Boat motor legend Ole Evinrude to be honored with plaque at Okauchee Lake

This story originally appeared in the Lake Country Reporter.

It all started with a melted ice cream cone and a row boat. In 1909, Ole Evinrude invented the outboard motor, making rowboats a quaint mode of lake navigation.

More than 100 years later, Evinrude will be honored at 10:30 a.m. June 23 in Okauchee, where, in 1906, he began to contemplate his idea for an engine, while relaxing with his fiancee.

A plaque will be dedicated on the West Lake Drive bridge over Okauchee Lake.

Jeff Herrmann, town of Oconomowoc administrator; Alain Villemure, vice president and general manager of Evinrude’s marine propulsion systems division; and Dennis Evinrude, Evinrude’s great-grandnephew, will deliver remarks.

Parking is available at Foolery’s Liquid Therapy, N52 W35091 Lake Drive.

Ice cream and innovation

It was on Okauchee Lake in 1906 that Evinrude first conceived of the outboard engine.

During a picnic on Party Island on Okauchee Lake, Evinrude’s fiancee, Bess Cary, wanted some ice cream. Evinrude fetched some. While rowing back across the lake, the ice cream melted. He imagined how much easier his task would have been if the boat had a motor.

Evinrude had worked in machine shops for several years and, in his spare time, was building small engines.

In 1907, an outboard motor called the Porto had been introduced in Detroit, but it was neither widely known nor popular. By spring 1909, Evinrude had perfected his own design and tested it in Milwaukee’s Kinnickinnic River. Its sight and sound drew crowds.

Evinrude built 25 motors and had an employee demonstrate them on Pewaukee Lake that summer. In one day, he sold his entire inventory and took orders for 10 more. Each motor produced 1.5 horsepower, weighed 62 pounds, and cost $62.

Family business

Bess was not only Ole Evinrude’s muse, she became his partner in life and business. “It’s also a romantic story,” said Laurie Muffler, a local historian and volunteer at the Oconomowoc Area Historical Society & Museum.

Bess managed the office, customer relations and marketing, while Ole oversaw design and manufacturing. Within two years, the couple had a son and had established Evinrude as an international brand.

Despite the company’s growth, Ole sold the business in 1914 because of his wife’s poor health. By 1920, the family had settled in New Orleans, Bess was recovered, and Ole and their son, Ralph, were working on a new engine design: the Ruddertwin.

The engine received rave reviews at the New York Boat Show, and in 1922, Ole and Bess formed the Evinrude Light Twin Outboard (Elto) Co.

The business saw immediate success, and Ralph encouraged his father to build a more powerful engine — something for more than fishing. At the 1928 boat show, Evinrude unveiled an 18-hp motor that could take boats to 35 mph.

Elto, the leader in its field, was purchased in 1929 by Briggs & Stratton, which transformed it into Outboard Motors Corp (OMC).

Lasting legacy

Bess died in 1933; Ole followed in 1934. Ralph, 27, became president of OMC, a position he held for almost 50 years. By 1986, the year of Ralph’s death, the company hit a sales record of $1.2 billion.

Over the next 15 years, sales decreased, and OMC struggled to comply with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requirements. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2000. Bombardier Inc. purchased its assets.

In 2003, Bombardier created a spinoff company, Bombardier Recreational Products (BRP), which produces Evinrude-brand motors today. The plaque dedication on Okauchee Lake coincides with a weekend event BRP is holding in Milwaukee.

“We are honored and privileged to have BRP here in honor of Ole Evinrude,” said Herrmann. “The Evinrude motor is still going strong today, over a century long. That is remarkable when you think of all the products on the market today that were not around in 1909.”

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