The Outboard Marine Corporation is the world’s largest manufacturer of outboard motors. Its brands include Evinrude and Johnson, two of the most widely recognized names in the boating industry. The company can trace its origins back to the woodsheds and barns of two entrepreneurial families living in the American Midwest. Both Ole Evinrude and Leo Johnson shared a love for the water, a passion for new ideas, and an indomitable spirit. Separately, both men achieved greatness through their hard work and sheer determination to succeed. Together, their namesake companies have maintained dominance in the marine industry for more than 80 years.
Ole Evinrude was born on a farm in Christiana, Norway on April 19, 1877, one of eleven children born to Andrew and Beatta Evinrude. At the age of five, Ole moved with his family to America, settling in Cambridge, Wisconsin. It was on the journey to the US that Ole fell in love with boats and the motors that powered them. He spent much of the oceanic voyage in the engine room of the ship, fascinated by all that he saw.
In America, life was much the same as it had been in Norway. Ole’s father, having lost three uncles to the sea, persuaded Ole to put aside his longing for a maritime life and concentrate on farming and landscaping. After dropping out of school in the third grade, Ole worked alongside his father on the family farm and in a tobacco warehouse as a sorter. Soon Ole became a household name among the neighboring farms for his ability to repair broken tools that would usually have required a trip to the blacksmith’s shop.
With money saved from his job at the warehouse, Ole bought a subscription to a mechanical-science magazine and began to build a sailboat out of lumber from his father’s woodshed. His father was furious at the time and money he felt Ole had wasted on the effort and broke the boat to pieces for firewood. Devastated but not defeated, Ole began again to build another sailboat. This time he hid the pieces throughout the farm until a few months after his sixteenth birthday when his father went out of town. During his father’s absence, which lasted only a few days, Ole assembled his handcrafted18-foot sailboat and docked it in the lake. When his father returned home and asked about the boat, Ole confessed that he had made it. Unlike what he was expecting, Ole’s father was impressed by his son’s efforts and gave his blessing for Ole to pursue his dreams.
That same summer Ole began to use his boat to ferry sightseers around Lake Ripley, charging 25 cents per person. He saved enough money to move to Madison, where he became an apprentice machinist in the Fuller and Johnson farm machinery shop. While working, Ole became interested in an idea that he had read about in his mechanical-science magazine. The idea was to power a boat, and possibly a carriage, with a new type of gasoline engine. This idea stayed with Ole as he moved from job to job. In 1900, he landed at the E.P. Allis Company in Milwaukee, where he was employed as a pattern maker; a profession that would serve him well in the years to come.