|Memories of Lake Delton
One of the gratifying things about publishing your own newsletter is knowing that if you want to say more about something, you can. No Dockside is ever the last word on anything and as we have explored in the past, many subjects are revisited. While cleaning my office, I came across issue # 40. That Dockside, about reconnecting with the past prompted me to think more about my own childhood, and the influences that nourished my love for classic wood runabouts. The more I thought about it, the more there was to say. It seems the older we get, the more we yearn for the past, and keeping those precious childhood memories in focus. What we took for granted then, we look back on in fondness now, usually with a smile, while wondering where the time went.
So… come with me as we go back to a very special place that includes sandy beaches, rainy days in the cabin, cap guns, nickel ice cream bars, PF Flyers, and an innocent spirit. I am not including any pictures this time, because I think it’s better if you provide your own!
When our daughter was born in August 1994, I was in the middle of a tour for Acura Automobiles. It started in San Francisco, moved to New Jersey, then Orlando and ended in Chicago. Victoria was born while some guy was on stage in New Jersey telling the east coast Acura dealers how well they were going to do in 1995. I could only wonder about how well a couple of people were doing back here in the current 1994. I flew home after the show to join my family who had come home from the hospital earlier that day.
A week later, between the Orlando and Chicago shows, we had a day off. I rented a car and headed to Lake Delton, forty miles north of Madison, Wisconsin, to see what became of Bremers resort.
From as young as I can remember, our family always had a cottage on a Wisconsin lake somewhere. Most of the time my dad brought a boat with us. Typically it was a different boat every year. The ritual was simple. When the snow melted in spring, it was time to buy a boat. When school began, it was time to sell it. This pattern, as disconcerting as it was sometimes, was also exciting and made for learning about some interesting boats. The lessons in compulsive behaviors would come much later.
Sometimes my older brother Howard and I would go with dad to pick our “new” boat and bring it home. The ride in the car was just as exciting as the anticipated ride in the boat. Looking through the back window of the station wagon and seeing the bow following us was beyond exhilarating for a five year old. All I could do was sit their imagining what the engine will sound like, and how fast will it go, not that I had any real concept of speed. Back then you were either going slow or going fast, rarely did we do much in between. The boats were typically used, almost never over fourteen feet, and rarely powered by more than twenty five horsepower, but for me, it didn’t matter, it was our motorboat.
When we, as adult children talk about the days on the Lake, we always circle back to Bremers. During my Wonder Bread years in the 1950’s, we rented one of the four cottages at Bremers resort every summer between 1954 and 1957. Ours’ was one of two set back a hundred feet or so from the lake. I believe my dad paid an outrageous $75.00 a week for it. A path from our porch led to the sandy beach. Next to the beach was an area where two yellow rowboats were beached. On occasion, when we didn’t bring a boat, we brought a motor to hang on the back of one of them. Next to those yellow boats was the pier.
There was the oldest sister whose name I forgot, Norbert, Jack, Bobby and Paul. These were the Bremer children. They ranged in age from junior high school to college. To me, they were all adults, or may as well have been. They were part of the landscape. If for no other reason, they had chores to do to keep the place going. They lived in the big house at the rear of the property off the main road with their mom and dad.
As I drove through Baraboo, Wisconsin that August day, I wondered about the Bremer children, what became of them and what was the chance of actually finding any of them? Paying for gas I asked the guy behind the counter who I
figured was close to my dads’ age if he remembered Bremers resort. He looked at me as if I had just gotten out of a time machine from a Twilight Zone episode, “Oh Bremers hasn’t been around for years, was sold long ago.” I explained why I was there, how I wanted to see the place, and if he knew if any of the Bremer boys were still around. “Well yeah, Bobby has the motel just up the block on the left” was the reply. With that I thanked him, drove the four or five blocks, and parked in front of one of those independently owned Motel 6 type places.
