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Lebanon, MO is the Fishing boat capital

Made in TF Country: Lebanon, MO

At first glance, Lebanon, Mo., might seem an unlikely place for a major boat-building industry. The town sits on a high Ozarks plateau a good 10 miles from the nearest navigable water.

But glance again as you drive along I-44. The interstate is lined with all shapes and sizes of aluminum watercraft, cocooned in plastic and awaiting shipment to boat dealers all over North America. From west to east through town, there is Lowe Boats, Landau Boats, Tracker Marine and G-3 Boats, all turning out a combined total of 20,000 fishing boats, 4,000 pontoon boats and upward of 1,000 canoes each year.

While Lebanon is now known as a center for boat-building, its industry is the legacy of J. B. Appleby, founder of Appleby Manufacturing Company. Appleby actually started at nearby Richland with Rich Line, a manufacturer of mostly “car toppers”—aluminum canoes and flat-bottomed Jon boats that could be carried atop motor vehicles. Appleby’s Lebanon company sold 1,300 boats during the startup year of 1960. Four years later, Appleby Manufacturing was building more than 30,000 boats a year and was declared the largest maker of aluminum boats in the United States.

Appleby’s daughter and son-in-law, Dianna and Carl Lowe, both joined Appleby Boats in management positions. Carl Lowe became general manager of the company; Dianna took over sales. 

In 1964, Standard Industries, a New York company, bought Appleby Boats. Carl and Dianna Lowe continued operating the company under the Appleby name until the mid-1970s, when Standard Industries went bankrupt, taking Appleby Boats down with it. However, by this time, Carl Lowe and his wife had started Lowe Boats in Lebanon.

From the start, Lebanon’s boat industry was manned by regional management and labor. Such skills as forming and welding aluminum are tricky, even for experienced metal workers. But the boat builders trained their own in a sort of in-house apprenticeship system.

“We brought in local people and trained them on-site,” said Carl Lowe. “For example, those who wanted to learn welding were trained here. We didn’t bring many people in from outside the area and I think that has been true of the other companies. An experienced welder shows a beginner the technique after working hours and the beginner practices—on his own time—by welding scrap metal. When he gets good enough, he goes on the line. Interestingly, boys who had worked at something which requires manual skills—shoeing horses or playing a musical instrument—often made the best welders.”

“Even our research and development was done by local people, many of them without a lot of formal education but with a strong will to work and a keen native intelligence,” added Dianna Lowe. “Common sense is not all that common.”

In 1978, Tracker Marine, a subsidiary of Bass Pro Shops, opened a plant at Lebanon and quickly grew to become the No. 1 aluminum boat builder in the United States. A couple of years later, Tracker started bundling together boats, motors and trailers into a complete fishing package. The other boat builders soon followed suit.

And the J. B. Appleby tradition lived on. Brent Lowe, grandson of J.B. Appleby and son of Carl and Dianna Lowe, started G-3 (for “generation three”) Boats in the early 1980s.

As the Lebanon boat companies gained recognition and sales, they attracted the attention of big corporations and holding companies. Tracker Marine was born of a strong corporate parent, of course, but the other companies soon found themselves being wooed by a variety of big firms.

“That became especially true as we all began selling boat-motor-trailer packages,” said Carl Lowe.

In 1986, Lowe Boats sold to Outboard Marine Corporation, the maker of Johnson and Evinrude outboard motors. A few years later, the company sold again to Brunswick Corporation. G-3 Boats sold to Yamaha in 1997. Both plants are still going strong. The boat industry directly employs about 1,400 people. Another 450 or so work in related industries—electrical, upholstering, trailer manufacture—making boats by far the biggest employer in Laclede County.

“The recent recession didn’t seem to hurt the boat business here very much,” said Carl Lowe. “Aluminum is cheaper than some materials and it’s lighter weight, which saves on fuel costs. That makes aluminum boats less expensive to buy and less expensive to operate.”

So, there’s a boat that will suit anyone with fishing fever in his heart, a fishing pole over his shoulder and a little money in his pocket. And, if the boat is made of aluminum, chances are better than even that it was built in Lebanon, Mo.  

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