ELDERLEE, INC. of Oaks Corners, NY built a fine line of sailboats and rowboats from 1946 – 1968. Perhaps the most prominent of these was the Star International Class sailboat. ELDERLEE was the final successor to a boat building firm originally established in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, NY shortly after WWI.
Around the beginning of the 20th century, Joseph Parkman and his brother Thomas immigrated to the United States from Hungary, and settled in the New York City area. Tom became a skilled furniture maker. Eventually he developed an interest in boat building, and apprenticed in that trade. Following the conclusion of WWI, Joe and Tom Parkman established a boat building business in Brooklyn, near Gravesend Bay.
The business soon began specializing in the construction of Star class sailboats, and quickly gained the reputation as one of the pre-eminent builders of this increasingly popular one-design yacht. Parkman Stars won numerous championships, including the 1928 Internationals and the 1932 Olympics. John and Robert Kennedy co-owned a Parkman Star. From 1926 until Joe’s retirement in 1936, the shop built over 200 Star sailboats, or approximately 20% of the hulls licensed by the ISCYRA (International Star Class Yacht Racing Association) during that period.
Following Joe Parkman’s retirement, Sampson Smith and George Elder acquired the business, retaining Tom Parkman as superintendent. (Elder and Smith had been president and treasurer respectively of the ISCYRA.) It was probably at this time that the name of the firm was changed to PARKMAN YACHTS, INC. The boat plant remained in Brooklyn, and the offices were relocated to a building on 42nd street in NYC, which housed another Smith business (and also became home of the ISCYRA). PARKMAN YACHTS, INC. continued to build Star sailboats until WWII, when the business was converted to war-time production (producing oars, lifeboats, etc.) under the name of STAR MARINE CO.
In 1945, Cebern Lee, an upstate New York businessman and avid Star sailor, purchased the business and relocated it to Oaks Corners, NY. The boat building operation was installed in an old barn adjacent to other businesses he owned. Tom Parkman came along as superintendent, and managed the operation for Lee for the next 22 years. The business was renamed ELDERLEE, reflecting the collaboration of George Elder and Cebern Lee.
With Tom Parkman’s hands-on management, the firm continued to produce Star sailboats of the highest quality. The shop employed six to seven boat builders in the early years. An ELDERLEE ad from 1950 quoted a price of $1600 for a fully-equipped Star. As the demand for Stars decreased (ISCYRA records list only five Stars built by ELDERLEE), the boat line was expanded to include Comets, Thistles, and rowboats. The latter two were built from marine plywood. The plant’s mill included a duplicating lathe (probably obtained during the war production era) which could readily produce other turned objects such as oars, baseball bats and rolling pins. A generous supply of 2nd quality ball bats was made available to youngsters in Oaks Corners.
Both Cebern Lee and Tom Parkman were avid members of the Seneca Yacht Club, located at the foot of Seneca Lake adjacent to Geneva, NY. In addition to building, tuning and mending boats, Tom held youth sailing classes. He is remembered with great fondness by his former students.
Tom Parkman died in 1968. With his passing, the boat building business known as ELDERLEE, INC. also ceased to exist. A bronze plaque hangs on the wall at the Seneca Yacht Club, commemorating Tom’s long association with SYC and the esteem in which he was held by the members. Tom is thought to have built more Star sailboats during his 40+ year career than any other builder.
The author is indebted to many people who helped with the research for this article, including John Marks of the Geneva Historical Society, David Bolles of the ISCYRA, Bob Rook of the present-day Elderlee, Inc., Martha Wilson and her colleagues at the SYC, and Judith Walsh of the Brooklyn Public Library.
Bill Oben, November 8, 2005