The ageless Ozark johnboat

The custom in those days… was to start out by wagon over almost non-existent roads for the head of the river. 

“On the wagon would be enough seasoned pine lumber to build one or two boats, depending on the number of fishermen in the party, together with a tent, some tools, fishing tackle, guns, ammunition, and a few supplies such as flower and bacon. 

“Once the wagon was unloaded, the best carpenters fell to the task of boat-building while the rest set up camp. When the boats were finished, they were sunk in the river for a couple of days to swell up so they would be watertight when the party started downstream.” [Leonard Hall, Stars Upstream] 

I remember this narrative from my first reading of “Stars Upstream” during college days. Even that far back I became “hooked” on Ozark stream fishing which developed into a lifelong love of float fishing, my usual watercraft being a rented canoe. 

Innumerable times I encountered flat bottom boats which everyone called “johnboats.” I became curious… exactly what is an authentic “Ozark johnboat”? 

Leonard Hall’s colorful story of early johnboat construction should not be taken as the origin of the johnboat. 

“The invention of the Ozark johnboat has been attributed by some writers to twentieth-century White River guide and boat builder Charlie Barnes; its true origin is far older. 

“A likely antecedent of today’s Ozark johnboat was a flat boat that was introduced to the Mississippi drainage region by the earliest French colonists. 

“Called a “chalad” or a “bateau plat” in Louisiana, this early flat boat was characterized by a flat, planked bottom, long, slender form, and blunt ends each with considerable rake (that is, the ends lift up high out of the water).” [Brassieur:41] 

The area of what we call “The Ozarks” is in a vast southern Missouri area the geologists call “The Ozark Plateau.”

Knowing what the Ozark region is like today, I had a problem with this term until I learned that the geologist term of reference was many, many millions of years ago. 

This timeframe was followed by many millions of years of “uplift,” creating mountainous terrain. Then erosion and weathering created multiple valleys. 

Over much time, this resulted in the springs and streams of the Ozarks. Then came settlements, and the streams of the Ozarks became highways plied by boats. 

I imagine, with experimentation, the form and length of the Ozark version of a johnboat proved best for ease of handling, and a shallow draft helped in navigating shoals.

Before outboard motors, poling was used to go upstream. Settlers in the Ozarks found the early versions of the johnboat useful for a number of purposes. 

“In the beginning, fishing was more a secondary thing. The boats were used for transporta- tion. Everybody along the Current river had at least one or two boats, one on one side of the river and one on the other. 

“The roads in the Ozarks were terrible until the days of Roosevelt, so you could travel by river faster than a person could walk the trails… Some people even made their living by taking people back and forth across the river. It was just the easiest form of transportation.” [Evers-Boehm, Dana – The Ozark Johnboat] 

I imagine this was so because travel upstream was done by “poling” the boat, which was faster than walking the trails. 

As readily available timber in the east began to dwindle, lumber companies began operations in the vast areas of Ozark forests. 

This gave rise to a need for river boats to transport loggers in and out of the area… there were no usable roads. 

As logging operations expanded, so did the development of settlements to lodge lumber workers and stores to supply their needs.

Flat-bottomed early variations of the johnboat provided transportation for humans and for moving material. 

In the annals of literature about the Ozarks, the name of boatbuilder Charlie Barnes is universally recognized as having the most influence in the evolution of the genuine Ozark johnboat. 

As time passed, flat-bottomed boats were, with modified spelling, generically referred to as “Jon Boats.” 

During the 1950s, a Springfield newspaper reporter wrote a column about Charlie Barnes. Here is what the reporter said: 

“As for the johnboat, he’s no doubt the world’s number one authority, all he did was introduce it to the Ozarks some 50 years ago. 

“As entrepreneurs began to enjoy success in the float fishing business in Galena, Barnes started doing some serious thinkin’ about a new kind of boat… the boats available weren’t big enough to accommodate occupants for much longer than a day.”

Barnes quickly came to the realization that greater cargo space was needed for tents, food, equipment, and other gear. 
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The result was that Barnes, still working in Branson, fabricated a boat “about 20 feet long and a yard wide with a snub nose and flat bottom.” [White River Valley Historical Quarterly, Winter 1998] 

In 1932, Charlie Barnes decided that he wanted to spend more time fishing and floating, so he closed his Ford dealership and, with his wife, moved to Branson, Missouri. 

He began building johnboats for Jim Owen’s expanding float fishing business. But he also was building johnboats for his own float fishing business. 

“Barnes probably built over 500 of the boats in his lifetime. He guided large numbers of people from all over the United States on the James and White river float trips. 

“His clients included industrialists and movie stars. He lived in an era that ended forever in the 1950s, when the gates closed on Bull Shoals and Table Rock dams.” [Conservationist magazine: Missouri Dept. of Conservation, July 1996] 

The July 1996 issue of Conservationist magazine quoted from 86-year-old Bill Barnes, (the son of Charlie Barnes): 


“He was busy from the first of June through October. He not only took people himself, but he had a list of guides who would take floaters. Fishermen came from Kansas City, Springfield, St. Louis, Joplin, Wichita, Tulsa and even Chicago.” [Conservationist Magazine: Missouri Dept. of Conservation, July 1996] 

In an essay entitled “The Ozark Johnboat,” which was authored under the Missouri Arts Council and the Cultural Heritage Center, writer Dana Evers-Boehm ably captures the Ozark Johnboats’ distinctive features: 

“The Ozark Johnboat is a distinctive regional type of johnboat. While it shares the common features of johnboats everywhere — a flat bottom, slightly flaring or curved sides, a squared bow and stern, and a rake at both ends — it is distinguished by its exceptional length and narrow width. 

“Even among Ozark Johnboats, however, there are numerous variations due to availability of lumber, intended function, and regional preferences.” 

In one of my early fishing adventures in the 1950s, I stayed at a resort on the Current River. 

While at the resort, I learned that the folks that operated the Power Mill Ferry had a couple of johnboats for rental. 

As it turned out, the johnboats happened to be authentic Ozark Johnboats of Charlie Barnes’ design. 

Looking back, I now realize that it surely must have been one of the very few Ozark Johnboats that still plied the Current River. 

Of course, by this time I imagine they were all adapted to handle outboard motors. I can attest, however, with my 10hp Johnson, it handled beautifully considering its length and considerable weight. 

And, its shallow draft did provide navigation up many shoals. 

As the years passed, metal (mainly aluminum) became the material of choice for a generic johnboat… of a great, great many designs. 

But the original Charlie Barnes design continues to be used. 

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