Scow Film Proposal


Scows have been sailing the upper Midwest since they were first developed in the late 1800’s.  There is a lot of story about how this uniquely American sailboat has evolved from a nineteenth century experimental enterprise to one of the largest one design fleets sailing in the country today. 


Scows, the flat bottom, twin bilge-boarded, uniquely American sailboat, evolved in the late 1800’s from boats used for lake commercial transport.  Developed for the inland waters of the upper Midwest, scows evolved into some of the fastest mono-hulled sailboats on the water.  By the turn of the century, the scow became the first American sport boat with fleets racing on major lakes throughout the heart of the United States.  Fast, light and easy to transport, scows have spawned a significant sailing tradition and are an integral part of the history and culture of many lake communities throughout America.

The Woodruff Film Company proposes to produce a 60 to 90-minute documentary about how the Scow sailboat began, evolved, impacted the lake communities involved and about the exciting future for these sailboats.  

A documentary is best told in the first person and today we are fortunate to still have many of the “legends” of scow sailing available to interview.  We already have interviews with Buddy Melges, Skip Johnson, John Johnson and Tom Hodgson, edited together into a 10-minute sampler of the proposed 60-minute program  Other interviews with prominent historic figures in the sailing world, boat builders, sail manufacturers and sailors in the scow community will be included.  Interviews, historic photos, family movies and footage of modern scows will be edited together to chronicle the scow story.

The project is structured through the fiscal sponsorship of a 501(c)3, organization, The Vail Valley Art Guild.  When completed, film will be donated back to the scow family and distributed free to scow fleets around the country with the intent to reach the largest audience possible, promote scow sailing and educate young sailors.  The film will also be entered in appropriate film festivals to provide the potential for wider television distribution, and will be made available through appropriate social media outlets and cable television streaming venues.


The narrative of the “Scow Story” begins with the pioneers and farmers that came west to the Wisconsin Territory in the 1850’s and 60’s and settled on the shores of the inland lakes left by prehistoric glaciers.  Early roads were primitive, and water quickly became the preferred mode of transportation.  With the arrival of the railroads to the lakes in the 1880s, came new markets for local agricultural products and incentives for faster boats to haul cargos to the railheads for shipment.  Historic photos, drawings, and interviews with ILYA historian Tom Hodgson and others, will be edited together to reveal this early history of the scow.    

The early boats were not particularly fast, efficient or even in some cases safe.  These early sailors wanted to test their ability to go faster and this naturally led to informal racing.  By the late 1800’s the racing bug had caught on.  Boat builders and sailors were incented to design a different and faster boat for the unique conditions of the more protected waters of the inland lakes. 

The idea that a sailboat might go over the water rather than through it first emerged in Canada.  The concept of a flat-bottomed boat then migrated into the upper Midwest where boat builders refined the concept and by the turn of the century the design had evolved into the scow shape.  The film will tell the story of the early boat builders like John O. Johnson on White Bear Lake, Charlie Palmer on Lake Geneva and Andy Dire at Lake Minnetonka. 

But they couldn’t do it alone; these early builders needed to finance their endeavors.  The industrial revolution had brought affluence to many Midwestern families based in the city and with this came the means to escape to the lakeshore.  Wealthy industrialists built lake cottages and homes as getaways from the urban centers of Chicago, Milwaukee and Saint Paul.  These successful businessmen found that their lifestyle now included leisure time and they soon developed a desire to compete on the racecourse.  The combination of competitive drive and resources became the catalyst that powered the development of racing scow designs.  Interviews with decedents of these resourceful and creative families will be included.

At the turn of the century, the desire to race scows also brought on a need to organize the competitions.  Yacht clubs sprang up on the shores of the different lakes and a new cultural world was born in the Midwest.  The social aspects that came along with scow racing combined with the Edwardian pomp and ceremony of the times to spawn an extravagant and exciting lifestyle.  The film will show that regattas became major social events complete with lavish dinners, dances and social pageantry.

As racing became more popular on the lakes of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois, lake-to-lake competition expanded.  There grew a need for an organization to oversee common measurement rules for an annual championship regatta.  On August 24, 1897 representatives from ten different yacht clubs gathered at the Ramaley Pavilion on White Bear Lake and formed The Inland Lake Yachting Association (ILYA).  Scow racers now had a national organization.

With the exception of the national championships, most scow sailing was limited to racing neighbors on the home lake.  In the early days it was an expensive ordeal to transport boats from one lake to another, resulting in the isolation of each lake’s fleet.  When the sailors did come together at the inter-lake regattas, each group had its own camp that stayed pretty much to itself.  The relationship between sailors from different lakes was akin to “war between tribes”, particularly in respect to the secrets of boat and sail technology.  

At the 1935 C Boat Invitational Regatta on Oconomowoc Lake after a full day of racing, fourteen tired sailors from many different lakes gathered to rehydrate at the home of Harry G. John.  From that gathering, emerged a camaraderie that continues to make scow sailors into a very tight and special group.  That night began what was to become the “ILYA Bilge Pullers”, a cluster of sailors whose original stated mission was to party with their compadres from other lakes.  The Bilge Pullers evolved into much more than a social club and their continuing contributions of service and support to scow sailing will be documented.

