Robert Linn Sr. was an innovator.
He was born in 1910. In 1933, he married Frances Holmes. In the early 1940s, Robert Sr. and Frances and their two boys — David and Robert Jr. — moved from the Eastown area of Grand Rapids to Holland.
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There, Robert Sr. took a job with the Campbell Boat Company, owned by Kenneth Campbell. Campbell, formerly a naval engineer, came from the east coast to start his boat-building company in 1937 near Virginia Park, on land originally developed by EJ Harrington.
There, Campbell made luxury sailboats, speedy “cutters” and wooden powerboats.
In 1946, Robert Sr. struck out on his own. Using Campbell’s facilities, he built steel-hulled boats. His first was a 30-foot cruiser with a mahogany cabin. Frances christened it the “Roamer.”
In 1949, he made a 36-foot patrol boat for the city of Chicago. According to his company’s brochure, Linn could build houseboats, fishing boats, work boats and 33-48-foot cabin cruisers.
AM Deering of Chicago, a naval architect, did design work. Linn also made a boat for the Olson Boat Company of Wisconsin Dells, Roseland Amusement Park in New York, and Wilderness Outfitters in Minnesota. He even gave do-it-yourselfers the option of buying a hull and building their own watercraft.
In 1950, Linn moved his boat-building operation to 939 Washington Ave. — just north of 40th Street. There, he utilized a D-shaped building design. (One-half of the semicircle is still visible.)
In his new facility, he assembled hulls of 32-75-foot cruisers. Then he transported them north down Washington Avenue and along 32nd Street to Jesiek’s Boatyard at 2223 S. Shore Drive (today Eldean’s Shipyard). His men used poles to keep telephone lines from catching on the cabins. At Jesiek’s, workers completed and launched the boats.
To sell his boats, in addition to word-of-mouth advertising, Linn traveled to boat shows across the country. Because very few boat deliveries took place over land, the phrase “they’ll go anywhere” became part of his pitch.
In 1951, Roamer Boats won a contract from the US Navy for 10 45-foot steel-hulled harbor tugboats, powered by a diesel engine. He won a second contract in 1952 for 21 more boats.
In 1954, Linn added a warehouse across Lake Macatawa in Park Township, where he planned to create the Roamer Haven Marina.
In 1955, Linn sold his Roamer Steel Boat Company to Chris-Craft. That same year, Chris-Craft added to the Washington Avenue plant to produce its first Roamer boats. The Kanera twins, Marion and Marilyn, who worked in the cost department at Chris-Craft on Ottawa Beach Road — along with Chris Smith II — posed for marketing photos on the Roamer line.
In 1956, Chris-Craft moved production to a new facility on Lakewood Boulevard, where it employed 350 people.
Chris-Craft introduced an aluminum version of Roamer boats in 1962. In 1975, it transferred Roamer production to Florida. Chris-Craft ended production of the Roamers in 1979.
After the sale of Roamer Boat to Chris-Craft, Linn and his sons opened the Bay Haven Marina at 1862 Ottawa Beach Road. With other investors, they also launched the Bay Haven Yacht Club.
Robert Sr. also launched a sales division and trucking company to haul boats. He owned farms in Drenthe and Holland and flew his plane to a home in the Bahamas. In 1972, he and his sons opened The Hatch restaurant on the Bay Haven property, which restaurateur Dick DenUyl managed.
In his retirement, Linn Sr. was an active woodworker at Evergreen Commons.
David Linn died in 1988. Robert Sr. died in 1994. Robert Jr. followed in 1996.
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Meanwhile, between 1953-1969, Orville Munkwitz’s Beacon Boat Company rented, then purchased, the Campbell boatyard and made small and large sailboats, as well as utility boats and wooden minesweepers for the Navy.
Then, Robert Dawson Sr. brought in his son — Robert Jr. — to manage it. They renamed it South Shore Marina. Park Township now owns the property, and today, we call it South Shore Landing.
Bay Haven Marina also changed ownership. Today, we call it Yacht Basin.
Information for this story comes from Robert Swierenga’s “Holland, Michigan,” Geoffrey Reynold’s “Roamer, Before Chris-Craft,” and “Made of Steel: The History of the Roamer Boat Company.” Information also came from Woody Boater, Hope College’s Digital Commons and an interview with Linn’s granddaughter, Laurie Bos.
— Community Columnist Steve VanderVeen is a resident of Holland. Contact him through start-upacademeinc.com.