The woman who greeted me was Bobby’s wife and before I could finish my sentence asking if he was around, she interrupted with an “I will get him.” The next thing I knew, Bobby was making his way out from behind the office door. I was amazed I recognized him from my vaguest recollections of him as a five year old. He remembered my dad, mom and my older brother mostly. I told him I wanted to see the old place. He gave me the directions and told me what to expect.
As Bobby explained it, a 30-unit hotel replaced the four cottages, but the beach will be how I remembered it, and a new pier replaced where the old one was. Where the two yellow rowboats were, is now filled in with grass. We talked a bit more, mostly about what became of his brothers. I was anxious to get going. As I was walked out I heard, “Hey, you want to see the old cottage?” I turned around, looked at him, “It’s still there?” “No no” he said, “Someone bought it a long time ago and moved it” and with that he gave me the directions to find it. I stuck them in my pocket and left.
When I made that final turn around the bend, lake Delton revealed herself. Her beauty had not changed one bit. Eyes going back and forth between the lake and the road, heart pounding, it was one of those magical moments where I was back in my parent’s 1955 Blue Chevy Bel Air station wagon. There would be many of these moments in the next several hours. Stopping at what is now the Delton Oaks resort, I got out and just gazed at the lake, and then found myself in a giddy laughter. “The lake is so small” I thought! The owners came out, helped me place where the old cottage was, the bar b que pit we all shared, and where the yellow rowboats were beached.
My fascination with outboard motors began as soon as I was conscience of them. Perhaps it was because when I was around them, I was around family, in a leisurely setting where everyone was having a great time. Being at the lake was not like playing with Tinker Toys in the living room, or making a tent using the dining room chairs. This was different. The smells of gas and exhaust were a unique sensory experience that told me how special the day was going to be. How many of us now put the boat in reverse once in a while for no other reason than knowing those smells will eventually make their way to our noses.
Feeling adventurous one day, I got into one of those yellow boats where my dad’s two horse Evinrude hung on the back. This looked like the perfect way to occupy my time for the next several moments. As the story goes, I pulled the lever over just like how I saw my dad do it, gripped the starter cord, and with every bit of might and determination I could muster up, yanked on that rope as hard as I could. I should mention the engine wasn’t supposed to start. I was just playing. It was after all, a toy. Well, it started. Fantasy became reality. I wasn’t going to go to far. The boat was beached and tied to a big rock. It mattered not - I was hysterical. I don’t remember whom but within a matter of moments someone heard my screaming, rushed over and shut it off, probably delighted that I wasn’t physically hurt as my screaming might have suggested. No doubt I was the subject of many laughs that night when the adults would all get together and talk about the day’s events. Me? I was just happy to be in my bed listening to the symphony of mosquitoes hovering around the porch light, just outside the bedroom window. As pesky as they were with their itchy bites, their sound was somewhat calming, familiar and sleep inducing.
The pier was home to several boats, some owned by the Bremers, some owned by the renters. It was a barometer of sorts. Every year the personality of the pier would change slightly with a new boat or motor making their debut, replacing one or two from the previous year. Many hours were spent in some of those boats, sometimes with other kids from another cabin, hands gripping the steering wheel, going full speed ahead, all the while tied to that pier. Occasionally, in a quieter moment, just sitting in one of the boats listening to the water lap up against the side of the hull was a most pleasant sound. The image of the water being like a puppy licking the boat has been with me forever. To this day when I am in my boat at the dock, and hear that sound, I am back at the Bremer pier regardless of what is going on around me. What we were all waiting for of course was that all-important, encompassing adult, someone’s father, to make his way onto the pier and utter those magic words “Who wants to go for a ride?”