In the 1930’s women had arrived to make their mark on the scow-racing scene with over 100 women skipping or crewing in the ILYA Annual Regatta.  Kay Lilly became the first woman to receive a national Scow title when she won the Inland’s 1934 C Championship. 

One theme emerging from the many tales told about scows and scow racers is the strong camaraderie that exists between sailors, despite the intense competition.  As retired scow builder Skip Johnson has said, “it is a competitive but friendly world, kind of a unique thing”. In the early days of scow racing, the cost of building a boat and the expense of campaigning limited scow racing pretty much to a pastime of the rich.  As the economy emerged from the Depression and particularly after WWII, cheaper used boats became widely available.  New sailors from a broader demographic increased the number of boats on the starting line of local club racing.  At the same time, vehicle-towed trailers were being utilized for the first time and that made transporting boats to the inter-lake regattas much more manageable.   Today, sailors from all walks of life make up the scow community. 

The first classes of scows to establish themselves at the turn of the century were the 38’ A-scow and the 32’ B-scow.  From these first designs, evolved other scow classes.  In 1905 the ILYA sanctioned the 20-foot Cat rigged C-scow.  The following year the D-scow arrived followed by the E scow in 1925.  Later years brought on the M-16, M-20, MC, I-20 and the M-17.  The growth, evolution and in some cases the demise, of these different scows classes is an integral part of the history.

Until 1998, two companies dominated scow production, Johnson Boatworks and Melges Performance Sailboats.  John O Johnson, who many consider the father of the Scow, came over from Norway in 1893 and he and many generations of his family built scows at the Johnson Boatworks on White Bear Lake.  Harry Melges Sr. opened Melges Boatworks after WWII.  Harry, his son Buddy, grandson Harry III and their offspring, together with members of the Johnson family, will talk of how scow sailing and racing has grown and impacted their own personal histories.  In 1998 Melges bought out Johnson Boatworks and remains today as the only manufacturer of scows.

Scows and scow sailing went into decline during the two world wars and the Great Depression.  Following World War II, the scow community rebounded vigorously, and scow racing fleets spread from the lakes of Wisconsin, Minnesota, the upper Midwest and a few protected Eastern seaboard bays, to lakes and calm bays throughout the country, including California, Colorado, Florida and Texas.

Finally, the film will explore the evolution of the modern scow and the future of scow sailing.  In the last decades, the advent of bowsprits and the asymmetrical spinnaker has added another dimension to scow racing, bringing a resurgence of the E-scow and the A-scow fleets.   Current leaders in the sailing world will be interviewed about how scows fit with the evolving technology of modern sailing; experimental scows are already foiling. 


Production of the “Scow History Film” will involve traveling to many of the scow lake communities, interviewing sailors and filming scows in action.  The program will weave together on-camera interviews with historic and current images in the style of Ken Burns, producer of the Vietnam series.  The Woodruff Film Company, under the direction of Woody Woodruff and working with cameraman David Thoreson, has begun filming interviews and collecting historical stills and film footage.

Once the production is funded, Producer/Director Woody Woodruff, teamed up with ILYA scow historian Tom Hodgson, will travel to the lakes instrumental to the growth of this special boat.  Through this research portion of the pre-production process, individuals will be identified that can best tell this story.   In addition to finding personalities to interview, the filmmakers will continue to search for visual material in family histories, yacht club collections and newspaper archives.

Once they are on location shooting, the production crew will conduct interviews, capture images of different scows under sail and cover scow communities in action.  Drone technology has added another dimension to shooting sailing images and will be incorporated into the production.

When principle photography is completed editing and post-production will begin.  This is where the story will solidify.  Pulling the interviews together, along with voice over narration, music, graphics and titles, the History of the Scow Film will emerge.


  • Tom Hodgson
    • Associate Producer and Historical Advisor
    • Past commodore and author of the Centennial History of the ILYA


The Woodruff Film Company has provided the seed money that has funded the production to date.  With a 10-minute sampler film, we are now actively raising the funds to make this historical documentary a reality.  We have built a three-tiered budget structure for 30-minute, 60-minute and 90-minute finished programs.  The film will be made available to the fleets, yacht clubs and sailors at no cost to insure the “Scow Story” reaches the largest audience possible.  The film will also be made available to all the youth programs at yacht clubs across the country.

We are offering sponsorships to individuals, families and organizations that are actively involved with scow sailing.  Tax deductible donations for the film should be made to The Vail Valley Art Guild, a 501(c)3 a non-profit arts organization.  Acting as a Fiscal Sponsor, The VVAG will provide financial oversight to the production.  Individual, family and corporate sponsorships will be recognized in the film credits and at any promotional screenings.


            The History of the Scow film project provides the companies that are involved in scow sailing an opportunity to sponsor the film at different levels of support.  For more information, contact the producer Woody Woodruff.


Woody Woodruff 

303 898-7870

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