Editor's note: On Jan. 21, Herald columnist Juergen Kneifel wrote of the passing of his friend Ken Hopen, who many times has been identified as the founder of Glas-Ply boats. Hopen became a partner in the venture and eventually owned the company outright, but the actual founder was Ken Smith. Our January story prompted Smith's daughter to go to work documenting the company's early history. The Herald has examined her evidence, and we believe this is the true story of the origins of the legendary fiberglass boats built in Marysville.
MARYSVILLE -- I read an article in The Herald in January about Glas-Ply, a Northwest icon in fiberglass boats. Glas-Ply was founded by my late father, Ken Smith, but the article failed to even mention him. This stunned and saddened me, and it launched me on a journey to document my father's business history and to set the record straight.
Ken Smith was born in Grand Junction, Colo., in 1928. He joined the Navy at the end of World War II and was stationed in Bremerton, aboard the Lexington. After meeting my mother on a blind date and marrying her in 1946, they made Marysville their home. A daughter and son soon completed the family.
Smith held various jobs after the Navy. Among other things, he was a salesman at JC Penney and worked at Weiser's mill in Marysville. He also worked at Dean Nichols, a car body repair shop. During this time, the use of fiberglass for the restoration of Corvettes grabbed Smith's interest. His fascination with fiberglass set him on a course that propelled him into the boat-building industry. He would eventually set standards for quality, durability and design.
Smith founded Glas-Ply Industries in the mid-1950s in a rented building on old Highway 99. He started by manufacturing fiberglass laundry tubs, which were sold at Pay 'n Pak, Thurmond's plumbing supply and Sears in Everett. He also made chairs, tables, buoys and fish tanks. He repaired fiberglass car parts and made cabin tops for Reinell boats, when the hulls were still made of wood. Smith employed one of his friends, Milo Jensen, and a couple of recent Marysville High School graduates to cut the glass, do the lamination and spray molds to apply color.
One of the graduates, Larry Forsman, remembers bringing in a friend, Glen Carlson. They were paid a dollar an hour! He said that Smith was a good boss and recalled a bit of advice from him: "Make sure you don't wear any rings when working." That stemmed from an accident in high school, when Smith lost part of his right ring finger in a mishap at school.
The first boats
In 1956, the Marysville Globe ran a photo and caption announcing the expansion of Glas-Ply to a new building. There Smith produced his first boats. They were light enough to carry on the top of a car, enabling recreational fisherman to enjoy their sport anywhere a car could go. There were eight-, 10- and 12-foot models, all with V-shaped hulls. The boats, which weighed from 90 to 150 pounds, proved popular.
The business grew rapidly, and so did Smith's reputation for building a quality product. When Pacific Marine Supply of Seattle decided to manufacture its own line of pleasure craft, they asked a rep from Rycol Chemical, a distributor of plastic resin, who would be a good choice to oversee the project. He told them, "Ken Smith."
A deal with Pacific Marine
In 1958, Robert Ladd, then vice president of Pacific Marine Supply, approached Smith about purchasing the boat portion of Smith's enterprise and wanted him to stay on to manage the plant -- and develop larger models, too. The deal was announced in Pacific Marine's holiday newsletter. Ladd rebranded the boats Pacific Mariner. More than 1,000 boats a year rolled off the line in Marysille. The name Glas-Ply and the laundry-tub molds were sold to a third party who wanted to continue manufacturing the tubs.
Don Aaland, manager of boat and trailer sales for Pacific Marine during this time, told me that in the early going a marine architect was hired to design the boats. But Smith made the wooden "plugs" from which the molds were made.
Testing was done on Lake Goodwin or on Ebey Slough. The sea trials helped Smith make adjustments to the design so the boats handled better. Later, he would do the design work, as well.
Aaland recalls a day at the slough when they needed to know if a boat could make a hard turn. Ken throttled up and turned sharply, not anticipating that the wake would slam the boat into a log boom and stall the engine. "Well, we made it," Smith said with a laugh as he re-started it. But the craft wouldn't move! The boat and the men survived, but it took quite a while to dislodge the propeller from a log and paddle back to Geddes Marina.
I remember a time when two naval engineers came to our home and presented a new design to my dad. He looked over the plans for a few minutes, then said, "Fellas, this is a beautiful boat, but how are you going to get it out of the mold?" Dad proceeded to mark up the blueprints, simplifying the pattern.
At the World's Fair
In 1962, the Seattle World's Fair opened. Through the efforts of Ladd and others, Tommy Bartlett's Water Ski Show was hired to perform in a giant moat erected in Memorial Stadium. More than 20 skiers were towed behind two 18-foot, stock-model Pacific Mariner boats. Smith had redesigned them so that the throttle controls, steering wheel and the helmsman's seat were centered in the boat for balance, according to an article in a 1962 issue of American Yachtsman.