One of my dad’s favorite stories about Lake Delton was the year he brought a Thompson Thomboy with us, probably his first motorboat. Given how he was just starting out in a new business and money was tight, he figured he could buy the Thomboy, but with only a ten horse Johnson for power. My mom more than likely agreed only hesitantly to be one of the renters “with a boat”. Well it didn’t take long before it was obvious that ten horsepower wasn’t going to get “Bea’s Mink” up on a plane and go very fast, especially with two adults and at least two kids on board. This very scene was the living proof for part of the copy in the 1952 Thompson catalog touting the Thomboy as “designed for the new twenty five horsepower engines of the day.” My dad, feeling a bit discouraged, took the rig back to the dealer where full credit was given on the ten, and a brand new Twenty Five was clamped onto the transom. Later, zipping along on the water and everything working just perfectly, my mom asked “Ed, what was wrong with the engine?” Fearing my mom would give him hell for spending the additional money, he replied with “Oh nothing really, it was just a simple adjustment”.
As if my hopeful career as a “motorboat starter” by accident took off rather unexpectedly, there was a far scarier story from that pier. One sunny day, thinking I could jump from the end of the pier into my dad’s boat, I missed. Floating back to the surface, and seeing the sun’s light through the water surrounding me, I was too young to realize I didn’t know how to swim. All I knew was that I did something I should not have done and was in an environment I should not be in and it was really really scary. The next thing I remember was sitting on the beach wrapped in a towel with my dad, a comic book in his hand, asking me if I felt better. Maybe now was the time for that boat ride, a reward of sorts for another lesson learned. Things do work out.
It’s amazing how much trauma we encounter in childhood and survive, endure, and even be amused decades later at some of the not so smart things we attempted. Maybe this is why we have the boats we have, subscribe to the magazines we do, and join classic/antique boat clubs. Therapy comes in many forms and our shared enjoyment of the present is rooted in decades old experiences, the good and the bad.
Standing there, by the beach, recounting all these memories, It struck me odd that given the fact they offered 30 plus rooms, how surprisingly quiet it was for a beautiful August day. It didn’t look like there were any more people on the beach now than there were when we were there. I wonder if some of these kids will come back to this place thirty-five, forty years from now to remember these “old days”?
After a few minutes, I left. I wanted to drive around the lake eventually winding up where the old cottage was transplanted. Though we didn’t know the neighbors next door, I remember their boat. It was a smart looking molded plywood runabout, typical of the mid 50’s, with a new green and gold eggshell cowled 33 horse Scott Atwater on the transom. I made a right turn into the driveway of the property where that boat would have been docked had it still been around. The fact that I might be been tress passing never entered my mind. I got out and headed towards the water. It wasn’t long before I heard an “Excuse me, can I help you?” Taken off guard, I looked at the gentleman and said, “Not really, I just wanted to see the lake from here. My folks used to rent a cottage from the Bremers”. Before I could even think about what to say next he said “Go ahead if you want, take the one at the end.” He pointed towards an aluminum skiff with a new ten horse on it at the end of that same pier. “You knew the Bremers, that’s all I need to know.” It was all so surreal. One moment I was talking to this guy and in the next I was shoving off. Leaving the dock I was still thinking the lake could not have been this small back then. It was.
First stop, Tommy Bartlett’s Water Ski show! Tommy Bartlett ran one of the most popular water ski shows in Cypress Gardens, Florida, and on Lake Delton. Instead of getting into dad’s wagon and paying admission like everyone else, we and whoever was around would pack ourselves into the yellow rowboats and head over to the show. (No, I did not start the engine.) We would dock along the banks and watch the festivities. An endless supply of animal crackers, potato chips, grapes, water melon, cherries, lemonade and whatever else could be packed in the big blue Pepsi cooler by my mom assured everyone the Kapper kids would not starve while enjoying the show.
What a show it was! There was water skiing, all kinds of water skiing. There were individual water skiers, bunches of water skiers, and water skiers who would stand on top of other water skiers shoulders and wave to everyone while the water skiers who they were standing on, water skied. There was a clown who would get half way up the ramp in his little boat that looked like a flying saucer and do all kinds of funny things. Then came the coolest part. Three flat bottomed racing boats would get up enough speed, go up the ramp and fly off the end of it, hitting the water and going around again, one after another, again and again and again - constantly. It was so spectacular and mesmerizing. I was in awe. The courage, talent and precision it must have taken for those guys to drive those boats and not fall off the ramp the wrong way or land on top of each other was of heroic proportions. I realized that if I were ever going to try something like that, I probably would have to stop crying when I started the motor.
