “I was setting the trap and when people asked about it the trap was sprung.”

After two years at the Brown Street location, Duke moved the shop north of town to a location on the Wisconsin River’s Boom Lake, where he would have water access. It was there that Duke’s Outboards truly became a northwoods institution.

While Duke was gaining a reputation as an expert outboard mechanic, he still had a “day,” or rather, “night job” – working the graveyard shift at the Rhinelander paper mill.  Dorothy Montgomery told me: “He’d come home from work and immediately begin working on the outboards. He’d work all weekend too. People would come from a fifty-mile radius to bring their motors to Duke, and he put in very long hours to meet the demand.”

And the demand was growing - Duke was witnessing the development of a major American industry, an industry borne from Wisconsin resourcefulness and ingenuity.

“In the early years there was no real recreational market for outboards,” Duke said. “Outboards were used only for practical purposes, just by fishermen or duck hunters. The market didn’t take off until there was something the public was really looking for.”

According to Duke, this “something” was the development of shrouded, or covered, motors. The two outboard models introduced by Ole Evinrude in 1934—the Imperial versions of the 5.5-horsepower Lightwin and the 9.2-horsepower Lightfour—were the first truly shrouded outboards.

“This simply made the outboards look nicer,” Duke said. “People liked that.”

Through the years Duke worked on just about every type of American outboard made, and few knew an outboard motor as well as Duke. 

“One of my real favorites was the four-cylinder, 5.4-horsepower Zephyr,” Duke told me. “This had a nice running engine. It was made between 1940 and 1960.”

After devoting sixty-five years to the outboard motor business, age finally caught up with Duke and forced him to completely retire in 1999. Duke and Dorothy’s son, Jim Montgomery, who had learned the outboard business at his father’s side as a youth, took over the business from Duke. Jim carries on the Duke’s Outboards tradition of quality service from a new shop located not far from Duke’s original Boom Lake shop.

A reminder of Duke’s legacy is an incredible collection of antique outboard motors that you can still be found in Rhinelander.

Duke had collected them since the early days of his shop; beginning with those left for repairs and never picked up. Eventually there came to be more than a hundred outboards in the collection, one of the most diverse antique outboard motor collections in Wisconsin. Son Jim began to display several of his dad’s antique motors—representatives of different makes and models—at his shop, and also began collecting antique outboards himself.

“People would come into my shop and be just fascinated with the old motors, but there were many more of my dad’s outboards in storage. I didn’t have space to display all of them,” Jim told me.

As a tribute to his father, who passed away in 2004, and the Wisconsin outboard industry, Jim Montgomery spearheaded an effort to establish the Duke Montgomery Antique Outboard Motor and Boat Museum in Rhinelander. Duke’s outboard collection is the star attraction at the museum, which was established in 2005 and is located in the Pioneer Park historical complex.along with the logging and railroad museums.

The museum’s collection of vintage pre- 1960s outboards as well as historic wooden boats manufactured in Wisconsin - including of the Rhinelander Boat Company - antique fishing equipment, and a recreation of Duke Montgomery’s old shop evokes thoughts and memories of simpler times on the water in the golden age of Wisconsin sporting life.

Music Credits: "Georgia Steel Guitar," Curley Williams and His Georgia Peach Pickers, and "Spanish Bells," Cliffie Stone and His Barn Dance Band.  

Bob Willging is a freelance outdoor writer who specializes in writing about Wisconsin's tremendous outdoor and sporting heritage. He has written two books: "History Afield: Stories From the Golden Age of Wisconsin Sporting Life " and "On the Hunt: A History of Deer Hunting in Wisconsin." Willging lives in Rhinelander.
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