Ed Gilkison is a creature of habit.
The 67-year-old has lived in the same Lakebay area since 1966. He starts every morning with a cup of percolated Folgers coffee. He regularly digs through shoe boxes full of vintage pictures of the area that would make any historical society jealous. He takes late-afternoon walks down to the post office to check the mail, often taking photos of the old boat barn over the water on Joe’s Bay. He even takes time almost daily to reminisce on his Facebook page about the history of Home, Lakebay and Longbranch.
But in between the parts of his day that move “like clockwork,” you could say Gilkison is more a creature of hobby.
Count ’em: Cook, baker, string and woodwind instrument collector, typewriter enthusiast, photographer, machinist, amateur historian. But perhaps the two hobbies-turned-moneymakers he and the Gilkison family are best known for are building fishing boats, and restoring and repairing antique Velocette motorcycles.
Born in Enumclaw in 1955, the youngest Gilkison spent his first 11 years living in Buckley before he, his father Larry, mother Katy and brother John moved to Home. The waterfront house at the corner of A Street. and 6th Avenue NW on Von Geldern Cove gave Larry much-needed space to build boats, something he was learning to do at Bates Vocational School.
“(Larry) built his first boat inside our living room in Buckley,” remembered Gilkison. “He had to take out the wall of our house to get it out.” As odd as that may sound, it was planned, and Larry ended up replacing the wall with a large sandstone fireplace.
“Our family has always been that way,” Gilkison said. “Hobbies come first.”
The Home house was previously owned by Leila Edmonds, daughter of George and Sylvia Allen, who helped found the Home Colony. They upgraded from a living room to an outdoor plastic-covered structure to build the boats. Even today the house is still missing an eave on one side after Larry removed it in the late 1960s to make it easier to move the newly built boats. They put up a separate shed, for the boys to tinker on their motorcycles, where Ed developed his passion for Velocette motorcycles.
Velocette wasn’t a household name in the United States, and wasn’t even much of a player in the motorcycle industry in its nearly 70 years in business. The British company maybe averaged building 20 to 25 motorcycles a month. The company closed in 1971 and around that same time the then 15-year-old Ed bought his first Velocette — a 1947 model that came to him in pieces. That was the first of about 30 Velocette motorcycles Ed has fully restored in his life. He’s done major repairs to another 30.
Ed’s a 1973 Peninsula High School graduate and credits his two years of metal shop and one year of auto shop at the school as the catalyst for his fabrication skills.
“Classes like those can have such a positive impact on the lives of young people.”
He said the road between the high school and the bus barn that now leads to Purdy Elementary School was used back then as a drag strip for the auto shop students to test their projects.
“We’d roar down that road while our teacher watched, and when we came back, he’d tell us if we needed to adjust the carburetor or make other changes,” he said. “Can you imagine that today? That teacher would be thrown out of school.”
Besides those few high school classes, Ed is pretty much self-taught.
In 1976 the Gilkison family moved less than a mile away to the 11-acre property in Lakebay where he continues to live today with John, giving up water views in favor of space. The family officially started the Gilkison Boat Co. a year earlier and built fiberglass hull commercial fishing boats. Larry, John and Ed spent the summer of 1979 building an 80-foot long by 48-foot wide boat shed that stands almost 30-feet tall at the highest point. It was large enough to manufacture sometimes up to three boats a season, but most of the time they focused on one a year.
While Larry ran the shop and did the design and lofting work, Ed did most of the mechanics, including hooking up the engine systems, and all three did the fiberglass work. Katy even helped at times with the interior upholstery. The structure housed the family business until they closed it down in 1998, and today it’s still one of the largest of its kind on the Key Peninsula. Most of the Gilkison Boat Co. fishing boats are still out there, including a 36-feet North Sea-style boat fishing halibut in Puget Sound.
At the same time the family was building boats, Ed also spent time on his motorcycle business. The property used to be a holly orchard and the 1920s shed where Gilkison currently works on the Velocettes was where the farmers cut and packaged holly to send across the country for holiday wreaths.
Gilkison is very meticulous, but you have to be to work on a Velocette. All Velocette motorcycles are handmade, meaning everything is hand-fitted. So even though two bikes may look the same, it doesn’t mean the same parts of one will fit on the other. Because of that, if you want your Velocette worked on by Gilkison, you better have some patience.
“Some of the motorcycles are here for years,” said Gilkison, who has been working on one Velocette for 20 years. “To make them the way I do, they will look and run like they’re brand new.”
He’s currently working on 15 motorcycles, four of them owned by a well-known Hollywood actor. Even rush jobs on something as small as an engine repair can take months because of his perfectionism. Taking too long? Gilkison gives customers two choices: “Take it or leave it.”
“I’m the only one in the U.S. who does this type of work,” he said. “A lot of people complain how long it takes, but not one person has ever complained about the results.”
If you can stand to wait, Ed’s work comes surprisingly cheap for being the leading expert in the country. He estimates he makes about $40 an hour for labor.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever made a profit on the business,” Gilkison said. “It’s more of an expensive hobby.”
Gilkison has always been good with his hands, and pretty much could take apart and reassemble anything mechanical. He’s so good that about two years ago while at a doctor’s appointment at St. Anthony Hospital, he was able to troubleshoot and fix the machine used to take a biopsy that diagnosed him with prostate cancer. He’s still recovering, but the prognosis looks good.
The diagnosis made him think a lot about life, work, friends and family. He never had kids, but has been spending more time teaching his nieces and nephews how to ride motorcycles. Now that he’s feeling better, he wants to spend more time in his shop where he’s still taking on orders. He invited his 87-year-old friend, Geoff Blanthorn, who he met 52 years ago in the Velocette Motorcycle Club, to live with him and John. He started bringing baked goods to the staff at the Lakebay Post Office. He posts more on Facebook so his younger family can learn more about him and his parents. He just wants to remind people that “we live in a pretty area” and there’s a lot of history right “in our own backyard.”
“Everything has something interesting about it, and everyone has an interesting story to tell about their lives,” he said. “Even if it’s about some crazy uncle, like me.”
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