Many people love bringing their Harleys to Lake of the Ozarks. Eric Miller’s is built to float on it.
by Ariel Thibodeau
In the summer of 2016, Eric Miller’s wife gave him a one-of-a-kind gift. Eric was at their home in Kansas City, Mo. while his wife Joleena and her parents visited their hometown of Tomahawk, Wi. on Lake Mohawksin. While there, Joleena drove two hours to Green Bay and secretly bought Eric a 1964 Harley Davidson Tomahawk boat. Yes, that’s a boat manufactured by Harley Davidson, and no, there aren’t very many of them.
Eric had found the Tomahawk on Craigslist and told Joleena about it. So when she bought the boat, wanting to keep it a surprise, she fibbed: someone else had purchased it, she told him. But something was fishy with her story, so Eric called the seller and asked about the boat. The man (not in on the secret) apologized, saying he had indeed already sold the boat to someone else. Eric pressed the seller for more details: was the buyer a woman and did she come in with an older couple? The seller was bewildered: how did Eric know that?
“I started laughing and told him that was my wife,” Eric said later. “So I kinda ruined the surprise for me, but it was still a nice gift!”
Tomahawk & Harley Davidson
August 1945 marked the start of the Tomahawk Boat Manufacturing Corporation by partners Fred Dreger and Franklin P. Winter. The two men lived in Shawano, Wi., 100 miles south of Tomahawk. Paul Winter, the father of Franklin Winter, was chosen as the president; with his background as a banker, attorney, and politician, Paul seemed the perfect fit as the leader of their new company. Franklin Winter was the boat designer and vice president, and Dreger was selected for secretary/treasurer and sales manager. The first model—the Red Wing—was fifteen feet in length. That year, the company built 100 boats.
By the 1950s, fiberglass was transforming the boat-building industry, so Tomahawk stopped producing wooden boats in 1957 and focused entirely on fiberglass models. In the spring of 1962, the now-famous motorcycle dealership Harley-Davidson purchased a major part of the stock in Tomahawk Boat Manufacturing Corp. Tomahawk was operated as a wholly owned subsidiary, and the business also took on molding of motorcycle and scooter parts such as saddle bags for Harley-Davidson. Franklin Winter was kept as president and general manager.
But less than a year later, Franklin Winter resigned as president and sold the rest of the stock to Harley-Davidson, making Harley-Davidson the sole owner of Tomahawk Boat Manufacturing Corp. For another two years, boats wore the emblem “Tomahawk Boat—A Division of Harley-Davidson.” But the motorcycle company soon made the decision to get out of the boat business. In July 1965, Harley-Davidson officially shut down production of boats and narrowed their focus to only motorcycles.
Back Down To The Lake
Eric was born and raised in Kansas City. And like many good Midwesterners, he vacationed to Lake of the Ozarks quite a bit as a kid, where his father taught him boating, and how to fish. Life happened: marriage, kids, and busyness, and Eric says they didn’t make it to the Lake as often as he would have liked. Finally, in late 2017, Eric and Joleena bought a house on Lake of the Ozarks: at the 60 Mile Marker. His kids (18 and 20) have moved out for college, and they’re finding a little more time to spend here.
Joleena loves the Lake because it reminds her of the lakes back home in Wisconsin. “I really just enjoy the serenity of the Lake and how quiet it can be,” Eric added. With their little Tomahawk, the Millers avoid the water during the busiest times on summer weekends, but they’ve learned waking up early on Saturday or Sunday mornings still promises a boat ride on glass.
They keep the Tomahawk in their garage in Kansas City, and trailer it down to the Lake. “My father had a Mark Twain boat that he bought in 1990, and as a kid, I thought that was ancient. And here I am with a Harley Davidson Tomahawk that is over 50 years old! I can’t believe the irony of it,” he laughed.
But as with any boat—and especially one that’s half a century old—Eric’s Tomahawk is in need of a little TLC. The last time the Millers ran it was in the summer of 2017 during the Shootout. “We had it down and we stayed at Runaway Two Campground,” he recalled. They tentatively took out the boat, but they were far enough upstream that the race—which draws an estimated 100,000 people—didn’t affect their ride. “[Shootout] Saturday we went from the 45 Mile Marker to the 60… We were worried that we were going to get hit with traffic, but we didn’t see anybody on our ride. It was absolutely empty. We couldn’t believe it.”
Since then, the boat’s been having engine trouble, but Eric is craving more of those cool morning rides with Joleen and his Tomahawk. “I’m hoping to take [it to someone] who specializes in antique boats and motors, to fix it up and hopefully get it back down to the Lake.”
Antique boat expert Andreas J. Rhude, who owns a non-profit antique boat company in Peshtigo, Wi., compiled the historical information in this article, and has assembled a timeline of Harley-Davidson’s short venture into boat manufacturing along with a detailed history of the firm. Find it and more antique boat information at fiberglassics.com.