One day, a few folks from the water ski show paid the Bremers a visit. (Including the clown in his flying saucer arrangement but without his costume and make up.) They were not very happy. They said they wanted the renters to stop coming over in those yellow boats. They wanted the renters to pay like everyone else. I don’t remember exactly what was said, but old man Bremer was not someone you wanted to piss off. I still remember him walking down the pier with his fist shaking, yelling at all of them. Whatever he said, they must have not liked very much. The last thing I saw after all his yelling were some rather angry wakes left as Tommy Bartlett’s water ski delegation departed rather abruptly.
There are some interesting insights about Tommy Bartlett’s water ski show worth mentioning. They used Mercury Outboard Motors. The boats were outfitted with new engines every year courtesy of Carl Keikhafer, the CEO/founder of Mercury. Though it would be three years before a deal was finally struck, when Brunswick expressed an interest in buying Mercury, one of the first things Carl did was purposely take the Brunswick brass to the water ski show. They saw first hand the abuse the engines took while enjoying their hot dogs, cokes and bikini clad water skiers. This calculated move by Carl no doubt helped him in the negotiations when he finally sold. Those flat bottomed racing boats that flew off the ramp were actually made with a much thicker bottom than your average class c and d utilities. They could never have been competitive in a real race, due to the added weight to handle the ramp. The “Bartlett Water Ski Show” is still in operation today, though no longer run by the Bartlett family. Lastly, Thomas Bartlett, one of the nephews, has been a Dockside subscriber for years, and will be at the Thompson rally this august that Andreas is producing
Leaving the ski show, the next stop was a combination gas dock and general store. My brother and I never knew when dad would ask us if we wanted to “help” him get gas, but it was always a treat. “Helping” dad get gas was actually secret code to go with him for a boat ride to this waterfront gas dock so my brother could get a fudge cycle and I could get an ice cream bar. While dad was getting his gas, there was much to do. The place always had really neat motors in the back room. Some were really old and didn’t have any covers on them to protect the various components. I remember wondering how they worked, yet scared of them at the same time with nothing to shield me from their “guts”. How and why would anyone want to run an engine without a cover? It wasn’t until years later I learned the reason they didn’t have covers back then was because that is how the engines were shipped! Looking at all of them while eating ice cream was about as close to heaven we could get. The other really cool part about going to this place was there was always boats tied up you rarely saw on the lake, so we could get a really close look at them. It was here that I saw my first fiberglass boat and hearing people talk about it. I was mildly curious what the fuss was about. Whatever this stuff was, it didn’t look or smell anything like wood, or paint, or varnish, but it sure was shiny. One advantage I did see with this fiberglass stuff was it looked like you wouldn’t ever get a sliver from from rubbing against the seats or sides the wrong way. Maybe there was something to this fiberglass stuff after all
A couple of hundred yards away from the ice cream place was one of the inlets on the lake, totally protected from the wind. (Not that there was much chop or wave action on the main part of the lake anyway) I always liked this part because the water was always perfectly calm and took on a different hue, partly because trees and shade surrounded it. It was a relatively small area and you just naturally went slowly. It is this area of the lake I think about now when I am in my current boat just idling slowly, hugging a shoreline.
From there it was on to the north side of the lake where the duck boats entered the water for a brief “boat ride” before exiting onto land where they continued their tour of the Wisconsin Dells. The Duck Boats were used originally to transport troops in World War II. They were like buses that handled about 30 people or so and could also make their way in water, though with hardly the speed or elegance when they were on the road. The Ducks are still in operation today, possibly even more popular than they were 50 years ago. Last year while in Manhattan for business, I saw the same Duck Boats driving down 6th avenue as part of a tour operation that clearly includes getting wet, probably on the Hudson River.
