A History of the Loudonville-Mohican Area Canoe Liveries
By Irv Oslin
Editors Note: This story was commissioned in 2011 by the local convention and visitors bureau and had been posted on their website. However, it doesn’t seem to be available any more, so I’ve revived it here.
In 1961, a slender, bespectacled man named Dick Frye started renting canoes on the banks of Clear Fork of the Mohican River. This humble venture spawned a canoe livery industry that would make the Loudonville-Mohican area the canoeing capital of Ohio.
The area’s canoe liveries have weathered many changes in 50 years. They managed to stay afloat through floods, draught, economic doldrums and the changing tastes of generations of paddlers.
Over the years, liveries have come and gone or changed hands, but some of the early players remain. They continue to be a guiding force for the area’s livery business.
The First Livery
All of those involved acknowledge that they owe a debt of gratitude to Frye, the man who started it all. Frye, a Crestline, Ohio, native, died in 1992 at the age of 71. He had a passion for canoeing, downhill skiing and life itself. Frye died while skiing on opening day at Snow Trails near Mansfield, Ohio.
“He died doing what he loved,” his daughter, Cindy Nickles said.
Like the children of many canoe livery owners, Nickles has fond memories of working at the livery from an early age.
In fact, the liveries spawned many fond memories for the young people who worked there in the summers. Among them was Ashland University director of professional development services Tom Lavinder, who worked for Frye 1969-1973. He was in high school and college at the time.
“To tell you how great a guy Dick was, he would always slip us a $5 or $10 bill on weekend days when we would bring the canoes back via trailer from the Wally Campground, so we could keep the canoes rotating for people waiting back at the livery to take their trip,” Lavinder said. “He always wanted to keep the canoes coming back from pickups so people wouldn’t have a long wait to take their trip.”
One day, Lavinder took the corner too fast at the State Route 3 bridge and wiped out a couple of storage racks and canoes on the trailer.
“As I pulled in, Dick walked up to the van just as he would have if he was going to give me a $5 or $10 tip,” Lavinder said. “I was pretty sure he was going to give me an earful about destroying the racks and damaging the canoes. He just calmly slipped me a $20 bill, smiled and said, ‘I’m sure that will never happen again’.”
Frye was right; it didn’t happen again.
Before Frye started the canoe livery, Nickles and other family members worked at a 20-unit motel he had built in Ontario, Ohio. They sold the motel after the livery was established.
Frye got the idea for the canoe livery in the 1950s. He took a trip to Michigan, rented a boat from a livery and paddled the Au Sable River. He was convinced that canoe liveries would catch on back home.
Frye started by renting his own canoe, operating out of an old Mercury station wagon at State Routes 3 and 97. He bought the canoe while in junior high school, paying a dollar a week for it from money he made on his paper route.
The idea caught on, so Frye bought 14 canoes, built an A-frame hut and Mohican Canoe Livery was born. It was Ohio’s first.
On July 4, 1969, the area was struck by one of the worst floods in history. A local teenager named Doug Shannon helped the Frye family retrieve canoes from the rain-swollen Mohican River. So began Shannon’s immersion into the area’s canoe livery industry.
The Mohican Canoe Livery was built on land Frye leased from the state. He was becoming uncomfortable with the arrangement, so he bought land on State Route 3 along the banks of Black Fork of the Mohican River and started a second livery, Dick Frye’s Canoe Livery.
Shannon and his wife, Patty, took over operations of that livery, leasing it in 1974. They bought it and Frye’s original Mohican Canoe Livery in 1979 and combined the two. The Shannons moved Frye’s A-frame hut and canoes to the site along the Black Fork. The A-frame remains on the livery grounds to this day.
The Shannon’s operation, now called Mohican Adventures, had grown to include go-carts, miniature golf, camping and cabins.
Over the years, other entrepreneurs operated a livery at the original site on the Clear Fork under the name State Park Canoe Livery.
Other Early Players
Meanwhile, a few other area businessmen took note of Frye’s early success. In 1965, Howard “Hezzy” Nave started Loudonville Canoe Livery on West Main Street. A few years later, Ken Wobbecke, who started Mohican Wilderness Campground on Wally Road, got into the livery business. In the mid to late ’60s, Clayton Drouhard started Pleasant Hill Canoe Livery on the Black Fork in Perrysville.
Nave died shortly after this article was written. He was 76 years old. Wobbecke died in 2009 at the age of 89. Wobbecke was widely recognized as a pioneer in the area’s campground and tourism industry. Right up to the end, he was working on expanding recreational opportunities at Mohican Wilderness and the entire valley. Drouhard died in 2006.
