My Letter to Paul White

My Letter to Captain Paul White, owner of Pirate’s Cove Marina, previously known as…

…Holiday Harbor

Dear Paul,

I’m glad you are interested in the history of Holiday Harbor and ACE Boat Works.  It’s been fun reliving some of those old memories.  What you read here is strictly from my memory, as I have no documentation to support my reminiscence, other than a few surviving photographs.  Anything else was lost when my mother died in 2007.  That included many photographs and slides that were probably thrown out when my sisters cleaned out her house to sell it.  


In 1955 when I was twelve years old, my dad (that’s him on the right in front of ACE Boat Works) purchased a retail marine products store.  It was called ACE Boat Works, Inc. and was founded by a man named Clarence Englert.  The store was located on a small piece of property on the main road (I believe  it was Route 11) in Mattydale, NY.  It was rumored that we also had a store in Brewerton, NY, but we never did.  However, I have learned that Clarence Englert had a brother, Albert, who had a boat business in Brewerton, also called ACE.  It appears that acronym ACE was derived from the brothers names, Albert and Clarance Englert, ACE, each with a boating business having ACE in its name.

Clarence Englert included the property on the Oneida River that later became Holiday Harbor and then Pirate’s Cove, in the sale of the Mattydale store to my dad.   The river property was undeveloped except for an access road and an old marine railway with a one cylinder engine driving a wench that drew boats into and out of the river.  I also remember a TravelLift, a tool for lifting large boats into and out of the water for repair, lying disassembled in the deep grass.  I can still hear that ancient one lung gas engine fire with a loud report, winding the railway’s spool several times before firing again.

With the advent of motorized barges at the end of the 19th century, the state reconfigured its canal system from the Erie Canal to the Barge Canal.  The Barge Canal used existing rivers and lakes, digging cuts to straighten sections of river or connect them with other bodies of water.  The cut in front of the marina created Horseshoe Island, eliminating an oxbow and straightening the Oneida River for the canal.  That cut turned what had been a peninsula into an island.  I must admit, I was never really aware that the island was man made.  I’m not sure when the cut was created, but the Barge Canal was completed by 1918.  As for the small Island that sits immediately in front of the marina, lying between the marina and the canal, I’m guessing that it was a spoil island created by the dumping of some of the dredged material from the cut.

Because the Mattydale property was so small, there was little space outside to store or display boats, and with no access to the water, no place for customers to take a test drive.  That’s why Dad began to develop the river property almost immediately.  His reasoning for developing the property was good, but his finances were severely stretched by doing it.  

Dad inherited two employees when he bought Ace Boat Works.  George Gukert was about fifty.  He was the guy behind the counter when you entered the place.  He knew the stock and could either find what you needed or get it for you.  George continued working for Dad until he had a serious heart attack.  I’m not sure if the attack disabled or killed him.  In any case he never returned to work at Ace.  On Saturdays I would go to the store with Dad to “help out”.  Sometimes I’d work behind the counter, George’s domain.  He was always polite, but I think I was tolerated as the boss’s son rather than someone he actually liked.

Harold “Harry” Wing, the other inherited employee,  was in his late fifties or early sixties and a veteran off WW I.  He was very young when he volunteered for the Army, probably lying about his age.  Harry had been exposed to mustard gas in the trenches, which resulted in some serious facial scarring (and maybe more).  As a result, Harry was not much to look at.  He always wore a greasy leather cap over what was left of the hair on his scarred pate, and he always had a stubby pipe clinched between his stained teeth, only occasionally lighted.  Harry had been married several times, outliving a couple of wives.  His wife at the time was a twenty-six year old woman.  Harry had fathered a daughter with her who was about three years old when I met her.  I still have a hard time figuring out that relationship.  

