IDEAL TOWNSHIP -- For people spending the summer at their cabins or family resorts along the Whitefish Chain as far back as the 1930s to late 1960s, the late Ben Knebel's wooden mail boat was a lifeline to the outside world.
The 22-foot 1949 Chris Craft Sportsman traveled around Upper and Lower Whitefish lakes, including Trout Lake, delivering the mail -- and perhaps a bit of lake country gossip -- to people who waited for the boat at the end of their docks. Some cabin owners had mailboxes at the end of the dock in case they missed the mail boat.
Knebel delivered the mail around the lakes for three months between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Since for many years it was one of the few motorized boats on the lake, Knebel gave resort guests a ride, lining up folding chairs inside the wooden boat. The lake tour cost $2 a person. Knebel delivered groceries, too.
Knebel often gave rides to kids who lived around the lake, who would keep him company on his mail route. Joe Ruttger, whose parents operated The Whitefish Ruttger Resort from 1935-1978, and Ron Schultz, whose family has owned and operated Tip Top Resort on Whitefish and Bertha lakes for the past 50 years, remember riding many times with Knebel around the lake. Knebel docked his boat on the south side of Bertha Lake.
Ruttger said Knebel was delivering the mail around the lake when his parents opened their resort in 1935, although he had a different boat back then, and had the route until at least 1969 or 1970 when Knebel retired. Knebel died in the late 1970s, said Ruttger.
About 16 years ago, Ruttger began a journey to find Knebel's wooden mail boat. It took him three years, but he was able to track down the wooden boat through its boat registration number through the Minnesota DNR.
"I just had a wild hair to go find the thing," said Ruttger. "It's a floating history of the Chain of Whitefish Lake."
The late Ben Knebel is shown in this photograph taken at the former Whitefish Ruttger Resort in 1969 or 1970 as he delivered mail to youngsters at the resort.
But when Ruttger and Schultz found the boat the summer of 1992, parked permanently in someone's back yard, Knebel's boat was in rough shape. Ruttger said they had to rent a crane to lift the dilapidated boat off the former owner's property.
"We brought the wreck home," said Ruttger. "And it was a wreck. It was leaking. You could literally put your fist through the bottom."
During the past 13 years, the two men completely tore apart the boat and started all over. About half of the original wood remains. The boat is made of mahogany and clear cedar. The original engine was long gone so they found another engine of the same make and model and rebuilt it. All the original chrome was restored, along with the steering wheel. The cutwater, the forward edge of the boat at and near the waterline, is also its original.
Schultz said there were many times when they wondered what they'd gotten themselves into as they worked on the boat. But growing up in Ideal Township at their respective family resorts, the two men shared a connection with this mail boat they remember from their childhoods. They both continue to live in Ideal Township and both serve on the Ideal Volunteer Fire Department.
In 1956, Schultz' parents bought the first speedboat on the lake to pull water-skiers at the resort. Before that, Schultz said Knebel's boat, which can travel about 35 miles per hour, was probably the biggest and fastest boat on the lake. When Knebel retired from the postal route, he gave Ruttger's parents, the late Joe and Carol Ruttger, the leather postal pouch and flag from his boat. The items have since been donated to the Crosslake Historical Log Village.
Ron Schultz (right) and Joe Ruttger took their restored 1949 Chris Craft Sportsman boat out for a ride on Bertha Lake on the Whitefish Chain. The boat, formerly owned by Ben Knebel, served as the Whitefish Chain mail boat until 1969 or 1970.
The two men took their maiden voyage on the restored mail boat last Wednesday. The boat was on display at the 19th annual Whitefish Chain Antique and Classic Wood Boat Rendezvous at Moonlite Bay in Crosslake on Saturday where it was named the best amateur restoration.
"It's an attention-getter," said Schultz.
As the two men drove around Bertha Lake last Thursday, they said Knebel probably would have gotten a kick out of seeing his old boat fully restored and traveling along his former mail route again.
"I hope he's looking down at us from above," said Ruttger.
Knebel probably would notice the major growth on the Whitefish Chain. If it were still in operation today, his lake mail route would have grown considerably since the late 1960s.
"He'd come back and say, 'Where the hell did all these cabins come from?'" said Ruttger with a laugh.
JODIE TWEED can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5858.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.