With apologies to Ernest Hemingway, Jeff Hixon has his own version of “The Old Man and the Sea” – or, more appropriately, the old man and the boat.
After almost a decade of searching for every scrap of information he could find about his wooden 1932 HollyCraft, an unexpected visitor to Hixon’s home changed everything.
“I already loved the boat,” Hixon said of his barn find. “But that raised it to another level.”
Hixon, who will celebrate his 58th birthday in June, fell in love with cars and boats growing up in Minnesota. He has owned a number of Corvettes and now runs an automotive restoration business in Ventura, Calif. While classic cars became his business, classic boats provided him a hobby.
“I always admired wood boats; they were something I dreamed about owning someday,” Hixon said. “Since I work on cars all day, boats gave me something fun and different to do.”
Hixon made his first classic wooden boat purchase in 1995 when he snagged a 1955 Chris-Craft Capri. Today, Hixon and his wife, Laurie, own three classic vessels – a 1950 Riviera, a 1952 Chris-Craft kit boat and the star of their fleet, the ’32 HollyCraft. Hixon bought the race boat in the late ’90s after seeing it in an advertisement for an auction house that he frequented.
“It seemed odd because usually they only sold furniture and stuff like that,” he said. “The only information I could get was that it had been stored in a barn for over 50 years. I’m guessing the family of the original owner sold it to the auction house and didn’t want to be bothered about it. There just wasn’t a lot of information.”
Hixon decided to roll the dice anyway, and he won the auction. Since the boat was in solid “survivor” condition, he left it that way – complete with the name RUSTLER and C-89 designation on the side.
“It’s been kept in storage most of its life,” Hixon said. “I’ve done almost nothing to it except for adding the engine – a ’40s-era Evinrude 4-60.”
Hixon learned that the HollyCraft Boat Company, based in California, produced pleasure boats and smaller racing boats in the early 1930s before eventually switching to larger racing boats. He’d also been told that his boat may have belonged to the stunt double for Hollywood legend John Wayne. Since Wayne often starred in westerns, the RUSTLER nickname certainly fit. But Hixon couldn’t prove that.
There were more questions about the ’32 HollyCraft than there were answers. Then something amazing happened.
“A friend of mine mentioned the boat to a mutual friend, Randy Simonson,” Hixon said. “What I didn’t know was that Randy’s dad, Thol, had worked for HollyCraft when he was a teenager. His dad was 95 and lived in Scottsdale (Ariz.), and he wanted to see the boat. So on one of his last visits to California in 2007, he and Randy came over. Thol was in a wheelchair, but he was sharp. His memory was very good.”
Years earlier, in “The Early History of the Hollywood Yacht Club,” Thol Simonson wrote of his connection to HollyCraft: “In 1928, I purchased a racing outboard from a newly formed boat company on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Vine Street in Hollywood. In order to make payments easier, I accepted part-time work helping out in the shop.” Simonson went onto bigger and better things – he created special effects for movies like “Jaws” and “Superman” – but he still worked for HollyCraft in 1932. When he saw Hixon’s boat, his eyes lit up.
“He ran his fingers over the hull and he said, ‘I put the screws in this boat,’” Hixon said. “He said they made only two of that particular design in 1932 and he worked on both. He knew what he was looking at.”
Thol Simonson died three years ago, and Hixon regrets not sitting down with him and recording an interview. Still, nothing that Hixon learns about HollyCraft in the future will hold a candle to the moment he spoke with one of the men who built his boat.
“It’s so weird to think that everyone who ever worked on these boats is gone,” Hixon said. “I still get feedback and information from people online, but to meet someone who had something to do with building it, that was pretty special.”