SARANAC LAKE - In the 1960s and 1970s when the Willard Hanmer Guideboat Race first started in Saranac Lake, the event was the summer equivalent of the still-popular Saranac Lake Winter Carnival.
Crowds filled downtown Saranac Lake to watch the race, with spectators coming from all over the Adirondacks. Even the first race itself drew lots of fans.
"The race was a huge success from the spectators interest and crowds of 2,000 that lined the lake shore and collected on the bridges through the village with the greatest concentration of viewers on the Pine Street bridge at the location of the rapids," wrote Bill McLaughlin in a July 5, 1963 Enterprise article about the inaugural race.
Saranac Lake resident Natalie Leduc paddles a guideboat on Lake Flower in the fifth annual Hanmer race in 1967.
(Photo courtesy of Natalie Leduc)
A guideboat heads down the Saranac River during the first Willard Hanmer Guideboat Race in 1963.
(Photo courtesy of Natalie LeDuc)
Chris Woodward, a guideboat maker who works out of Willard Hanmer’s old shop, is one of the organizers of the race.
(Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)
This year on Sunday, July 1, organizers of the race are hoping to return the Hanmer to its former glory in celebration of its 50th anniversary. One of the main goals is to draw 50 guideboats for a 10 a.m. parade on Lake Flower in Saranac Lake.
"Anybody with guideboats, you don't have to come race it, just come put it in the water, we're going to try to get 50 guideboats out there," organizer Chris Woodward said. "I think we can do it."
Following the parade, there will be a full slate of flatwater canoe and kayak races from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. The races - which include a not very serious rub-a-dub - will start on Lake Flower and then go down the Saranac River to the Saranac Lake Fish and Game Club, where there will be an afternoon full of food, beer and festivities.
If you go ...
What: Willard Hanmer Guideboat Races
When: July 1
Where: Lake Flower, Saranac Lake
The non-guideboat races are called the Ralph Morrow Canoe & Kayak Races.
In an attempt to make the 50th anniversary a success, Woodward and Covert have partnered with the Saranac Lake Women's Civic Chamber and some other guideboat enthusiasts to put together the event. The core group has been meeting throughout the year to pull together the logistics for this event.
The guideboat race itself was created in 1963 to commemorate Hanmer, a Saranac Lake guideboat builder who died the previous year. The original race included 12 solo guideboats, nine tandem canoes and two Folberts.
Hanmer owned a shop on the outskirts of Saranac Lake off of state Route 3. He died on May 23, 1962 of a heart attack at age 60. His death was marked by an article in that day's Enterprise.
"It will end the famous line of Adirondack guideboats which have been handcrafted by the Hanmer boat shop for more than a century," the article stated. "Mr. Hanmer learned the trade from his father and had been actively engaged in building the 'Stradivarius of light water craft' for over 50 years himself. The Hanmer Guideboats are famous through the United States."
After Hanmer's death, the shop was sold in 1963 by Hanmer's wife to Carl Hathaway, who now lives in Tupper Lake. Hathaway owned it until 1991, when he sold it to Woodward, who still operates his business there.
For the first few decades of the Hanmer, the race started on Lake Flower and continued down the Saranac River to the Fish and Game Club, where there was a large clambake.
"It was very exciting," said Saranac Lake resident and Hanmer committee member Natalie Leduc, who was only woman contestant in the first race and will be the grand marshall of the guideboat parade this year. "There were loads and loads of spectators. It was a very festive mood. At the start line, it was wonderfully exciting. Boats were all lined up and they had a judge's stand way up in the air. The three judges walked around and they looked at the boats and they checked them over."
But in recent years, the race has been held on Lake Flower, the number of spectators has dwindled and the race has drawn few entries. The numbers have dropped for a variety of reasons including that guideboats have been replaced by more modern boats.
The primary race organizers in recent years have been Woodward and Chris Covert. Woodward said his main goal after taking over the race with Covert a few years back was just to get it to the 50th anniversary to have one last blowout.
"So, this is a call to all the old timers, younger old timers, part timers, and one timers," Covert and Woodward wrote in a joint guest commentary in today's Enterprise. "Haul out your old boats, soak up the planks, grease your pins, and oil your oar handles. Any one with a guideboat is invited to join us on Sunday, July 1st, for a grand parade of boats around Lake Flower as we celebrate the 50th Memorial Willard Hanmer Guideboat Races."
For those interested in volunteering for the race or participating, more info is available at www.willardhanmerguideboatraces.com. Registration opens at 8:30 a.m. the day of the race. Pre-registration forms are also available on the website.