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Robert "Mississippi Bob" Brown liked boats.

He paddled them, sailed them, rowed them and raced them. He built small boats for himself and others by the dozens, and he created influential solo canoe designs used by major canoe manufacturers, which made his boats by the hundreds.

He died May 26. The Apple Valley resident was 85.

Brown was born in Queens, N.Y., and grew up in Flushing, N.Y. He went to high school in Bloomington after his family moved to Minnesota because his father, a pilot and flight instructor, got a job working in aviation in the Twin Cities.

As a young man, Brown served a stint in the Army where he was stationed in Greenland, and then in the Coast Guard, where he was a boatswain's mate in Alaska and on the Ohio River in western Kentucky.

After returning to Minnesota, he went to work for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, operating Mississippi Lock and Dam No. 1 in St. Paul and Lock and Dam No. 2 in Hastings until his retirement.

It was in Minnesota where Brown developed his love of boating.

On family vacations in Up North, Brown discovered that the best part of fishing was riding in the boat, his son Daniel Brown said.

In the 1970s, Brown built a redwood strip canoe using a design from the Minnesota Canoe Association, Daniel Brown said. Then he started changing the design to create his idea of a perfect boat.

That started a lifetime of designing and building boats, which he would put in his yard to sell so he could make the next one.

Daniel Brown said he believes his father made 78 different boats — canoes, rowboats, kayaks and sailboats — using cedar-strip and stitch-and-glue wood construction.

Brown once helped his son-in-law build a canoe on an apartment balcony, lowering it over the side when it was done, said his daughter, Jan Brule.

"He always had a love of boats," she said. "That was his true passion."

He began selling his designs to manufacturers like Wenonah Canoe, Mad River Canoe and Bell Canoe Works, which would make his designs in fiberglass or Kevlar.

According to an article on, Brown's designs included the C.J. Solo and Lady Slipper made by Mad River, the Bell Fusion and Bell Traveler and the Wenonah Rendezvous and Solo Plus.

When Brown started designing canoes, most solo canoes were intended for racing in a straight line. He helped canoe companies create a new type of solo recreational canoe that would be easier to turn, would handle waves better and could be used on a canoe trip or for fishing.

"In his heyday, he was the preeminent solo canoe designer in the United States as far as all-around boats go," said Mark Neužil, co-author of "Canoes: A Natural History in North America." "Other solos could go faster — most were designed by racers — but Bob had the best designs for the practical everyday crafts."

Besides the Mississippi River, one of Brown's favorite spots to take a boat was Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis.

Sometimes he would see another boater on the water and ask how they liked their canoe, said Brown's friend, Bob Cure.

"Then he'd say, 'I designed it,'" Cure said.

Beside Brown's children Daniel Brown, of Farmington, and Brule, of Hastings, he is survived by siblings Marian Brown of Apple Valley and Richard Brown of St. Paul; seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Services have been held.

Richard Chin • 612-673-1775