By Tracy Ormsbee
Peter “Pete” Hornbeck, the schoolteacher turned iconic Adirondack boatbuilder whose canoes topped cars from Lake Placid to Florida, California and overseas, died Saturday of an apparent heart attack after a walk with his family on his property. He was 77.
For almost 50 years, he ran Hornbeck Boats, a business he started in his garage in 1971, from a shop on his property in Olmstedville alongside wife, Ann. On any given weekend, you could find him holding court with customers who came from all over the country and world to his pond to try out and buy boats weighing as little as 12 pounds. He was known for his sense of humor and colorful storytelling.
“That was my dad,” daughter Leigh Hornbeck Trombley said. “He liked his own jokes and stories best.”
In 2018, he retired from Hornbeck Boats to be creative director and “president for life,” turning the business over to son-in-law Josh Trombley.
One of his early boats is on display in the Adirondack Experience museum in Blue Mountain Lake, alongside boatbuilder John Henry Rushton’s 19th century original — the boat that inspired Hornbeck’s own design.
His boats, said longtime friend Kim Bessette, opened up the water and wildlife to so many because they were so easy to carry and manage.
And every year Hornbeck donated several boats to organizations to raffle off as fundraisers, from One Square Mile for Hope, for breast cancer awareness, to Trout Unlimited.
He built boats on the side during his 23 years as a third- and sixth-grade teacher at Johnsburg Central School in North Creek. He built them in his garage until, as daughter Leigh said the legend goes, Ann Hornbeck handed over her own teacher’s “balloon check” received in the summer to get the smell of resin out of her house.
“She wanted him to have his own building,” Leigh Hornbeck said. He left teaching in 1992 to build boats full-time.
He and Ann, both of Hamburg, met when he was in the Army and she was in college. They married in 1969 and soon after moved to the Adirondacks, where they bought and renovated their farmhouse in Olmstedville. He did much of the work himself.
He used his voice as a successful manufacturer and retailer in the Adirondacks to influence land-protection policy. He believed it was wilderness and protected land that brought the visitors to the Adirondack Park, and he was a proponent of the state of New York buying more land. Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, for which Hornbeck was a longtime board member, remembered how he had helped organize the group’s Canoe-In for Wilderness in the summer of 1998. More than 250 canoes and kayaks descended on Little Tupper Lake to encourage its classification by the Adirondack Park Agency as wilderness, and they were successful.
“For him there was nothing greater than being involved in a campaign to save land and have it protected as wilderness,” Bauer said.
Hornbeck was on the board of the Residents’ Committee to Protect the Adirondacks from 1994 until 2009 and had served eight as chair when it then merged to become Protect the Adirondacks. He remained on the board of Protect the Adirondacks.
“He provided a perspective of someone who is living here and had a business here,” Bauer said of Hornbeck’s work on Protect’s board. “That’s an important voice to have and that certainly helped in framing responses to issues.”
He was also an artist and painted watercolors of Adirondack scenes and people enjoying them in his boats. He used them to advertise his boats in Adirondack magazines, and two weeks ago a fan who had admired them bought all of the originals to decorate his new home, Leigh Hornbeck said.
Hornbeck was a founding member of the LEAG (League of Extraordinary Adirondack Gentlemen), a group of men who recreated Adirondack outings of the past with an annual canoe and camping trip in the Adirondack Park. Hornbeck preferred wilderness camping over state campgrounds.
The group’s 2020 gathering was at Hornbeck’s boat shop, where, under his instruction, the group built a boat for the Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation to use as a fundraiser.
Tom Bessette is a member of the LEAG, founder of the 1,300-member Hornbeck Boat Lovers group on Facebook, and a longtime friend. He and wife Kim, like so many others, began a friendship at his shop the day they bought their canoes. They would stop by the shop to see him, thinking they’d visit for an hour, and four hours later would still be there.
“You could stop in and see him and he would drop everything he was doing,” Bessette said.
When Bessette had a stroke in January, he said Hornbeck came with Ann and brought him a paddle to practice so he would be ready to get back in his boat.
“He was a guy who would give you the shirt off his back and you wouldn’t have to ask him for it. He made you feel special,” Bessette said. “He didn’t have any idea of his fame. He was affecting all these lives and he didn’t seem to have any idea about that.”
Hornbeck is survived by his wife Ann, daughter Leigh and son-in-law Josh Trombley, and two grandsons, Rushton and Devlin.
Stories featuring Hornbeck from the Explorer archive: