Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream, (lake). Merrily merrily, merrily, merrily life is but a dream.
Have you ever rowed a boat? It is not as easy as you think. First you are looking back and must constantly turn your head around to see if you are going correctly and second, depending on being right or left-handed, the boat will drift in that direction. A good rower in days gone by, before outboard motors, could earn money rowing people to their favorite fishing station or wherever. Outboard motors did not appear on the lakes until the 1900s, and they were only a few horsepower. The Iowa Great Lakes has always been a popular fishing place, so you could have a nice resort but you also might provide some rowboats, fishing tackle and bait. Today as most fishermen have their own boats, bait and tackle shops are liveries at the Iowa Great Lakes. There were probably several others as well as resorts that provided rowboats as a “package” deal.
There were several bait and tackle shops and John Hafer Boat Works constructed about 20 rowboats a year for a good share of the early 1900s. I would not be afraid to say that at one time there were more than 500 rowboats on the Iowa Great Lakes. Hafer manufactured rowboats, some of the boat liveries built their rowboats as well as other row boat manufacturers. The Hafer rowboat was distinctive as its transom (back of the boat) was shaped like a Champagne glass. There is one on display at the Maritime Museum in Arnolds Park as well as the oars and anchor. It is a work of art and you can imagine the skill of bending the ribs and outside strips.
There are a few around that helped construct those old rowboats. Jim Danbom and his brother Jerry assisted their father Lester Danbom in the building of rowboats. The Danboms had a boat livery at Spirit Lake and later their own at Terrace Park. I recall going with Roy DePue, renting a rowboat and securing live bait, then rowing out into West Lake Okoboji fishing. Later on we built a cottage at Terrace Park with the Danbom Boat Livery across from our cottage. They did a good business and had many returning customers.
Research uncovered an article in the Spirit Lake Beacon, July 15, 1948, that illustrates and exemplifies the boat livery business. Under the headline, “Banker Thompson runs boat livery for 32 years as hobby" the Beacon said, "Boat liveries are a hobby with Bill Thompson. He has spent thirty-two years on the northwest shore of Spirit Lake during the fishing season pushin’ ‘em out and pullin’ ‘em in for people. At the height of his activity he had as many as 42 boats for rent. For the present he is content with 17 and orders for new ones next season."
The article said Thompson came to this country in 1880, and his father lived in Spirit Lake until he could find a farm to his taste. In 1895, Mr. Thompson, Sr., went to Chicago and his son went to Rockford, Illinois, to study the watchmaker’s trade and later opened a jewelry shop. In 1901 he set up a jewelry business in the old post office which was located on West Lake Street.
"This was tough going in the face of the mail order business that Sears and Ward were pushing," the article said.
He later became a driver during the motorcar era, taking to the road for a number of years and eventually taking on the management of Apperson Cars in Chicago.
“In 1917 Bill Thompson decided the pace was too fast," the archives said. "He made two great changes. He established a boat livery west of Crandall’s Lodge cottages for the summer and started going to Florida for the winters. His first trip south was in a Model T Ford. He paid over $50 in tolls and ferry charges on the way. (I wonder how many tires he replaced after they blew out?)
Thompson bought a home in Miami in 1939 and continued to drive "back and forth much as the ducks change feeding grounds." He became director of the banks in Lake Park, Sutherland and Hartley in 1927, continuing to watch the fisherman on the lake.
I researched but failed to locate where and when Bill Thompson passed away. The May, 8, 1956, Lake Park News said “Wm. Thompson of Spirit Lake submitted to a major operation at the hospital in Des Moines and is recuperating nicely, according to word received by his sister Mr. and Mrs. Hageboeck.”
We owned two rowboats. The first one was a Hafer that I bought for $50 but didn’t keep it long as it was old and the transom rotted out. It was not repairable. We also bought a five-horse Johnson outboard motor. After disposing of the Hafer rowboat, I bought an aluminum rowboat from Sears. We and our three boys enjoyed it. I recall that one nice day my mother had our son Ray row her from Terrace Park Beach to Pocahontas Point and back, no life jacket. They had a great time. That rowboat was on the beach when a tornado struck. It was bent, and I straightened it out with a sledge hammer. We continued to use it for fishing and rowing. Sorry to say the rowboat of yore is gone.