Embarrass man’s amazing collection of vintage outboard motors

After a decorated Army career, Jim Popp returned to a passion he discovered at the age of 10: boat motors
Published: Dec. 16, 2022 at 12:37 PM CST
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EMBARRASS, Wis. (WBAY) - After a decorated career in the U.S. Army, a Shawano County man has spent the last 25 years amassing a very unique collection.

It’s a collection of vintage outboard boat motors, some nearly 100 years old.

This week in Small Towns, we travel to Embarrass for a journey back in time.

In a little shop, halfway between Shawano and Clintonville, Jim Popp has his hands on a 1968, 1.5 horsepower Johnson outboard motor, his latest restoration project.

“I’m not married, so I don’t have the family thing to worry about, so I come here seven days a week,” says Jim.

After growing up on a dairy farm in Zachow and graduating from Bonduel High School in 1957, Jim went to work at a plywood factory.

But he had a dream.

He wanted to become a cadet at one of the country’s service academies.

“And my local 8th District representative gave me a principal appointment to West Point where I really wanted to go, I got there in 1960 and graduated in the class of 1964,” says Jim.

A 2nd lieutenant in the Army, Jim was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division where he became a paratrooper.

Then, with the Vietnam War breaking out, he went to fight school to fly helicopters.

“First tour in Vietnam which was ‘66-’67 was flying lift ships, or Hueys as they were called, hauling and maneuvering the infantry into battle and picking them up out of battle, and then I came back and became an instructor and my second tour in 1970-71 I got qualified in a Cobra gunship,” explains Jim.

Over his 27-year career in active duty, Jim rose through the ranks to become a battalion commander, and he worked in the Pentagon.

In 1991, he retired and moved home to take care of his mom, but also looking for something to keep him busy.

“I have to have something to do, something that’s interesting, something that I can study. Well, let’s see what did I do as a kid, I fooled around with cars, I fooled around with motorcycles and the opportunities just weren’t there, first of all, I didn’t have a gymnasium for cars, motorcycles if they were worth anything they’d been acquired by Hollywood, and I remembered the boat motor that my dad gave me when I was 10 years old,” recalls Jim, adding, “I did a little research and found out that the state of Wisconsin at one time had close to 50 machine shops building versions or parts for fishing motors and so if that was the case there’s got to be motors lying around.”

So in 1995, Jim opened a repair shop, with a strategy.

“The repair shop was to gain access, the person whose motor you fixed might have an uncle, or a dad, or somebody else that has an old motor that hasn’t run lying in a garage,” says Jim.

Jim started collecting, and thanks to a library of manuals he’s acquired over the years, he knew what treasures to look for.

“And you’ll see motors that people have never heard of before like a Martin, and Mercury had scads of models, you had to know which specific one was going to have some value in the future and that’s what you looked for,” says Jim.

Jim’s collection today is simply incredible, with more than 80 outboard motors dating back all the way to 1923 through the early 70′s.

“Of which probably 40 have been worked on and ready to run, and the other 40 are completed, just need time, I need time and winter is not opportune,” says Jim with a chuckle.

Two of Jim’s favorites were made by the Oliver Tractor Company in the 1930′s.

He has others.

“This motor came out of a hay mow, and I’ve had this motor running, 25 horsepower and it was labeled the Big Twin,” says Jim.

When customers catch wind of Jims’s collection, they can’t believe their eyes.

“I was just amazed, just amazed, they’re works of art actually,” says Rodger Cargin from Clintonville.

“And the big three have always been Johnson, Evinrude, and Mercury, and I don’t fool around with the foreign motors because there aren’t any antiques, they didn’t show up until the middle ‘70′s maybe,” explains Jim.

At this point in his life, at the age of 83, there is one question Jim keeps getting asked.

“What are you going to do when you pass away, what’s going to happen with all these motors and that’s kind of the quandary for me, I plan on staying like this until I’m physically in disrepair and unable to continue to use my hands and head and work on motors. You hit it right on the head, I’m on my own with my motors, and everything like real estate and whatever is secondary,” says Jim with a smile.

While Jim is still full-steam ahead repairing and collecting boat motors, he’s also deeply committed to future generations.

He sponsors an annual scholarship at Bonduel High School for a student entering the trades.

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After a decorated career in the Army, Shawano County's Jim Popp took up a unique hobby