The design of the modern duck boat can be traced to Arkansas’ innovators.
In the World War II era, the jon boats used in hunting were flat-bottom crafts, said Mike Ward, president of Team Ward Inc., which does business as War Eagle Boats.
But that changed when in 1945, Ward’s grandfather, M.H. “Chick” Ward, built the first aluminum-welded seam jon boat.
“If you look at the history of jon boats prior to that time frame, aluminum was held for military uses only,” Ward said.
But after World War II, Chick Ward obtained some of the surplus aluminum from the U.S. government and started producing boats, Mike Ward said.
That led to the founding of DuraCraft Boats, which are still produced by Mike Ward’s company, Team Ward, which also produces the War Eagle brand of boat.
Another revolution in duck boat manufacturing occurred in 1966 when Kermit Bryant built the first all-welded aluminum boat, said his grandson, Rory Herndon, who is vice president of Xpress Boats of Hot Springs.
Bryant owned a sporting goods store in Natchez, Miss., and saw a market for a stronger boat, said Herndon, 31.
“So he decided to build one himself,” Herndon said.
At the time, the jon boats were riveted together, causing them to rattle, leak and eventually separate, Herndon said.
Bryant’s new, all-welded model worked and took its place in the duck boat lineage.
“That’s kind of the basis of the platform of our company,” Herndon said. “We started with an all-welded boat. We were one of the first people to do that.”
The business grew from a schoolhouse in Friendship to a 240,000-SF manufacturing facility in Hot Springs. Today, Xpress Boats remains family owned and operated.
Another longtime duck boat manufacturer was founded in the late 1950s. Zach McClendon Sr. and his son, Zach McClendon Jr. joined with another businessman, Norris Judkins, to found MonArk in 1959.
Even as a kid Zach McClendon Jr. “had a lifelong love affair with boats and the water,” said his daughter, SeaArk Boats President Robin McClendon. “He built several boats himself as a teenager.”
Zach McClendon Jr. would build the boats, put them in the back of a pickup truck and “sell them to anybody he could, mom and pop grocery stores and bait shops. He would not come back until they were all sold and the company just grew.”
But it wasn’t easy, Robin McClendon said.
“In the beginning nobody knew the name or the product,” she said. “And there was a lot of competition out there.”
MonArk sold its recreational division and the Monark name in 1988 to the Brunswick Boat Group in Knoxville, Tenn., while the family retained the workboat division. In 1992, after Zach McClendon Jr.’s non-compete agreement with Brunswick ended, he started SeaArk Boats and began producing recreational boats again.
“If you look at the history, a lot of the other brands or boat companies are spinoffs or derivatives of one or two companies starting here in Arkansas,” Ward said.