Houseboat pioneer passes away


A giant in one of the industries that put the Lake Cumberland region on the map has passed away.

James “Jim” Sharpe passed away last Thursday at the age of 91.

The epitome of entrepreneurship, Sharpe started and operated a number of successful business ventures involving the grocery business, automobile dealerships, marinas, furniture stores, restaurants and the boating industry.

It’s that last industry for which Sharpe will be best remembered as the founder of the houseboat industry — having built the first-ever houseboat in 1953. He owned and operated Sumerset Houseboats — which at one point employed more than 350 people — until he sold the company in 1996. Sharpe and his family then founded and operated Sharpe Houseboats until 2012. Houseboat Magazine featured him on the cover of the October 2003 issue celebrating the 50th anniversary of his building of the first houseboat and the nationwide industry that was created because of his vision.

According to grandson Chris Girdler, a former state senator who how heads SPEDA (Somerset Pulaski Economic Development Authority), Sharpe got his start selling small boats and motors out of his father Rex’s hardware store on East Mt. Vernon Street when Lake Cumberland was still just part of the river. Though he was involved in other ventures, Girdler said the houseboat industry was Sharpe’s labor of love and life’s passion.

“He really treated everyone like a member of the family…,” Girdler said of Sharpe’s commitment to his employees. “He took very seriously being able to provide for all those families. [Meeting that payroll] was a charge that he didn’t take lightly.”

Sharpe was a lifelong resident of Pulaski County and a third-generation member of First Baptist Church of Somerset where he was baptized as a child, married to his wife, Mary Jo (who preceded him in death), and was instrumental in the construction of the new sanctuary.

Sharpe was a veteran of the United States Navy, and his service didn’t end there or with his church. He and his brother Bill built Somerset’s first public swimming pool and started the first youth football program in Somerset. Sharpe also promoted the first tourism initiatives in Somerset among other endeavors.

“He was pro-tourism before tourism was even a word,” Girdler said. “He saw the importance of it.”

For his efforts, Sharpe was recognized in 2000 by the Somerset-Pulaski Chamber of Commerce with the Distinguished Community Service Award. In addition, he received several awards over the years from the marine and boating industry. A “Jim Sharpe Week” was declared in his honor by both then-Pulaski County Judge-Executive Darrell BeShears and Somerset Mayor JP Wiles many years ago recognizing his contributions to the community and region. An avid fan of the Briar Jumpers (as well as the University of Kentucky Wildcats and the Dallas Cowboys), Sharpe was very proud of being recently inducted into the Somerset High School Hall of Fame.

As successful as Sharpe was professionally, he took real pride and joy in his family — including four children, nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. As first grandson, Girdler remembered “Pop” as the major influence on his life.

“My granddad was like a dad, a hero, a mentor and best friend all in one package to me,” grandson Girdler, said Monday afternoon. “There’s truly not part of my life where I don’t have a memory that he was not an influence on.”

Girdler recalled spending his youth as his grandfather’s sidekick. Sharpe instilled in his children and grandchildren compassion for others and the importance of hard work — often noting that luck is where hard work and opportunity meet.

“Without question, his legacy that he leaves with me and many others who knew him well is his work ethic and his generosity,” Girdler said. “My love of community and passion for making Somerset and Pulaski County a better place comes directly from him.”

Girdler added that Sharpe had been proud to bring national attention to his hometown through Sumerset Houseboats. “He had so much pride in our town and our community,” Girdler said. “Bringing that recognition just meant the world to him.”

Visitation for Jim Sharpe will be held this Thursday at First Baptist Church of Somerset from 12 noon to 2 p.m. with a memorial service to follow. Complete obituary information can be found in today’s edition on page A3.


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