Aaland told me that he, a Pacific Mariner exec named Art Bauer and Smith -- over lunch -- designed the 14-foot Dagger model used by the jumpers. The craft, however, was unstable in landings. So Smith devised a solution: reinforce the bottom of the boat, remove the keel and add two three-inch parallel oak runners. That did the trick.
The water-skiing troupe gave Smith an engraved silver box to thank him for his help.
The owner of Pacific Marine Supply, Ed Cunningham, died in 1960, and the company was placed in a trust managed by the Bank of California. A few years later, Smith designed a 21-foot cabin cruiser, but the Marysville building couldn't accommodate the new model, and there wasn't enough land on which to expand. The bankers thought investing in a new location and structure was too risky and wouldn't back expansion. Smith's tenure at Pacific Mariner ended, and the company was eventually sold. Smith wanted his molds and had to buy them back.
Around 1966-67, Orin Edson of Advanced Outboard Motors had purchased the Bayliner name and was looking for someone to build boats for him. Smith signed on to make fiberglass boats for two years. Once again, Smith was designing boats and making molds. The boats were sold at Advanced Outboard stores and Cortz Battery in Arlington, among other places. Realizing the profitability of Edson's venture, Smith decided to set out on his own. At the end of the contract, he re-acquired the Glas-Ply name and again began manufacturing his own boats.
Smith eventually built a new shop for the Glas-Ply production line, in the Smokey Point area. He started with a 16-footer and eventually added a 17-foot hard-top model with an inboard or outboard motor. Later came 19-, 21- and 28-footers.
Names behind the brand
The business prospered because of his attention to good design, materials -- and employees. Dad mentored many men throughout his boat-building career. Others went on to Bayliner and other companies in the area. Among those that I remember: Ted Pederson, Glen and Dick Carlson, the three McKay brothers, Adrian Vandenbosch, Frank Stone, Don Thompson, Jack Parker, Bob and Dennis Dahlberg, Ralph Nelson, Ralph Rhode, Bob Anderson and Ron Thomas. Their skills were valued in the fiberglass industry.
Running the production line, designing boats, managing the office and selling vessels was too much work for one person. Smith needed help, and in 1967 he contacted a former Pacific Marine Supply salesman by the name of Ken Hopen. Hopen worked for Chrysler Outboard Motors. He accepted a position with Glas-Ply to establish dealerships and solicit sales. He proved to be an excellent promoter, and a few years later Hopen was made an equal partner in Glas-Ply.
During this time, many government agencies awarded Glas-Ply contracts for work boats, including the state of Washington, the city of Seattle, the state of Alaska and the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Office manager Jane Wagner was hired in 1969 and promoted to vice president when Glas-Ply was incorporated around 1970. Smith and Hopen shared the presidency.
Jane wrote me, "Ken Smith was a very intense, artistic, hardworking person. When things were running smoothly he was bored." He liked to brainstorm. "It was like his job was done and he couldn't sit around and do nothing."
Smith sells to Hopen
Smith sold his interest in Glas-Ply to partner Hopen around 1971 or 1972 and moved to Kawela, Hawaii, and began building boats there under the name Glas-Pro. Producing boats in Hawaii proved to be too expensive, though, and Smith returned to the mainland.
From 1975 to 1993, Smith lived in Kansas City, Mo., Pagosa Springs, Colo., and Vernal, Utah. He started a small gem shop in Kansas City and built houses.
Ken Smith was a dreamer and a gifted man. He said boat designs came to him while he was asleep. He'd awaken with a vivid idea and hurry to sketch it out. He was also able to size up a problem and come up with an innovative solution. To the end, he kept devising businesses. Could thermal energy be used to heat homes? Why not bury people upright to save space? Shocking, perhaps, but practical!
His most prized accomplishment, however, was building boats that still ply Northwest waters. Those who own or have owned an early Glas-Ply or Pacific Mariner craft know they were well-made, well-designed products. The names live on in the boating world.
Ken Smith died May 30, 2010, at 82. I am proud to have called him Dad.
Katherine Smith Alderman is the daughter of Glas-Ply founder Ken Smith. She is a former Miss Marysville and still lives there. She would love to hear from people who worked at Glas-Ply via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Glas-Ply boats rendezvous
Glas-Ply boating enthusiasts will meet Aug. 9-11 at the Cap Sante Marina in Anacortes for their yearly Rendezvous. For more information, go to GlasPly.net.
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