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Former city administrator's book brings boat-racing era to life

Book author Bernie Van Osdale not only knows well the history of Johnson and Evinrude boat motors, he also has all the models of outboard boat motor the company ever made. <i>Debbie Griffin photo</i>

When Bernie Van Osdale retired from his job as River Falls city administrator late in 2008, he said he was bound for more time with his boats, a book and family bonding.

Since then he's gotten to hang out much more in his big and beloved 'boat barn' at home in the town of Kinnickinnic and watched his family grow with three more grandchildren. Van Osdale also got busy penning the book that's been building in his head for 38 years.

He published in October "Vintage Outboard Motorboat Racing, An Illustrated History 1927-1959."

Van Osdale's book reminisces through the era of outboard motorboat racing, pausing to tell stories of how it looked and felt through the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.

"My book is really about these engines," he said, gesturing to a line of them mounted to stands in the shop. "I have all the Johnson-Evinrude (outboard boat) racing motors ever built."

Interest grows, anchors

Van Osdale, who lives in the town of Kinnickinnic, said he didn't "get into" boat racing until he was about 30. He had loved the sport since watching his dad do it before he died when Van Osdale was just eight.

He kept his dad's helmet and some other equipment, as well as the boat his dad had been building. He eventually finished and raced it with one of the old motors.

He adds that the book's story includes not only the motors of that era's outboard racing, but also the people who built, raced and loved the motors.

Van Osdale said he delved into racing after seeing an old Johnson-Evinrude engine at a service station. He couldn't believe anyone was still running them.

The book author said he cashed in a life-insurance policy to get his first boat. He competes mostly in the antique class but also enjoys other types of crafts. His collection includes an ice boat.

Van Osdale won a national championship in 2007. He still races but said after a near-spill recently, he's letting someone else drive until he loses some weight.

A visit to his home workshop reveals boats and boat parts; multiple motors; walls covered with racing, boat and motor memorabilia; and hundreds upon hundreds of books. The surroundings demonstrate Van Osdale's self-proclaimed love of old-style motors.

"Outboard racing was really popular in the 30s," he said, adding that one made by Johnson-Evinrude that year is still being used now.

He said the sport brought together people of both genders, all ages and different classes. Some were the rich at play, others were mechanics or machinists challenging themselves, many were just out to have inexpensive fun.

He said Johnson-Evinrude stopped making the racing motors after WWII, but people loved them so much, they just kept making replacement parts.

By the 1950s, German-made Mercury engines dominated the racing market. Van Osdale said later, he helped get the Johnson-Evinrude motors re-introduced as a racing-class motor.

"That's part of the story of my book," he said.

The author also covers the evolution of the motor-making company itself, telling how Johnson and Evinrude were separate, even competing, companies but later came together as one.

Book bound

As Van Osdale endeavored to write, he began talking with Hudson-based publisher Iconografix, which focuses on specialized books for transportation enthusiasts.

The publishing company asked for an outline, and the author presented his idea to focus on racing in California, of which he has many photos. The publisher liked the idea but said, "well, it's only California."

"I knew I'd have to take it (the idea) nationwide," he said.

Van Osdale spent about a year writing and producing the book, which included time researching at archives and digging through his collection. He wrote the copy longhand, then his wife, Cindy, typed it for him. He and a few others took turns proofreading and editing the book, too.

A great find in the process was the collection of high-quality photos available for purchase from the Mystic Seaport, The Museum of America and the Sea in Mystic, Conn.

He says the book's introduction was written by Paul Wearly, a friend of Van Osdale's father and a man the author calls "probably the best boat racer of all time." He feels lucky to have gained access to Wearly's photos for the book, too.

He said feedback about the publication has been good. He heard from one woman whose father is 96 and enjoyed outboard motorboat racing. She said the two had great fun going through the book together.

Excerpts from it have also appeared in two magazines, "Classic Boating" and "Antique Outboarder." Van Osdale ordered 1,000 of the books in October and has about half of them left.

Van Osdale's research shows it is one of a handful of books that talk about outboard-motor boat racing, as well as the people and era it influenced, "It was a great way to grow up," he comments.

Interested buyers can get the book online at and at Chapter 2 books in Hudson.

Van Osdale hopes to have some copies at local stores soon. Its retail price is $34.95.