Wisconsin-Based Evinrude Stops Boat Motor Production, Surprising Local Repair Shops

Jul 9, 2020

Jim Montgomery outside his Rhinelander repair shop, Duke's Outboard Service.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

On a hot, sunny day last week, Jim Montgomery pulled a 1958 Evinrude Lark outboard motor outside his repair shop for a tune-up.

Montgomery pointed to the “fancy chrome on the hood,” a sign that, although the motor is now vintage, it was considered deluxe at the time.

Montgomery owns Duke’s Outboard Service just outside Rhinelander. Long ago, he lost count of the number of Evinrude motors he’s fixed.

“I have no idea. Just a lot. Thousands,” he said.

But that stream of Evinrudes coming into his shop may start to gradually slow.

Just over a month ago, the Wisconsin-based company caught boaters by surprise when it said it was stopping production of its outboard motors.

Evinrude has been a national leader in manufacturing outboards for more than a century.

But it blamed COVID-19, in part, for its decision.

Jim Montgomery inside his shop, which features a collection of outboard motors and vintage advertising.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

This 1958 Evinrude Lark outside Duke’s Outboard happens to belong to Jim Montgomery himself.

Inside the shop are relics of Evinrude motors, parts, and advertising over the decades.

A piece of historic Evinrude advertising.
Credit Jim Montgomery

From nearly its beginning, Montgomery said, Evinrude attempted to appeal to women and families, not just grizzled male boaters.

“It worked really well,” he said. “It still does.”

Maybe part of that success has to do with Evinrude’s roots.

As company legend has it, in 1906, Ole Evinrude rowed across a southern Wisconsin lake to get his sweetheart an ice cream.

It melted by the time he returned, so, seeking a faster way to cross the water, Evinrude designed an outboard motor.

His motors were on sale by 1909.

“They’ve been around forever,” Montgomery said. “They were one of the first successful manufacturers of the outboard motor. They didn’t invent the outboard motor, but they were the first one to successfully build a reliable one and market it.”

Evinrudes, even old ones, remain reliable, Montgomery said.

“Guys that work on Mercury [motors], they know a lot more swear words than I do,” he said with a chuckle.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

While the inside of Jim Montgomery’s shop is like a little museum of outboard motors, the big museum is in the center of Rhinelander.

Duke’s Outboard Motor and Boating Museum is housed within the Pioneer Park Historical Complex.

Duke Montgomery is Jim Montgomery’s late father.

“In this area, in the Rhinelander area, [Duke’s] name is as good as gold in outboard motor repair and boat shops,” said Kerry Bloedorn, the complex’s director.

Jim and Duke Montgomery.
Credit Jim Montgomery

Duke and Jim Montgomery donated much of their collection here.  Antique boats are on display, and antique motors line the walls, some dating back to Duke’s earliest days in the business.

He started selling Evinrudes in Rhinelander in 1934.

“He walked up and down Main Street in Rhinelander with one of those over his shoulder, a little Evinrude. At that time, there wasn’t much for advertising, in 1934. The guys in Rhinelander would all be sitting in front of the banks and the restaurants or outside on Main Street, and that’s how he got the word out,” Montgomery said.

Duke repaired and sold boat motors for 65 years before retiring in 1999, when Jim continued on his business.

In his time, Duke became a local legend, according to Bloedorn.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

“He worked on boat motors his entire life. There just isn’t anybody like him,” he said.

Long stretches of that history, and the history of Evinrude motors, are preserved in the museum, where Bloedorn says a discerning visitor can be captivated.

“Those people that come in, that walk in here and look around and know what they’re looking at, it is absolutely incredible,” he said.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

The news about Evinrude ceasing production surprised both Bloedorn and Montgomery.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

“It came as a shock to even the people that worked there,” said Montgomery.

The company’s factory in Sturdevant, near Racine, employs hundreds of people. It will be repurposed.

Maybe, in a future not too far away, Evinrudes will be consigned more to memory than use on the water.

Maybe they’ll become relics, like some of the other motors in the Rhinelander museum.

“[Visitors] look at these boat motors, and I’ll oftentimes hear them say, ‘You know, I used to have a motor like that on my old fishing boat,’” Bloedorn said. “it really does evoke this wonderful heritage that we have here in northern Wisconsin.”