Loudonville Canoe Livery is still going strong. Ken Wobeccke’s wife, Ann, and other family members continue to operate the livery at Mohican Wilderness. Pleasant Hill Canoe Livery changed hands a few times. George and Amy Smith ultimately bought the livery and operated it under the name Pleasant Valley Canoe Livery, which ceased operating in 2004. Like other area campground owners, the Smiths now arrange with area liveries to provide canoe trips for their campers.
Former Cleveland Browns football player and State Senator Dick Schafrath bought Loudonville Canoe Livery in 1973. He and his family owned and operated it for 24 years.
“I was very happy working with my brother, Mike, and his kids,” Schafrath said. “You can’t buy that kind of happiness.”
He remembered that things were different in the early days. Liveries operated in a more casual atmosphere. Teenage helpers drove rickety shuttle buses and towed canoe trailers up and down the narrow winding roads. Though not officially condoned, drinking on the river was common. That changed over the years. Adults now drive the buses and are required to have commercial driver’s licenses. The buses are inspected annually by the state. Livery owners work with the Ohio Division of Watercraft to discourage drinking on the river.
In 1997, Schafrath sold Loudonville Canoe Livery to Chris Snively and Mike Heffelfinger. They own Mohican Reservation Campground on Wally Road and had been contracting with Loudonville Canoe Livery to provide canoes for their campers.
Mel Reinthal, another early player in the Loudonville-Mohican canoe livery industry, has stayed in the thick of things. He bought Pleasant Hill Canoe Livery from Drouhard in 1973. He sold the livery to the Smiths in 1999, but retained the rights to the name. He still works for folks in the business including the Shannons. In the summer, Reinthal runs a concession stand called Mel’s World-famous Hot Dots on the grounds of Mohican Adventures.
“This still allows me to talk with the livery customers, which I dearly love,” Reinthal said.
By and large, livery owners have enjoyed being in a business where the chief product is fun. But, it is a business and not always fun and games. Competition drove the evolution of the industry. That’s been particularly evident on State Route 3 south of Loudonville, where most of the liveries are clustered.
After his early success with Pleasant Hill Canoe Livery, Drouhard registered the name Mohican River Canoe Livery and set up shop just north of Mohican Canoe Livery. It was one of several that came and went over the years on that stretch of State Route 3.
The Shannons bought Mohican River Canoe Livery in 1980, ending Drouhard’s involvement in the industry. They operated it as a separate entity for three or four years before merging it with their livery.
South of the Shannons’ operation was Black Fork Canoe Livery. Larry Rogers started it in 1973 or 1974. While in high school and college, Rogers had worked for Frye.
“When I started with him, I thought nobody would really rent a canoe,” Rogers said. “I remember more than once asking him whether he ever thought it would turn into this. He said yes, but I wasn’t sure whether he really believed it.”
One thing the early players had in common was a vivid imagination — and a tendency to act on it. Rogers was no exception. He built his own fiberglass kayaks. They were later made by John Barnhill. This was at a time when the liveries only offered canoes.
“It was a really hard sell,” Rogers said. “For the first couple of months, I’d tell them take a kayak and, if you don’t like it, don’t pay me.”
It turns out that Rogers was decades ahead of his time.
“Kayaks are definitely the growing trend,” said Patty Shannon of Mohican Adventures. “Over the years, we went from aluminum to plastic canoes, then rafts. Now we’re expanding our kayaks.”
Rogers sold Black Fork Canoe Livery to Schafrath in the mid ’80s. Schafrath ran it for about 10 years.
Anchoring the south end of “livery row” on State Route 3 is Mohican Valley Camp & Canoe. Recollections of current livery owners and tax map records indicate that it was started — perhaps in the late ’60s — by the Ziegler family. It originally was called Ziggy’s Canoe Livery. The Shannons recalled that it was once run by a man named Norm Heller or “Stormin’ Norman,” as they called him.
The livery appears to have changed hands a couple of times over the years. The current owners, Al and Sheila Bechtel, bought it in 1990 from Sheila’s cousin, Robert A. Guisinger.
The Bechtel’s bought it because they “were looking for something to do.” It’s been every bit of that.
“It’s very intense, I’ve gone 40 hours straight without sleep,” Al Bechtel said. “But I enjoy the independence and the people I’ve gotten to know over the years, the regular customers who keep coming back.”
A number of canoe liveries up and down the river came and went over the years, including Clear Fork (later Webster’s Mountain Sports) and Blue Lagoon in Butler. Doug Shannon said there were also liveries upstream near Charles Mill Dam and downstream at Brinkhaven.
