Commonwealth Journal

April 10, 2014

Kentucky dubbed ‘houseboat capital’ by lawmakers

by Bill Mardis
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset — Lake Cumberland’s rising waters and reputation as a “Houseboat Lake” no doubt were inspiration for Kentucky Sen. Chris Girdler’s resolution naming Kentucky the “Houseboat Capital of the World.” The resolution was adopted recently by the Kentucky Senate, making the title official.

The houseboat designation made national news. A story and photographs about Kentucky’s houseboat industry and Somerset being the birthplace of houseboat construction were published online March 27 by Houseboat Magazine, a Harris Publishing Store publication based in Idaho Falls, ID. Houseboat Magazine will host National Houseboat Expo 2014 June 6-8 at State Dock Marina on Lake Cumberland.

“We hear about Kentucky’s signature industries, but one that doesn’t get a lot of press or notoriety is that of the houseboat industry,” Senator Girdler told his fellow senators. “Somerset, Kentucky, was the birthplace of the houseboat in 1953. Since then, the houseboat industry has been a stable source of employment for many skilled craftsmen and, at the same time, has led to increased tourism in Kentucky,” the Somerset senator stated.

“The world has watched as thousands of houseboats have been built on the shores of Lake Cumberland and transported all over our great country and across the world. I believe it’s long overdue for Kentucky to have this title,” Girdler declared.

Girdler’s grandfather, James (Jim) Sharpe of Somerset, is affectionately known as “Grandfather of Houseboats.” Sharpe, now retired, is a leading pioneer of the lakestyle houseboat and nationally known builder of some of the world’s finest custom cruisers.

Gov. Steve Beshear met with Sharpe, former owner of Sumerset Houseboats; Bobby Gehring with Sunstar Houseboats and Bill Jasper with Stardust Cruisers, both of Monticello, and Girdler, following passage of Girdler’s resolution.

The houseboat industry was hurt badly by the recent economic downtown. Bank loans were tightened to the point people simply couldn’t borrow money to buy a houseboat. At present there are no houseboat manufacturers in Pulaski County, Sharpe told the Commonwealth Journal. Sunstar and Stardust in Wayne County and Majestic Yachts Inc. in Columbia are the three active houseboat firms in this area of Lake Cumberland, he said.

Earlier, at its peak, there were 14 houseboat manufacturers in this area employing hundreds of workers and producing as many as 500 houseboats a year.

Sharpe got the once-thriving houseboat industry started. In 1949, more than a year before Lake Cumberland was impounded, he founded Sharpe Marine in downtown Somerset. The business sold boats, motors and trailers. Sharpe changed the name of the company to Somerset Marine in 1953 and built his first houseboat, a 10-by-14-foot steel hull flat bottom with scow bow.

In 1959, Somerset Marine moved to a new location at the intersection of U.S. 27 and Ky. 80. By this time, Sharpe was building larger houseboats, 11 feet wide and 32 feet long.

Somerset Marine moved in 1969 to South U.S. 27. Facilities included a new showroom and 25,000-square-foot factory building. Sharpe changed spelling of Somerset to Sumerset when a printer made an error on a flyer and he liked it.

Sharpe sold the boat business in 1978, but returned and started building boats again after a previous owner went out of business. He began producing only aluminum houseboats, the smallest of which was 14 foot wide and 60 feet long. The business was slowed to a stop by the recent recession.

A normally operating Lake Cumberland will give the houseboat industry a tremendous boost, Sharpe predicted. Wolf Creek Dam, declared in high risk of failure in 2005, is now repaired and the lake returned to normal operation March 25. The lake is rapidly rising and the level Thursday morning was 715.75, about 7 feet below the tree line.

At pool stage (723 feet above sea level), Lake Cumberland is 101 miles long with more than 1,200 miles of shoreline. The lake, third largest body of water east of the Mississippi River, covers 50,250 acres and averages 90 feet deep. Its hundreds of wooded coves are perfect for houseboat hideaways.