In the boating world, those who chase, restore, show, and use classic motor boats form a small niche.
Displayed on a trailer at local classic boat show, the Aero-Craft Junior Cabin Cruiser (JCC model), built in 1954, looks like something from outer space. Looking at them today with their small, roundish windows on the side of the cabin and lines flowing along the top to join the more traditional v-hull bottom, few could resist seeing the imaginative comic book drawings and crude, cinematic renderings of a Buck Rogers space ship rising into the heavens.
In the boating world, those who chase, restore, show, and use classic motor boats form a small niche. Within that small niche is Jerry Balke and his Aero-Craft JCC.
Balke makes no attempt to explain his love for the JCC. He just says it appeals to him in a way other boats never did. Jerry discovered his first JCC in a barn in 1990 while bow-hunting for deer. He managed to wrangle a deal with the farmer and brought the boat home. Aluminum does not rot, but everything else on the boat was made of wood or cloth. The JCC cabins were lined with wood on the walls and ceiling, the seats were upholstered much like a car seat of the 50’s, but the seat framework was wood. Jerry had to dismantle each piece of the boat, making a pattern or template, and when finished, either hand-make a new piece or have a craftsman create the new part if he lacked specialized tools or skills for that piece. That restoration project was just the beginning for Balke.
There are fewer than two dozen Aero-Craft JCC boats in any condition left today. The last Aero-Craft JCC was built three years before Sputnik ushered in the space age in 1957. It was and remains one of the most rare of small motor boats, built only from 1947 until 1954. It is doubtful that there is a place in the world where two of them are sitting side by side — except, that is, in Jerry Balke’s yard.
Lined up beside each other under a deep blue Missouri sky are three JCC boats in varying stages of restoration. At one end, a 1949 model with no glass in the front windows. Those window frames are out having new glass installed. The padding on the seats and the finely polished wood of the cabin are long gone but templates await in one of Jerry’s barns for the day he will cut and hand-fit new pieces of wood.
At the other end of the line is Jerry’s show boat, named Doubletake, because that is what people do when they see the gleaming 1954 Aero-Craft. Mounted on the transom is the 75 H.P. Johnson Super Sea Horse outboard motor that was on it when Jerry first saw it so long ago in that barn. The pennant on the bow carries the original logo of the Aero-Craft company. The decals on the hull are exact duplicates of those installed at the manufacturer’s plant as the last step before delivery to a customer or dealer. No detail has been ignored in the restoration of Doubletake.
In the center of this lineup sits the latest acquisition. A 1951 JCC picked up from the previous owner after closing a deal that Jerry describes as “a very long negotiation.” Jerry drove from pre-dawn into the night to load the little boat and return from Indiana in a single day.
Walking from one boat to the next, Jerry points out design changes through the evolution of the JCC production. The first-year model had side windows that cranked out to allow a breeze through the cabin if anchored on a muggy night. Later years had crank mechanisms on the front windows to allow ventilation while underway on the water. Both side and front crank-out windows had screens to prevent bugs from entering. On the back of the gleaming aluminum cabin are double wooden doors, hinting at the wooden appointments inside.
Company brochures from the period describe add-on options for the JCC, including:
• second helm station on the back of the cabin in the cockpit.
• an abbreviated windshield on top for the standing helm station.
• curving handrails along the graceful top of the cabin to facilitate walking along the gunnels to go forward and drop anchor off the bow.
• curving superstructure over the cockpit from transom to cabin giving additional hand-holds in rough water.
The story of the JCC is in many ways the story of America in the post-war years, and the story of the boom years at the Lake of the Ozarks. America’s economy, and the prosperity of its workforce, emerged from the wreckage of the depression and the ravages of World War II, driven by a home-building boom for returning soldiers, and an industrial boom as war-time production techniques were utilized to manufacture the convenience and leisure items a fully employed American population had the money to buy and the time to enjoy. The pleasure boat, once a domain strictly for the wealthy, shifted from the classic, hand-built, wooden speedsters by GarWood and ChrisCraft, which dominated speedboat racing before the war, to a mass produced, light-weight boat constructed from aluminum. Once the precious commodity of an industry churning out critical fighter planes and bombers, aluminum became a war-surplus material overnight when the war ended in May of 1945.
In February of 1946 Harwill, Inc. began operations in Bay City, Mich., with the purpose of building a better boat at lower costs than was currently available. Harwill, operating as Aero-Craft Boats, began using the cheap, surplus aluminum newly made available on the market, to produce small, open aluminum boats with a gas-powered out-board motor suitable for fishing, cruising, or skiing. The innovative design of enclosing the boat with an impervious top, which didn’t age and rot like canvas covers, resulted in an overnight pleasure craft for those wanting to “camp” on the water. The JCC also performed as a day cruiser with comfort and protection from the elements.
America went back to work after the war. With discretionary income and leisure time, all America needed was a destination. The Lake of the Ozarks offered that destination. Newly created by a huge hydro-electric dam project on the Osage River in central Missouri and the Lake of the Ozarks Association, the Lake attracted users and promoted development and commerce. The Lake offered almost 100 miles of deep water for pleasure boating and over 1,500 miles of undeveloped shoreline for homes and lodges.
In the world of classic boat ownership, Missourian Jerry Balke gives Lake of the Ozark one more distinction. Jerry, and the Lake, are home to the world’s greatest collection of Areo-Craft Junior Cabin Cruisers.