Cardboard Boat Museum, Race
New Richmond, Ohio
Tell someone that you've visited the Cardboard Boat Museum and they'll probably think you're pulling their cardboard leg. Like The Paper House in Massachusetts, which also sounds impossible, the museum elevates our appreciation of the water-defying power of wood pulp.
The Cardboard Boat Museum exists because of New Richmond's annual Cardboard Boat Race on the Ohio River. "Back when we started this thing," said Ray Perszyk, chairman of the race committee, "you'd just throw cardboard in the river and hope for the best." Now the race draws thousands of spectators and well over 50 boats each year, all vying for the coveted Cardboard Cup.
The race's growing popularity has inspired its participants to build increasingly complex craft. "We built a 16-foot-long train; we built a Flintstones-mobile," said Tom Lemon, listing some of Team Lemon's boat creations. But when the race was over, said Tom, "we had to keep giving them away, or throwing them away. We needed a museum."
Indeed, how else would most people know about cardboard boats?
The museum occupies an old gas station that stands atop the riverbank. Dozens of boats are displayed; many are boxy representations of objects not normally associated with watercraft. Some look a lot like the carved Ghanaian coffins at the Museum of Funeral History. One boat resembles an oversized cup and saucer, another a World War II jeep, another a passenger jet. One boat was paddled eight miles downriver to Cincinnati, a world record distance for a cardboard vessel. To save space in the museum, some boats have had their front ends chopped off and mounted on the walls like hunting trophies.
Visiting the Cardboard Boat Museum means you'll visit with people like Ray and Tom, who have to be around to let you in anyway. You'll learn that cardboard boats don't float because of secret pulp technology; they're made of everyday cardboard, some tape, and lots of latex house paint.
"It keeps water out of houses," said Tom of the paint.
Team Lemon, we were told, uses cans of mismatched paint that otherwise would've been thrown out by the local hardware store. "It's great as long as you're not particular about color," said Ray. "And we're not."
And what of the implied comedy of a cardboard boat? It goes in the water, swells up, falls apart, gives everyone a big laugh? Sunken boats have no gallery in the Cardboard Boat Museum; they'd be too soggy to display. They're important, however, to the race, whose Titanic Award for the most spectacular sinking grows more problematic with each passing year. The boat builders have become too good; their layers of paint too impervious.
"We've gotta figure out a way to get more sinkings," Ray said. "It's like going to a NASCAR race without a wreck."
Maybe what's really on display at the Cardboard Boat Museum is a glimpse of alternative transportation in a resource-depleted future. No longer the butt of jokes, boats of scrap cardboard and mismatched paint could become the nautical-but-nice vehicles of the 21st+ century.
If what we all end up paddling resembles the craft at the Cardboard Boat Museum -- giant guitars or bananas or oversized hot dogs in a bun -- even better.