by Vance Lauderdale
In the late 1950s, Memphis made a splash into the pleasure boating craze that swept the country. Many of the boats built in garages and little shops in other cities in those days weren’t worth remembering, but three entrepreneurs here established a company building boats that are still on the water today.
In 1959, entrepreneurs Michael Ossorio, Harry Schmeisser Jr., and P.O. Tipton opened a factory at 1764 Chelsea and began producing a fleet of fiberglass boats under the name Arrow Glass. “Arrow” paid tribute to this area’s Native-American heritage, and “glass” reflected the fiberglass hulls that shaped most of the boats made at that time — a process that was more efficient than using steel, aluminum, or wood since it allowed for sleek curves, one-piece hulls, molded-in colors, and low on maintenance.
The firm began producing fairly basic models. A 1959 catalog shows just four boats, called the Sebring, Empress, Olympus, and Daytona, ranging in length from 14 to 19 feet, but available in six bright colors: Meridian Blue, Dragon Red, Sahara Beige, Foam Green, Sail White, and Onyx Black.
After a few years, Ossorio and Schmeisser bought out Tipton’s interest in the company and became co-owners. By all accounts, their products were high-quality boats, winning numerous competitions, and after just a year or so, to meet the growing demand for their products, Arrow Glass moved to larger facilities next to the old Firestone plant in North Memphis. At the time, Ossorio told reporters, “The boating business in this area is growing fantastically. Lack of good boating water is the only thing that could hold the business back.”
Arrow Glass started out building just one boat a day, and by the mid-1970s the company was cranking out more than 5,000 hulls a year, with more than 270 employees running four production lines. Advertisements told buyers that the boats had “the design with you in mind” and stressed the quality and performance of the entire line. A 1972 catalog showed a dramatic increase in the selection available for customers. Even the most basic fishing craft came in beautifully contoured shapes and colors, with features such as locking rod storage, padded seats, high-back chairs, running lights, foam flotation built under the floor, insulated ice boxes, carpeting. The company now offered more than two dozen boats, in every color of the rainbow. That year, the top-of-the-line model was the Polaris, a 20-foot cabin cruiser with a 270-horsepower inboard engine, multi-level seating, aluminum railings, tempered-glass windshield, a full complement of instruments and controls, and genuine wood paneling.
Despite the popularity of the boats, the company filed for bankruptcy in 1979, and Memphis businessman Clarence Day purchased the business, changing its name to Day Marine. Other changes of ownership and name followed — Eldocraft and later General Marine Industries — and the plant moved to Waynesboro, Mississippi, but nothing, it seems, could keep the floundering company afloat. Arrow Glass closed for good in the early 1990s, though the boats were so well-designed and constructed that plenty of them — still sporting their distinctive arrowhead logos — can be found on lakes and rivers here.
James Cochran, today an engineer with the Crump Firm, was the compliance officer for Arrow Glass in the 1970s, making sure the boats met boating industry and federal regulations. He recalls that their most popular model during that period was the Cheetah, a 17-foot inboard-outboard. “It had a tri-hull design, and it was very responsive, very stable, and very quick,” he says. “It was probably the best boat we ever built, and in our day we were considered a top-notch builder.”
On a website devoted to American boat manufacturers (proboards.com), Cochran is the site moderator for Arrow Glass, and notes, “Arrow Glass became internationally famous for being ‘Customer Designed’ and was one of the top recreational boat manufacturers, noted for its dedication to safety and quality. Mike [Ossorio] and Harry [Schmeisser] are no longer with us, but their dream can be found worldwide in every Arrow Glass boat, and their memory lives on.”
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