LACONIA — In 1914, James R. “Jim” Irwin boarded a train in Boston and got off at Weirs Beach. He was a young man from a poor Irish-American family, and his worldly possessions were contained within the suitcase he carried in one hand and a trumpet case in the other.
In just a few years, Irwin became one of the most important players in the Weirs Beach business scene, and his mark is still visible on the city today, both in terms of the marine company that bears his name and also in other ways that are less apparent, but equally significant.
Jim Irwin was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Oct. 27, 1891, and grew up in Dorchester. Young Jim’s life was meager, according to his son, John P. “Jack” Irwin. By the time most children would be preparing for high school, Jim, the oldest of eight children, was seeking his education in the real world – specifically, Boston’s financial district, where he found work as a message boy, running orders between traders.
He saved his earnings until he could buy a trumpet, and then paid for trumpet lessons with the best teacher that would take him. As Jack tells it, his father, even though he grew up modestly, wouldn’t settle for second-best. Those lessons proved to be a worthy investment.
“World War I came along, and he joined the Navy,” said Jack. “One of the things that he did in the Navy was blow the trumpet.”
Jim might not have been born into a privileged family, but he knew how to play the cards that he was dealt. One of those was the natural ability to sell, and when he got to Weirs he talked his way into a house band at a dancehall that also screened silent movies.
But Jim Irwin had more in mind than a gig playing music, and he didn’t waste any time pursuing the opportunities he saw.
“The rest of that band, in the morning, would sleep in,” Jack said. “He got up and got a job at a little marine yard.”
It was 1914, right at the beginning of boating on Winnipesaukee. The marina that hired Irwin was more of a machine and repair shop than what a marina looks like today. Within a few short years, Irwin was not just a trumpet player and a yard hand – he was the band leader and manager of the marine business. And in the off-season, he returned to Boston to work in the financial district and play in an orchestra.
Then Irwin was called to join the US Navy and assigned aboard the USS Nebraska, two weeks before World War I was declared. He organized an orchestra, which was so successful he was ordered to form others. He was formally discharged at the end of 1918, but did not return until late February of 1919.
When he came back to Weirs Beach that year, Irwin purchased the Music Hall and marine business, marking the beginning of Irwin Marine. He saw a greater potential than machining parts and repairing boats, and so he emphasized sales and rentals.
“My father always did everything tops,” Jack said. “He recognized what it was to be successful.”
And Irwin knew the value of a well-timed bluff. Jack pulls out a copy of a pamphlet his father printed in order to market his fledgling business to tourists arriving at the Weirs Train Station.
“The Largest Motorboat Livery in the World,” it boasts, and “25 Row-Boats” available to rent. Jack chuckled, “If he had 25 or 10, that’s a good question.” Later, when the elder Irwin was named chairman of the Lakeport National Bank, Jack asked him why it said “Dartmouth College” under his name, when he had never even attended high school. “All the other guys went to Dartmouth,” was the answer. And who would dare question the bank chairman?
He might not have attended high school, but Irwin proved that he had the acumen to teach business at Dartmouth. In 1924, when a fire ripped through The Weirs, the Weirs Music Hall on Tower Hill was among the many buildings destroyed. So, Irwin leveraged his connections, including those in Boston’s financial industry, to hire esteemed architect Arthur Osberg to build a bigger and better dancehall and silent movie theater, this time out over the water, on the Winnipesaukee Pier, called the Winnipesaukee Gardens.
“He got the best architect he could get,” Jack said.
Six days a week, there was music in the dancehall, including some of the biggest names of the Big Band era. But often it was Irwin’s band, swinging into the night, and looking fresh even though he had started work early that morning.
“My dad was a dapper,” Jack said. “He changed his clothes three times a day, that was just his nature.” Jim Irwin would come home at lunch and put on a fresh suit before he went back to work, and would change again after dinner to go to the dancehall. Jack once counted 21 pairs of footwear in his father’s closet, each shoe looking brand-new.
With his look, he knew how to project success. And that’s how he was able to walk into the Chris Craft headquarters in Algonac, Michigan, and walk out as a dealer of the prestigious line of boats.
“He was someone who knew what to do,” Jack said. “He knew what people liked, he understood that if you had a good showroom and could please the customer with good service,” he would succeed. And he did, partly because of that formula, and partly because of his personality.
“He could greet someone at the door and next thing you knew, the guy is buying a boat,” Jack said. “Everybody loved my dad. They would come into the showroom after they bought, just to talk to my dad.”
Irwin didn’t just offer boats, he sold boating. He didn’t just play music, he sold nightlife. More than that, even. When skiing became popular, he was instrumental in bringing the ski trains up from Boston. He is also credited with the first passenger plane service to Laconia. No, Irwin didn’t just sell boats – he sold New Hampshire’s Lakes Region as a recreation destination.
And he helped develop that destination. Irwin Marine sponsored powerboat racing and waterskiing teams. He was a founder of the Lakes Region Association, the Weirs Chamber of Commerce, the Laconia Chamber of Commerce, the Winnipesaukee Power Boat Association, and the Wilkins Smith American Legion Post.
He organized the first radio station in the state, WLKV, and helped to bring the current MS Mount Washington to Winnipesaukee after the first vessel bearing that name was lost in a fire.
And, according to Jack, he was a great dad to the five children he and his wife Ella had, all while shaping a business that his family still operates. That Irwin Marine continues to be a success 100 years after its founding has a lot to do with the traits its founder impressed upon his children, Jack said.
One of those traits was attention to detail. “When he came through the door into the room, even when he was older, he made sure that everything was in place. We picked up on that, we try to have an organized operation,” Jack said.
He also made sure that his children knew how to work. Including on weekends.
Jack said that he loved to swim as a boy, but that he wasn’t allowed in the water until he had picked up all the caramel corn boxes that were discarded on the boardwalk by the previous night’s revelers. And on Sunday mornings, the Winnipesaukee Gardens would host mass, and it was the Irwin kids who had to lug the heavy wooden seats out in time for the worship.
Jim rewarded his children with encouragement for their own interests, said Jack, whether it was his athletic career at Boston College, or his sisters, Dottie and Elinore, who inherited their father’s musicality. Jim Jr. had a distinguished career as a Navy pilot, and Robert Irwin created Irwin Motors.
James R. Irwin Sr. died on March 18, 1966. He was 74 years old.
“He was just a great person,” Jack said.