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By Wendy Pramik

Published on: Jul 10, 2024

At the Cardboard Boat Museum in New Richmond, Tom Lemon and Tim Young display dozens of colorful cardboard boats. They are displayed on the floor, walls, and even the ceiling. One boat is shaped like a kite, another is shaped like a whiskey bottle, and another is shaped like an egg carton.

But these aren’t just model kits. This cardboard kaleidoscope of creativity is a collection of navigable ships ready to set sail.

“We believe it is the only cardboard boat museum in the world,” says Lemon.

Tom Lemon (left) and Tim Young at the Cardboard Boat Museum in New Richmond, Ohio
Tom Lemon (left) and Tim Young (right)

The living collection is housed in a former gas station above the Ohio River in southern Clermont County, about 20 miles southeast of Cincinnati. Founded by friends Tom Lemon, Tim Young, Kenny Smith and Tom’s late brother Ed Lemon, the museum has become a center of local pride and innovation.

On the first Saturday in August, the International Cardboard Boat Regatta takes place here, an event that attracts thousands of curious spectators.

“It’s packed. I mean, the whole of Front Street is having a festival at the same time,” says Young. “And the wall is two or three people deep.”

“We have Channel 12, a local TV station, that comes along and puts two boats against each other. Then we have Channel 5, which is coming again this year.”

Writer Wendy Pramik buys raffle tickets to win a cardboard boat at the Cardboard Boat Museum in New Richmond, Ohio
Writer Wendy Pramik buys raffle tickets to win a cardboard boat

The origins of cardboard boat racing date back to the 1990s, when locals would meet on the beach and build improvised boats out of cardboard to see how far they could swim before sinking.

“It started with a group of guys at Joe’s Place saying, ‘I think we can build a better boat than you.’ A couple of them got out some cardboard and went down to the river,” Lemon says.

In 2001, brothers Ed and Tom and their friends Kenny and Tim decided to join in the fun. They formed Team Lemon, building boats out of corrugated cardboard and duct tape and painting them with house paint.

“Tape up every little hole you see,” Lemon explains the process. “And once you’ve taped everything up, paint it with latex exterior paint. We use high gloss.”

Collection of cardboard boats at the Cardboard Boat Museum in New Richmond, Ohio
Collection of cardboard boats

In 2007, Team Lemon decided to give their boats and the history associated with them a permanent home. They cleaned up the old gas station and auto repair shop, which had been abandoned since a flood in 1997, and turned them into a museum.

“We washed away the mud from the flood with a pressure washer and repaired windows and doors,” says Lemon.

Team Lemon's impressive trophy collection showcases their victories and creativity in cardboard boat racing at the Cardboard Boat Museum in New Richmond, Ohio.
Team Lemon’s impressive trophy collection showcases their victories and creativity

The museum is home not only to former racers, but also current projects and those under construction for future races. A photo album records the story of their adventures and a wall of awards showcases their successes in races across the country.

“If you Google ‘cardboard boat races,’ a lot of places come up,” says Young. “They have them at swimming pools, on small lakes in their small community, and so on.”

Winners of the annual International Cardboard Boat Regatta in New Richmond, Ohio, receive handcrafted paddle-shaped awards.
Winners of the annual International Cardboard Boat Regatta receive handmade paddle-shaped awards

On another wall hang trophies in the shape of paddles, which are awarded at the end of each race in categories ranging from fastest to most durable to best costume. The “Titanic Award” goes to the boat with the most dramatic sinking.

“Last year’s big sinker was a weird 8-foot-high boat shaped like a toilet,” Lemon recalls with a laugh.

A boat in the shape of an egg carton stands in front of the world's only cardboard boat museum in New Richmond, Ohio.
In front of the museum there is a boat in the shape of an egg carton

Every boat in the museum has a story. Some have raced once, others several times.

“We race a few of them every year,” Lemon says. “And after the race, no matter who’s driving them, we bring them back here and put them in the parking lot. And the next day we clean them, wash them, dry them and stack them.”

A remarkable story is about a shark-shaped boat built for Lemon’s daughter and dedicated to Bruce, the great white shark from Find Nemo. She won first place in the youth category and continued to compete, often beating her competition.

Lemon prefers to use large pieces of cardboard, which he often sources from his job at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, where shipping containers for medical freezers are the perfect material.

“The freezer box is awesome,” he says.

Tom Lemon points to the ceiling display of military-themed cardboard boats at the Cardboard Boat Museum in New Richmond, Ohio.
Tom Lemon points to the ceiling exhibition with military-style cardboard boats

A section of the museum ceiling is dedicated to boats representing various branches of the military. These boats are participating in an event called Paddling for a Cause, with proceeds benefiting the charity Disabled American Veterans. This year’s race will take place on August 24.

The museum is funded by donations and volunteer work. Visitors can visit the museum on Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday evenings, learn boat building techniques or simply enjoy the unique exhibits.

New Richmond has a rich history tied to the steamboat era and the anti-slavery movement. In addition to the boat museum, visitors can explore an antique shop, a military museum and the New Richmond Distillery.

“It’s just a small village, but it has a long history,” says Lemon.

Tom Lemon (left) and Tim Young pose next to a Batmobile-shaped cardboard boat at the Cardboard Boat Museum in New Richmond, Ohio
Lemon and Young pose next to a Batmobile-shaped cardboard boat

For more activities and unique museums visit #OhioTheHeartFitEverything at Ohio.org.