When I first told the team here at Houseboat magazine that I wanted to write this story, I was met with a little skepticism because they felt like it would be hard to track down photos to support such a piece.
I assured them it wouldn’t be. And then I had to eat my words. Finding photos proved to be more challenging than I originally thought. Every manufacturer knows about the first boat they ever built, but either they didn’t think to take a picture at the time or it’s been lost over the years. I wanted to move forward anyway. I think there is still a lot of fun information when we look back at the history of houseboating.
Where To Start?
For the purpose of this story, we are going to start with this history of modern houseboating. Obviously boats with sleeping enclosures have existed for centuries, but we are going to concentrate on what we like best—lake-style houseboats. There are people and companies engrained in the industry that have made so many amazing contributions that it would be hard to name them all. But we have to start somewhere, so here we go.
Houseboating wouldn’t be the same without Jim Sharpe. He and his Somerset, Ky., company, followed closely by Stardust, have been credited with the creation of the lake-style houseboat. In 1953, Sharpe started Somerset Marine and built his first houseboat, which was a 10- by 24-foot steel bottom with scow bow, which he sold to a man in Beattyville, Ky. In 1959, he started building boats 11 by 32 feet and in 1969, he built the company’s first 12- by 40-foot boat. I could keep going, but you get the idea. Back in the beginning, even making the boat just a foot wider required years of planning. When Sharpe sold his shares in Sumerset Houseboats in 1996, the average boat was 16 by 75 feet.
Sharpe saw the industry grow from infancy to what it is today and a lot of that progress was in no small part due to his vision.
“Moving from a steel hull that required annual painting to an aluminum hull that required no maintenance is one of the biggest changes in the industry,” said Sharpe back in 2003. Another change that he pointed out was the first houseboat had no heating or cooling systems. When the industry started incorporating a heat pump, they expanded the houseboating season into a year-round activity.
Sharpe ended up changing the name from Somerset to Sumerset in 1973 when a printer made a typo on a flyer and he decided he liked the “u” better. After his retirement, his sons and son-in-law started Sharpe Houseboats in the family’s old Sumerset building.
The first Stardust boat was built in Chattanooga, Tenn., around 1965. It was a steel hull and this is pretty much the only information that still exists on these boats. The Stardust company in existence today bought the company name only in 1985 and moved operations to Monticello, Ky., where they started manufacturing aluminum hulls. The first aluminum houseboat built in Monticello was made in 1985 for Phoenix Houseboat Sales, Inc. in Atlanta, Ga. It was a 1985 14- by 52-foot houseboat and was equipped with two 120hp MerCruiser engines. This brand-new vessel went for $57,772.
Pluckebaum Custom Boats can trace its heritage all the way back to 1932 when founder Arthur Pluckebaum and his brother built a 22-foot runabout. Shortly after, Arthur was humbly asked to serve his country during World War II because of his unique ability to weld aluminum with an acetylene torch, which was a rare and valuable skill for the United States Military. After the war in 1946, Arthur built the first Pluckebaum houseboat, a craft of steel hull and wood superstructure that would ultimately be the beginnings of Pluckebaum Custom Boats. During the years, over 600 Pluckebaum boats have been produced.
Even though the company is no longer in active production, you would be hard-pressed to find a houseboat marina that didn’t have a few Gibsons floating among the slips. By 1990, the company had built more than 6,000 boats and that number just kept increasing until the company was hard hit by the 2008 recession.
Gibson Boats was started by William C. Brummett in 1968, though Brummett’s houseboating experience went back much further than that. Before Gibson, one of the first houseboats he ever constructed was powered by a Model A Ford motor that was so unreliable, he steered the craft upstream when he dared leave the dock because he knew the engine would fail long before the trip was supposed to be over.
By the early 1960’s, Brummett was well established in the retail boating business, having opened Kentuckiana Yacht Sales in Louisville, Ky., where he sold other manufacturers houseboats. After 29 years on the retail side of houseboats, he set out to manufacturer his own line of houseboats. In 1968, he picked Nashville, Tenn., as his city of choice and was able to scoop up a boat manufacturing building that had been left abandoned after the company had merged and shut down operations. After three decades of peddling others’ houseboats, he was free to design and build his own line of boats, using all the feedback and ideas he had gathered over the years. Gibson went on to become one of the most successful houseboat companies, building over 150 houseboats a year on average.
Holiday Mansion was founded in 1965 in Salina, Kan., by Jack Byquist. The company produced thousands of houseboats in the 29- to 49-foot range for over three decades. In its prime, Holiday Mansions were popular with lake boaters and coastal cruisers from the Chesapeake Bay down to Florida’s coast. The spacious interior combined with a shallow draft and low purchase and operating costs made it a natural boat for rental agencies.
The Holiday Mansion Houseboats are made from fiberglass and you can find these boats worldwide. In fact, these boats participated as timekeeping and pace boats at the 1992 Olympics in Spain.
Wavelength Houseboats was started by James Willard Broadrick and his son, Jimmy Broadrick. Back in the 1970’s, James owned an excavating and utility company, but he would buy a boat shell with no interior and he and his children would custom build a new boat for the family to use. Then he would sell it and buy a bigger shell for the kids to finish. Over the years of building hobby boats, the family would hear what people liked and disliked about their boats, so they had a great head start when they started manufacturing them.
In 1986, Wavelength Houseboats was officially kicked off as a way to keep the excavating employees working over the winter months so they wouldn’t have to be laid off. After the crew built the first boat and put it in a boat show in Hendersonville, Tenn., the response was so great that that the boats began a completely separate company. The crew went on to build 57 boats.
“Wavelength Houseboats were strictly custom built,” says Jimmy. “Every boat was a reflection of the owner, not just a few color choices from the factory.”
The first boat ever built was actually a 1988 model because the company spent the first two years building molds and tooling. This 14- by 52-foot boat has a serial number of two because, as Jimmy puts it, “nobody wants to buy the first or the 13th of anything.” It was sold to a man named Billy Messer from Hendersonville, Tenn. He kept it several years until he had to sell it for health reasons. Wavelength actually bought it back from him and made some engine and electronics updates and then the boat was sold to a dealer, but no one is quite sure where it landed. While the company is no longer in business, you can find its boats at marinas around the country.
While newer to the game than most, Thoroughbred Houseboats is part of the small circle leading the way when it comes to innovation. In business since August of 1996, the company was started when Rob Parrish got a group of local craftsmen together to manufacture Kentucky’s best-built custom houseboats. The first of these houseboats rolled off the assembly line in 1997 and they haven’t stopped producing top-quality custom houseboats ever since.
“Thoroughbred Houseboats first boat was built for the Cundiff family and delivered to Green River Lake. It was a 16 x 70 with four bedrooms, two baths and a flybridge 20’ party top. We were a new company with a lot to learn and the Cundiff family was willing to let us,” says Parrish. “We tried many new ideas and the boat ended up being very vivid in color to say the least with a large purple and magenta graphic wave on the side of the boat that blended with the purple carpet and fabrics throughout. You have to remember this was1997!”
You can still see this boat on Green River, now with the second owner. When things got tough in 2008, Thoroughbred stayed busy and even moved to a larger facility in Monticello, Ky. This new facility is much larger, allowing everything under the same roof including manufacturing, cabinet shop, parts, sales, repair, service and design. It’s at this same facility where Sumerset Houseboats are now manufactured.