Harry’s job was repairing propellers.  It was a major part of Dad’s business.  Folks would run their boats onto rock piles, nicking and bending their propeller blades.  Damaged props were brought into the store by individuals and dealers, while others were mailed in from all over the state.  Harry had a complete set of pitch blocks in his shop.  He’d select the appropriate block, fasten the damaged prop to it, and beat it back into shape using a big mallet.  The mallet’s pounding face was made of layers of leather bound together so that the ends became the pounding surface.  Using this, he could hammer a bronze propeller blade back into pitch without marring it.  If the blade had been nicked, Harry would weld a repair, then grind it smooth before correcting its pitch.  I can still see him re-coating the cloth grinding wheels with abrasive materials by first pulling an ancient, thickly coated brush out of a heated glue pot, slathering the wheel’s edges with the adhesive, then rolling it in a tray of abrasives to re-coat it. .  The final step in the process was to buff each blade into a high gloss before returning it to its owner.  It’s funny how some images just stay with you.  Harry at work is one of them.  Dad lost a steady source of income when Harry retired, as no one else wanted to work as hard as Harry did making those repairs.  Of course, now these repairs are all done by hydraulic machines.  No more pounding.

When the marina was a few years old, Dad hired a guy named Robert to run the place (his last name escapes me).  Robert seemed to be a bit of a hustler.  He had a big family with lots of kids.  He seemed to do a credible job of running the business, but I was never sure that he wasn’t hustling for himself on the side.  In any case, he was gone after a couple of years.  Dad never shared why he left.  

Dad operated ACE Boat Works and Holiday Harbor for about nine years before declaring bankruptcy. There are a lot of reasons why the business failed: some of it mismanagement, some poor choices of employees, some my Dad’s personal issues with alcohol, and always, a lack of cash for development.  But in terms of the marina, several years of bad weather, especially on big summer weekends, along with a general economic downturn lasting several years, put the business into bankruptcy, just as I was beginning my third year at Syracuse University in 1963.  

I don’t have a lot of detail about what happened at the end because I was not living at home then.  My maternal grandfather had died in April of 1963, and my grandmother was alone.  I was asked to move in with her, which I did, spending all of the 1963-64 school year with her and missing most of the drama resulting from the bankruptcy and sale of the business.  Some years later, around 1985, I went exploring to see what had become of the business and marina.  The Mattydale store had become a Chinese restaurant.  I stopped in to have a cold drink at the bar.  It was really strange to be in that reconfigured place.  The owner’s family was living on the building’s second floor and the former machine shop was now the kitchen.  Holiday Harbor had Become Pirate’s Cove, but at that time it was a shadow of what it is now.  

You can see from the pictures below how Holiday Harbor grew from its first tiny building, with a one lung ancient marine railway, and a few docks into what it became at the end.  In the latter years, Dad sponsored a waterskiing show in the river in front of the Marina.  There were multiple skiers, trick skiers, slalom skiers and jumpers.  It was a great event. I don’t know how Dad got permission to stage the show in the channel of the Barge Canal.  For all I know, he didn’t ask.

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Holiday Harbor, Year One



Digging the basin

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(To see more pictures of Holiday Harbor, CLICK HERE)

The last time I was at Holiday Harbor was August 18, 1962.  That’s the day that I hauled my best friend out of the water on the backside of the oxbow with a broken neck, after a horrific waterskiing accident.  (That’s Fred and girlfriend Betsy just before the accident) Days spent with him at the hospital, the start of my Sophomore year at SU, and a touch of PTSD from the incident kept me away until Holiday Harbor was gone.  In fact, I stayed away from boats and the water for several years, only returning after I was married.  

This is most of what I can remember about that time.  Parents in the 1950’s didn’t share a lot about what was going on in their lives, even when it effected us, so there is a lot of detail I was never privy to.  Thanks for asking.  It was good to go back there and remember what I could.


Don Yackel

Paul sent me this picture of the old ACE Boat Works clock still hanging in the workshop of Pirates Cove/Holiday Harbor after 65 years.

Click Here to see the Holiday Harbor Photo Album

 © Don Yackel 2020