Patty Shannon believes the Butler liveries didn’t survive because that stretch of the Clear Fork is too shallow most of the summer.
On the other hand, Amy Smith of Pleasant Valley Canoe Livery believes it’s hard to compete with the allure of the Loudonville-based liveries. They tried to entice paddlers to try a more remote stretch of the river upstream.
“We marketed and marketed and marketed that trip, but people told us they wanted to be where the action is,” Smith said.
Lake Fork Canoe Livery was an exception. The livery has operated on an isolated fork of the Mohican River for more than 30 years, offering quiet trips for families and nature lovers.
Jeff Gilman started it in the late ’70s. His family bought Long Lake Campground in the early ’70s and he decided to test the waters in the canoe livery business. But he didn’t enjoy it.
“After three years of running the livery, I was exhausted,” Gilman said. “I sold the canoes to Reinthal and sold the livery.”
Sherman Lavinder owned the livery for three or four years before Britt and Nancy Young bought it in 1983. (Sherman Lavinder was the father of the previously mentioned Tom Lavinder, who worked for Frye in the ’60s and ’70s.) The Youngs started Camp Toodik in 1969, a campground downstream from the livery. They originally didn’t plan to offer canoeing.
“Our campers got us into the canoe business,” Nancy Young said. “At first, they asked us to buy a few canoes for them to paddle around in front of the campground. Then they said, ‘Hey, you have a pickup truck, why not take us upstream?’”
The Youngs eventually bought a trailer, a van and 16 canoes and built the business from there. They later changed the name of the livery to Toodik on the Lake Fork. Before buying the livery, they used a county road right-of-way for a put-in point. Their son, Matt Young, recalled that it was quite a chore lugging canoes, two at a time, down a drainage ditch to the bank.
Britt Young loved to entertain his passengers on the shuttle bus by telling the stories behind various points of interest as he drove through the countryside. He died in 2002.
New Blood in the Livery Business
Nancy Young retired and sold Toodik Campground and the livery in 2007 to Bill and Brenda Lucas.
Asked why they bought the campground, Bill Lucas replied, “We’ve camped all our lives. While we were camping, we decided this is what we wanted to do.”
The Lucases are from Portage County and had never been to Camp Toodik before. They found out about it being for sale through the Internet.
“The livery came with it,” Brenda Lucas said. “You have to have a livery; that’s why people come to this area.”
They enjoy being on the quiet fork of the Mohican River.
“Some people like the crowds,” Brenda Lucas said. “But there are people who like it quiet, especially families with young kids.”
River Run Canoe Livery had a similar history. It’s affiliated with River Run Campground at the confluence of Black Fork and Clear Fork of the Mohican River. Bernard and Barbara Lassond developed the campground in the ‘70s.
Rick Osborne, who now owns the campground, started the livery. He was not a camper and had only canoed a few times. His father, Dennis “Duke” Osborne, was an executive with Kroger, the grocery store chain. Rick Osborne was following in his father’s footsteps, but his father discouraged him.
“He told me I wasn’t going to like it,” Rick Osborne said, referring to the corporate culture at Kroger. “He was looking through a Columbus paper, saw this place for sale and bought it.”
Like the previous owners of River Run Campground, they had contracted with a livery to handle the canoe business, in this case Loudonville Livery.
“When Schafrath sold the livery, I thought I could purchase my own equipment and do a good job of providing that service for our customers,” Rick Osborne said.
In 1997, he started a livery just upstream of the campground, directly across the Black Fork from Mohican Adventures. He built his business by emulating the area’s more successful operations.
“You look at who’s doing things right — like Doug and Patty,” Osborne said. “I’ve always tried to follow their example.”
Going With the Flow
There’s an old saying among paddlers: Go with the flow. That philosophy helped the Loudonville-Mohican area canoe livery industry stay afloat for 50 years.
It’s clearly not a business for the weak-of-heart. Over the years, it has taken plenty of patience, perseverance and a passion for an activity that appeals to a lot of different people for a lot of different reasons.
The liveries have weathered generations of economic and meteorological ebb and flow. In some cases, such as Mohican Adventures, there has been continuity from within. About 30 years ago, industry pioneer Frye passed the torch to the Shannons. Now their daughter, Michelle Gray, and her husband, Josh, are running the business.
Other liveries have evolved through ownership changes with a few new players coming aboard.
They all seem to have one thing in common — an appreciation for the challenges and rewards of the business. River Run Canoe Livery owner Osborne summed it up.
“It’s hard work, but there really isn’t anything I dread about it,” he said. “Where else can you make a living watching people have fun?”