WALKER (AP) -- Sitting on the open-air top deck of the Beulah Leona, it's easy to picture a massive wooden steam paddle churning up the muddy waters of the mighty Mississippi.
It's not hard to imagine genteel Southern ladies complete with wide-brimmed sun hats and lace parasols being escorted by a handsome gentleman resembling Col. Sanders on a stroll about the deck.
Mark Twain easily comes to mind. And riverboat gambling. And cotton.
The Beulah Leona looks and feels as if it could have been one of the many 19th century paddleboats that steamed its way back and forth in the south carrying people and cargo.
It's not of course. It was actually built in 1948 in Chattanooga, Tenn., and now is docked in Walker Bay on Leech Lake, offering daily cruises of one of Minnesota's biggest lakes for the first time in three decades.
Hubbard County native Tom Coborn, 33; his 29-year-old brother, Chris; and their parents launched the boat in mid-July, establishing Coborn's Leech Lake Cruises.
The venture is turning heads in a community built to cater to tourists and it also marks the end of 10 years of planning and dreaming for the Coborn family, which seems to have boating in its genetic makeup.
"The Beulah Leona satisfies our love for boats and to be our own boss," Tom Coborn said recently, sitting at an original wrought iron table on the top deck of his boat. "We've researched this project for 10 years and three years ago we got our finances and lives in order to do it. We decided to climb out on a limb."
The Coborn family -- including wives and children -- has been operating passenger boats for nearly two decades, the first being the Chester Charles, which Tom's parents, 62-year-old Thomas Sr. and 58-year-old Heddy Coborn, launched on Lake Itasca.
In the early 1990s the family, thinking the Walker area was ripe for such a business venture, started researching the idea of putting a boat on Leech Lake. The family studied lake depths, possible docking sites, boats for sale, federal and state boating and health regulations, and possible business partnerships.
Finally, in 1998, without a business deal and without a dock to tie the boat to, the family took the plunge and purchased the Beulah Leona from a retiring couple in Arkansas.
But not even getting the boat here was easy. Several members of the Coborn family and some friends traveled to Van Buren, Ark., where they picked up the ship and drove it home. The family had the boat pushed down the Arkansas River to the White River and then drove it to the Mississippi River. The family then drove the boat north 1,500 miles on the mighty Mississippi, passing through all the locks and traveling next to freight barges 400 yards long.
"So we know she'll take a big, big wave," Tom Coborn said with a smile. "The only thing to do was to get out of the way of the barges. They could have crushed us."
Once they got the boat to Red Wing, the top deck was cut off and it was loaded onto a flatbed truck for the ride north. Using a State Patrol escort, the truck hauled the ship to the Coborn ranch south of Itasca State Park in two days. The full trip took more than a month to complete.
In all, it took the Coborns three years to refurbish the boat, clear licensing with all the pertinent government agencies and get a land lease deal with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. The journey was so agonizing, Tom Coborn said, that at times the family felt like giving up.
"One of the things that kept us going was we purchased the boat before we closed the deal," he said. "We're sticking our necks way out there. About everything we own is wrapped up in this boat."
The 65- by 22-foot ship weighs 32 tons. Because the boat's bottom is flat, it only draws about 3.5 feet of water, making it operable on most of Leech Lake.
Most of the boat is original, but the Coborns refurbished it from top to bottom, including sandblasting and painting. And the family did install all new railings for the top deck, all new electrical wiring, a new floor for the lower deck, new carpeting, a new engine, steering system and rudder. The full-service bar in the back of the boat also was added.
"There is not a square inch on this boat that we haven't gone through," Tom Coborn said. "We've done everything."
Leech Lake Cruises will be offering daily cruises, sometimes as many as three a day, until October. But 20 guests are needed on board to make the trip financially feasible, Tom Coborn said.
The boat offers guests some light lunches and snacks and also has a full-service bar. And live bands will play on some of the evening three-hour cruises.
The boat also will be available for private parties or corporate events.
Even after all the work, Coborn said, now that the boat is in the water, a family dream has been realized and the work was worth it.
Just getting the business up and running fulfilled one goal, he said. Now the family hopes that the venture is successful enough that they may be able to add another boat to their fleet.
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