November / December 2022

Herreshoff Catboats

The roots of a boatbuilding dynasty


Designed and built by John Brown Herreshoff, DANDELION (18’5” × 16’9” × 7’6” × 1’6”) reflects the straight stem, overhanging stern, and under-hung rudder typical of his 1870s designs. Built for John Quincy Adams II who used the boat for day sailing and fishing around Quincy, DANDELION was the boat in which Adams’s son, Charles Francis Adams, sailed his first race at age nine in September 1875. He went on to become the leading amateur helmsman of his generation.

My first visit to the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the mid-1970s was memorable for many reasons. The collection of automobiles, steam and gasoline engines, locomotives, bicycles, and other objects ranged from marvelous to mind-boggling. But it was one particular surprise that remains foremost in my mind. During my wandering on what is said to be the world’s largest expanse of parquet flooring, I suddenly encountered, of all things, a catboat. There she sat in a well-fitted wooden cradle with a plaque identifying her as SPRITE, built by the Herreshoffs of Bristol, Rhode Island.

The boat had clearly been restored and, as I learned later, important original details had been lost—an all-too-familiar tale with old boats. However, her basic shape was still intact when SPRITE arrived at what was then called the Edison Institute of Technology in 1930. Whether Henry Ford recognized the boat as important because she represented a uniquely American type of sailing craft or because she’d been built by the famous Herreshoffs, or both, is a matter of conjecture.

On July 3, 1929, H.H. Weston, the Ford assistant branch manager in New York who’d discussed SPRITE’s acquisition with the Herreshoffs, wrote to J.A. Humberstone, the Ford executive responsible for such matters at the Edison Institute in Dearborn, Michigan. “Captain Herreshoff,” Weston wrote, “will donate the Catboat to Mr. Ford’s museum for safekeeping.”

On October 2, 1930, Humberstone wrote to Nathanael Herreshoff asking, among other things, whether SPRITE, built in 1859 for Nat’s older brother John Brown Herreshoff (1841–1915), was the first Herreshoff boat. Nathanael’s detailed response not only recalled SPRITE but made clear that catboats had been important to the family, to John’s boatbuilding efforts, and to the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company for more than 50 years.

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