Irwin Marine, New Hampshire’s most respected name in boating, is a third generation, family owned and operated marine business. The company was founded in 1919 by Jim Irwin Sr. Irwin Marine is now recognized as a boating industry leader.
With roots in South Boston, a host of one man’s ideas and dreams, and his resolute will to make things happen, a business was born. This article, written by the Laconia Citizen editor on November 11, 1964, details the course of events.
It started with a Young Man with a horn. . .but you didn’t have a horn. You wanted one. You wanted it so badly it hurt, but when you’re little Jimmy Irwin of South Boston, there simply isn’t the money for a horn – for a silver cornet or a lean brass trumpet shining like a fire engine’s bell. There might be enough dimes and quarters in the old teapot in the cupboard for the case maybe, or even one valve’s worth, or the mouthpiece, but the rest of the machine – the boy wants to play it will have to find the money for himself, they say, and the permission is all you need.
Down to State Street you go, where the stockbrokers and bankers are cheek by jowl, and where clever, light footed boys who can keep their ears and eyes open and their mouths shut are in demand to run the orders and receipts from office to exchange to office to bank. The description fits you to a tee, and you have no notion on that first day that you’ll have at least a toe in State Street for a quarter-century to come. Not that you care a hand yet for that. What counts now is the pay, the tiny roll of bills in the weekly envelope, tiny but large enough; and you blow a tentative blat on your own trumpet.
Off to the greatest trumpet teacher you can find. He shakes him head; “you have no lip, my boy” he says. “You would have to work twice as hard as anyone else to be a trumpeter”. Work? He’s come to the right man for it, you decide then and there, and roll up your sleeves and get started. In no time at all there’s a new figure on the Boston musical scene – pretty small a figure as yet – Jim Irwin, his trumpet and his band, available for weddings, parties, dances, dinners, clambakes, picnics. . .even manhole cover dedications, if a bank were needed for one.
The trumpet meant music, meant a profession, meant there would never again have to be quite so grubby a scramble after dimes and quarters. But it also meant movement, up and out and far away. On steaming August nights friends and neighbors might have to sit at their windows, gasping and plying a palm-leaf fan, but not you, not now that you had your brass ticket. Far north in New Hampshire, where the cool evening air moved off the waters of a lake with an impossible name (Winnipesaukee? So’s your old man”), there were thousands of people looking for amusement on a summer evening they wanted to dance, to talk, to stroll – but always to music. A good place for a bright young man with a horn, and by the time you were twenty-five, come a dogs day evening any friend looking for Jim Irwin would have to take a train up to the Weirs and then follow his ears to the bandstand.
The Weirs in the summer and Boston – State Street days and bandstand nights – in the winter for you. Even the war could only interrupt for awhile. When the United States went in, so did you, into the navy horn and all. In no time you had a band again – the navy needed that horn. and when Jonny came marching home and you hung up your blue uniform, you kept the band together. There were dates not only in Boston, but New York as well, all over the east in fact, and then the fling was over and back home you went, Boston winters and The Weirs summers, to take up where you had left off.
But with a difference. You were a bigger man now than you had been, and saw old opportunities as present restrictions. Playing in someone’s ballroom at so much a night was fine, playing in your own ballroom looked even finer. In 1921 when you had a chance to buy the old music hall (where the Methodist Church now stands) at the Weirs, you found a partner, mortgaged everything in sight and took over. You had a root down now that would never more be ripped loose. You would probably have laughed to hear it, but you were Jim Irwin of Laconia for good, your good and the city’s. (You nearly left just once – remember? – aiming for Florida at the crest of the boom down there. It was going to be a hotel, or a string of hotels, and beaches and casinos and everything else. You got as far as Daytona, with a band and then the bottom dropped out, and the hotels went with a poof, and you found you couldn’t get Daytona folk out to dance on a week night if you paid them.)The old music hall prospered.
You had not just a finger but a whole arm in any pie to promote the Weirs, then and later. In the course of time you’d be sounding the trumpet loudly for the whole world to hear about all sorts of things happening at the Weirs, some of which you would start yourself. Remember the Wizard of the North, whom they handcuffed to a bicycle on Tower Hill and who then rode down a steel wire not just to but into the lake, coming up with the handcuffs in one hand, the bicycle in the other and a smile on his face? Remember the cold weekend up in Berlin, when you were trying to get somebody from the Nansen Ski Club to come down and teach his newfangled art (what was the point of running a resort just one season a year, your figured)? Remember the ski train pulling in from Boston away back in 1922, maybe the first ski train in the world? Remember those big power boats you persuaded to hold weekly regattas out in the Weirs Bay, while thousands of people lined the shore to watch, and how between races, they’d cluster around a raft to refresh their spirits one way or another – and decide whose turn it was to win so as to keep things exciting? Remember the seaplane and pilot you brought up from Boston to give rides at the Weirs – somehow you turned it into the country’s first air mail service.
