Earl and Floyd Willets made and signed their names to 964 canoes over a period of 55 years. In 1921 they bought eleven lots on Day Island, built a workshop and then spent more than half a century collaborating in the construction of just one 17 foot model cedar strip canoe, called the Artondale. Like a fine musical instrument or a masterful timepiece, the Willets canoes were the most carefully crafted vessels the two men could build and they built everyone themselves. Earl hand cut, stamped and inspected every piece of cedar, oak and teak while Floyd drove in each copper fastener, assembled each canoe and perfected the final brushed on varnish finish. They never rushed and never completed more than a handful of canoes each month-beginning as high school students when Floyd graduated from Stadium in 1913 and ending with his death in 1962.
In 1933, a Willits canoe was featured in a National Geographic Magazine story written by Jack and Sasha Calvin about their paddle from Tacoma to Juneau. In 1936, there were several Artondales in the UW boathouse on Montlake, the year the Boys in the Boat won the Olympic gold medal rowing an 8 man shell in Berlin. And in 1939 Henry and Agnes Foss (neighbors on Day Island) retraced the journey of Lewis and Clark down the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans in a Willits canoe. In those depression years, you could buy a canoe from Earl and Floyd for 80 dollars. Earl kept the waiting list and some people the brothers felt didn’t deserve a boat just never moved up from the bottom.
No one knows how many Willits canoes there are left in the world. Dale Chihuly has a few including one rigged with a mast and sails made by the brothers. The Foss Waterway Seaport has built a small collection of Artodales in various conditions and owns a unique launch built by the Willits boys. The workshop is still in the family and is a familiar landmark on Day Island, still full of the machines, tools and fragments of hand made canoes. And on the list of pure Tacoma experiences is undeniably the the chance to paddle a Willits canoe along the Narrows. Its like playing a Stradivarius at Carnegie Hall.