"Mother, is it time to go for the boat ride?" Little Charley asked. Several days before his parents had informed Charley that on Sunday they were taking him for a ride on the Steamer Iowa.
The setting was in 1900 and Charley was only seven and had never ridden on a steamboat so you can understand his excitement. The family lived in Milford so it wasn't far, but it still meant Dad had to harness the horse to the carriage and then get "gussied up." Mother was all decked out in her brand new dress and had just bought a wonderful large brimmed hat for the occasion. Charley had on his "Sunday" clothes and had even shined his shoes.
Mother asked Charley if he had a clean handkerchief in his pocket, hair combed and teeth brushed. "Yes," said Charley; impatient to get going. The family finally climbed onto the buggy and Dad took the reins. He said "Giddy up" and away they went. It seemed to Charley the horse was slow but they finally made it to Arnolds Park, hitched the horse under a shade tree and walked to the dock where the Steamer Iowa was tied. Dad bought the tickets and a man welcomed them onto the steamer.
Charley had a tough time selecting a place to sit but Mother, having been on a trip before, seated them on the port (left) side. She told Charley that they could see more of the shoreline from that side. Charley looked around and before long the Steamer Iowa was filled to capacity holding about 120 people.
The pilot of the Steamer Iowa was a friend of Charley's dad so Charley was introduced to Fon Henderson. There were three other members of the crew: the pursuer, the engineer and a young boy who managed the rope line tied to the dock. After the steamer was full the pilot pulled the chain and gave a long blast to signal they were leaving the dock. Wow! Was Charley excited as he had never been on a steamer on Lake West Okoboji!
The Steamer Iowa was built by Fon and Elmer Henderson in 1895. The brothers acquired boat construction skills and knowledge from their Father, Zina Henderson. I built two DN 60 ice boats several years ago and the pieces were coded but to construct a large wooden passenger steamboat must have been a monumental task. Several questions arise such as: did the Henderson Brothers have blue prints or plans to follow or what? Where did they obtain the material to build it? There are a ton of other construction questions.
The problem today is that the old boat builders are all deceased. There are none around that were involved in the building of steamboats on the Iowa Great Lakes. Unfortunately for us no one seemed to have left a written record of the building steamboats here at the lakes. I do know of several gentlemen who helped their fathers and grandfathers build wooden rowboats but no steamboats so we can only imagine what they did. We do know that the process is still continued by craftsmen and we have their plans and instructions.
We believe the Henderson Brothers constructed the steamer Queen in a building near the present Okoboji Boats enterprise. The steamer Iowa was a very well built, sturdy craft and lasted longer than some of the other wooden steamers. The average lifetime existence of the wooden steamers was approximately 20 years give or take, depending on the maintenance, storage and use. There were about 22 steamboats on the Iowa Great Lake at one time or another.
Following are some of the newspaper articles about the Steamer Iowa.
Milford Mail: May 9, 1895 -- "Henderson Bros. (Fon and Elmer) expect to have their new steamer Iowa plowing the waters of our beautiful lakes by the first of July."
Spirit Lake Beacon: July 5, 1895 -- "Iowa." This is the name of the staunch steamer launched at Okoboji this week by the Henderson Brothers. (Fon and Elmer) With the exception of the Manhattan (steamer formerly the Ben Lennox) this is the largest craft on the Okobojis, (the steamer Queen was still on Spirit Lake) and good judges insist that it is the best built steamer on any of our lakes. The Hendersons' will operate the "Iowa" themselves, and they are known to the public as skillful and accommodating boatmen.
Some other activities in the lakes area in 1895:
Spirit Lake Beacon: July 1895 -- "Bicycling is very popular these days and Supt. Welty left for Nevada, Iowa on his wheel and made it in one day. Corodine Austin rode 115 miles to Lake Crystal, Minnesota in a single day (Writer's note -- most roads in the Iowa and Minnesota in 1895, were either dirt or gravel at best, so it was a really great feat.)
Spirit Lake Beacon: July 1895 -- "In the five mile free-for-all bicycle race Leslie Francis and Alf Mosher of Spirit Lake, champions, were in hard luck and lost. Leslie was obliged to stop and tighten a burr on his crank, while Alf had to get off and pick up a pedal and pump two miles with a single pedal."
Spirit Lake Beacon: Sept. 2, 1895 -- "Henderson Brothers took the steamer "Iowa" through the bridge into her winter quarters Monday night."
Milford Mail: June 20, 1899 -- "Manly Bascomb has taken up his position as boat tender at the Inn" (Art Bascomb's father).
Milford Mail: June 20, 1899 -- "Come to the lakes and take a ride on that new sail boat, the "Golden Rule," owned by H. C. Mills. She is a dandy and one of the largest boats on the lake."
Spirit Lake Beacon: Aug. 19, 1901 -- (interesting article) "Our Summer Guests -- why not a census of the summer population on Spirit Lake? Mrs. A. O. Stevens of Arnolds Park set an example of enterprise in that connection of West Okoboji which developed many facts of interest. It has always been a matter of conjecture how many transients there were about the lakes at the height of the season; the number of cottages, launches, etc. Mrs. Stevens organized a census bureau, and on Aug. 4, with the assistance of a score of enumerators gathered information of interest as follows:
Cottages on West Okoboji 164
Sail boats 30
Transient population 3,472
Row boats 505
The work was done with great care and the figures are nearly correct as it is possible to make them. The census had been taken on Thursday; the population shown is below the average for the height of the season as hundreds of people come to the lakes to spend Sunday."
In 1910 Fred Roff owned the steamer Iowa and it was also the year he built the Steamer Sioux City. The old timers didn't throw anything away and it is our contention that he dismantled the steamer Iowa and used many of its parts in the construction of the steamer Sioux City.
We never did get back to Charley but left him wide eyed and happy on his trip around the lakes on the steamer Iowa. He did tell his grandfather later that when the steamer Iowa was plowing the waters of Miller Bay the captain pointed to a large hill to the west and told him that was the highest point of land in Iowa and Chief Okoboji was buried. Wow! Charley told his grandfather, "I saw where Chief Okoboji was buried. Do you think we could go there sometime?"
His grandfather chuckled and said, "Charley you can't believe everything you hear. There is no such person as Chief Okoboji. The steamboat captain was only "funning" with you.