Denison's heritage: Yellow Jacket boats - KTEN.com - Texoma news, weather and sports

Denison's heritage: Yellow Jacket boats

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Dennis Cheatham's father helped make Yellow Jacket boats in Denison. (KTEN) Dennis Cheatham's father helped make Yellow Jacket boats in Denison. (KTEN)
David Kanally shows off a restored Yellow Jacket boat to KTEN reporter Emily Akins. (KTEN) David Kanally shows off a restored Yellow Jacket boat to KTEN reporter Emily Akins. (KTEN)
Roy Rogers was a spokesman for the Yellow Jacket Boat Company. (File) Roy Rogers was a spokesman for the Yellow Jacket Boat Company. (File)
Yellow Jacket boats were built in Denison for 10 years, starting in 1949. (KTEN) Yellow Jacket boats were built in Denison for 10 years, starting in 1949. (KTEN)

DENISON, Texas -- Denison, Texas, is widely known as the home of the Yellow Jackets. It's a symbol you see on an athletic uniform or a school pride shirt, as the mascot of Denison High School.

But you can also find the yellow jacket on something a bit more unique.

"My family was originally from Denison, and my dad worked at the Yellow Jacket plant, so I was drawn to Yellow Jacket boats because of that," explained  Dennis Cheatham.

Let's go back to the year 1949, when a man by the name of Mac McDerby started a boat-building company in Denison.

"Mac really liked Denison. He met his future wife here, and so set up shop here...first to build fishing boats, and then these fast, molded-hull sport boats," said David Kanally of the Wooden Boat Association of North Texas.

In its prime, the Yellow Jacket Boat Company was thought to have employed around 400 people.  And over the decade that it was in business, the firm produced 20,000 exclusively crafted wooden boats.

"Their peak year was 1957, when 7,000 Yellow Jacket boats were built," Kanally said.

Cheatham recalled his dad's description of the manufacturing process.

"He said it was hot. There was sawdust everywhere. He said a lot of the guys in the finishing department -- where they would stain and finish -- he said their cars smelled like paint and smelled like varnish," Cheatham said.

So what makes one of these boats a Yellow Jacket?

"We know this is a 1956 because of this what's called a 'toe rail,'" Kanally said as he examined one of the surviving vessels. "First is the hull: Yellow Jacket boats don't have the heavy framework that planked boats have."

Mac McDerby's target audience was everybody.

"They wanted to build a boat for the common man... for the common family," Cheatham said. "They wanted to put a boat in every driveway, so they made them really affordable for the regular person."

As business continued to boom, a familiar face became involved with the boat company: Singing cowboy Roy Rogers.

"My dad had never rigged the steering on a boat, and they're cable steering -- it's the old style of steering -- and unfortunately he didn't have time to test the boat before Roy Rogers took out on the lake," Kanally said. "He rigged the steering backwards, which is really pretty easy to do. And when Roy tried to steer one direction, the boat went the other direction, and he almost flew out of the boat."

Rogers became a partner and spokesperson for the company.

"In his spare time --  when he wasn't chasing bad guys in Yellow Jacket boats on episodes of 'The Roy Rogers Show' -- he was racing these boats in California," Kanally said.

In its final years, the Yellow Jacket Boat Company attempted to shift construction from wood to fiberglass boats.

"Their strong suit was using these laminated hulls, and they ran into a little engineering trouble trying to get a fiberglass hull that worked, and would sell, and would be competitive,"  Kanally said.

The Yellow Jacket Boat Company closed in 1960. Today, experts think there are probably still close to 1,000 of its products intact.

"If you know of a Yellow Jacket boat, please let us know," Kanally urged. "We will do what we can to acquire it and to restore it so that it no longer looks like it's been sitting in a barn for 50 years ... we'll get it into the hands of someone who can enjoy it with a whole other generation of people."

Both Cheatham and Kanally said these restoration projects will help preserve a part of Denison's history.

"There was a mom who put her hand on the side of the boat on the gunwale of the boat and told her granddaughter, 'This is the kind of boat my dad took us fishing in,'" Kanally said. "And you see right up there under the steering wheel? That's where I used to take a nap while dad was fishing."

"They just love the memories of the boat," Cheatham added. "Seeing them light up and share those stories mean the world to me. That's the whole reason I wanted to restore this boat."

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