You remember 1925, the year the pyromaniac set fire to the music hall and it looked for a few hours as though the entire Weirs might go with it (a good deal did). Luckily, you’d sort of backed into boating by then, and even owned a wharf and boat business. Good thing too: that big boat shed was just what you needed to hold your dances in, with the music hall lying in ashes. And, in fact, isn’t that old wharf still right there in the middle of the Winnipesaukee Gardens: You wanted to build the Gardens, knew there was a demand for it, knew you could swing it , but where: You didn’t own that sort of land elsewhere, but you did own the wharf, so you built the Gardens right around it, not quite overnight, and as the carpenters were sweeping the last broom full of shavings out one end, the Memorial Day weekend crowds came laughing in the other and the band struck up.
The band struck up as the country’s finest bands were to strike up in the Gardens for summer after summer to come, and the people were to continue to swarm in, laughing and starry eyed. There would be five spur tracks at the Weirs finally to part trains in for the day and evening while excursionists enjoyed themselves on the boardwalk you built and in the great dance hall you had conjured into being. Not that that was the only iron you had in the fire – when did you ever let yourself be caught with just one iron in the fire? There was still the brokerage office in Boston and for awhile there was the band business in Boston, too. Remember the time you had seventeen bands out playing jobs all on one night? There was even a brokerage office on Main Street in Laconia, with the northernmost stock ticker in New England, so far north, in fact, that when it broke down there was no regular help available, and you used to have to get the marine engine builder in Lakeport to put down his big wrenches and pick up his little ones and come over and fix it for you.
You’ve always been a great one for starting things. Every place you look there’s something you played a part in getting going: a radio station, an American Legion post, a highway tax policy, a highway – and hi there Jim Jr., Bob, Jack, Dot and Elinor! Colonel Knox knew you were a starter, a man to make things move: remember that summer and fall of 1936 and how before Colonel Knox got into any town, you get there first to set things up? “Vote for Landon and Know.” Well, nobody wins them all. And, speaking of not winning them all, remember the movie you and your friend Admiral Byrd made? It has everything – except audiences.
Remember 1939, and the way they called you out of the High School auditorium (your daughter was in a play) to tell you the Gardens was on fire? It turned out to be the old Mt. Washington and everything else along the water-front except the Gardens, but the loss of the Mount was bad enough for the Weirs, and you pitched in to help replace it, a process that began with blasting the hull of the Chateaugay out of the ice of Lake Champlain. What a story that turned out to be, with low bridges and untuned engines and shortages of money and everything else and then just as she was ready, along came the second World War and she had to be laid up after all.
So did the Gardens and the boat business, in fact, “for the duration” (except for a crumb here and there), which sort of left you at loose ends for a whole three minutes. Scott’s was up running three shifts on defense work and had to come up with meals for everybody in the midst of war-time shortages of food and help and everything else anybody can think of. Before you knew it you had been asked and had accepted and, hardly knowing at first how to tell a hen hot dog from a tom, had swung high into action. There was a central kitchen near the high school from which meals went out to both Scott’s locations in trucks that had probably carried Grant’s soldiers into Richmond – but your system worked.
And after the war there was the day you said to your sons, “Boys, I know there’s a really big fortune in boating, and I have an idea, but you’ll have to do most of the work, if you’re interested. And about the time most men begin discarding responsibilities, you started an entirely new business in addition to the ones you were running already.
All in all it has been a busy fifty years since that day in 1914 when a young man stepped off the train at the Weirs ready to play for the people, and this community would be a great deal poorer if you hadn’t done so.
The Dance hall which was called The Winnipesaukee Gardens was a destination for many people. Many nights or early mornings the place was packed with over 2500 people dancing to their favorite bands. The big band era brought in musicians such as Duke Ellington, Jimmy Dorsey and his Orchestra, Lionel Hampton and Les Brown to name a few. Later in the years with the generation of rock and roll, some of the favorite visitors were the Beach Boys, Gary Puckett and the Kingsman. The era ended in the spring of 1976 when the garden was sold. It brought many years of great music and a lot of good memories.
Irwin Marine was known to be the oldest Chris Craft dealer in the country for over 66 years. Chris Craft had their difficulties in the 1980’s and Irwin Marine was fortunate to take on Sea Ray. Sea Ray, the largest quality boat company has been a great partner and will serve boaters in years to come.
Jim Irwin Jr. and Jack Irwin took over the responsibilities when Jim Sr. passed away in 1966. Through many years in the boat business they have made friends and have built the foundations for the future. The current team consists of John Irwin, Bill Irwin and Bruce Wright. Irwin Marine now has four locations and management teams at Mountain View Yacht Club, and South Down Shores. Irwin Marine has continued to focus on providing a safe and rewarding workplace for its employees and delivering the best product available and exceptional service to the boating community.