I headed back to the dock where I left from thirty minutes before. As I was tying up, the gentleman who lent me the boat was waiting to help me. We talked for a few more minutes. I thanked him and was on my way. As I turned right out of their driveway to continue my ride around the lake, I realized he let me take the boat without so much as knowing my name. It is comforting to know that this kind of thing still happens in today’s world.
After following the road back for a couple of miles and a turn here and there, I found myself in a trailer park. Continuing to drive, at the end of the park, there it was - though significantly redone; the little cottage had become a home. It had been well cared for, and the years had been good to it. It was so much more dignified than how I imagined or remembered it. It was where we slept at night, played cards in when it rained, and where many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were eaten before heading back to the beach. I remember the iceman coming to replenish the supply, as there wasn’t an electric refrigerator.
The front porch was closed in at some point and made into a formal room. As a kid, I remember getting up before everyone else, and spending what seemed like hours in that porch. My eyes were fixed on the lake in those early hours watching the patterns created by the gentle winds on the lake’s surface. A fisherman would head out at a slow idle leaving an endless pattern that dissected the water so perfectly behind him. Minutes later the lakes’ patterns would erase the wake left by the fisherman, only to be cut again by someone else a few minutes later in a different boat, from another direction.
To my surprise, next to our cottage, in the driveway sat a circa 1957 Thompson Sea Coaster, the exact boat I had sitting in my garage. At this point I was two years into my research on Thompsons and three years before this newsletter was started. I knocked but there was no answer. I knocked several more times hoping someone, anyone, would open the door. There was so much to talk about!
Disappointed when it was clear no one was there, I headed back to Chicago. Thinking about the day as the miles rolled by, the people, the lake, seeing the old place, it all made sense after all. Of course someone was home. I just hadn’t been there for a while.
As my older brother Howard pointed out, the Pepsi cooler mentioned was actually an important thread that continually wove its’ way into the back of the family wagon. The cooler, which some of you may have variations of in your boats, was an over engineered insulated hunk of metal with a swivel aluminum bar that snapped the top on it. It also of course had its’ own drain plug so you can empty its’ bilge! It followed us to many family excursions including a trip to Mackinac Island, many family picnics, parties, and visits to some of Wisconsin’s most beautiful lakes. It also accompanied my brother’s (and sometimes me when he bribed me to help him) lawn mowing jobs when we were in high school.
Today the cooler resides in my 1963 Thompson Sea Coaster. The top doesn’t quite fit as snug as it did fifty years ago, and there are a couple of dents, dings and scratches on it, but no one seems to notice, or care.
As my mom entered hospice care while this issue was being sent to the printer, (March 19th) she continually whispered various musings, comments and assorted thoughts in no particular order, out of the blue. This is a condition that only got worse and was difficult to watch. Her conversations, for the most part were with people inside her head. She responded to you if you engaged her, if only for a moment. Even these times had their moments. One day she was pontificating about “getting ready” and all the work that needed to get done. Her hands and arms were quite animated which wasn’t unusual when she got excited. My sister, overhearing her making all these plans, asked her what was going on? The reply was decisive. “Oh, we’re at Lake Delton now, and we need to get ready for today, so much to do.” Whatever she was getting our family ready for, rest assured that Pepsi cooler was full.
Mom died on May 7th, almost exactly one month before Lake Delton lost all her water. When a friend emailed me the initial link of the disaster, I felt the same numbness and sense of loss when I got ‘that” call about mom. When people turned on CNN, I found myself leaving the room. I still have not seen any of the network footage, nor do I care or want to. Some things are best with the memories you have of them, rather than the reality and confusion of today.
There is encouraging news. While no one can bring my mom back, it is comforting to know that there are people working to bring back the lake. Her water will glisten again, next year, and usher in another generation, who hopefully will have the same wonderful memories of Lake Delton in fifty years that I have now.
If home is where the heart is, I too, look forward to seeing Lake Delton again.
Publisher, The Thompson Dockside