Sierra Nevada’s Lake Tahoe, Wisconsin’s Lake Geneva, and our own Lake Minnetonka vary across location, depth and size—but they all have one interesting offering in common. The answer? Each lake is a mecca for a unique collection of wooden boats. In the case of Lake Minnetonka, it all started back in the 1960s and ‘70s with a man named Bob Speltz. “Back when people were thinking wooden boats were junk, Bob realized they were treasures,” says Bruce Bildsten, a member of the Bob Speltz Land-O-Lakes chapter of the Antique and Classic Boat Club’s board of directors. “He started documenting their history and created a series of books called The Real Runabouts. He founded the club here.”
Now operating under the shorter moniker Land-O-Lakes Classic Boat Club, the organization is one chapter of the larger Antique and Classic Boat Society. In addition to providing an outlet for boat enthusiasts to join together, the club organizes popular boating-related events, including one of their biggest: the annual Real Runabouts Rendezvous. The show is held every September at Lord Fletcher’s Old Lake Lodge and last year brought over 1,000 attendees to the shores of Lake Minnetonka.
Before the show starts, celebration has already hit the water. Boat show participants gather on Friday for an all-day cruise around the lake that ends with dinner at Lord Fletcher’s. “If I can get the day off, the cruise and having dinner with everyone at the end of it is probably my favorite part of the festival,” says Bildsten. “You can’t beat a beautiful day on Lake Minnetonka.”
Come Saturday morning, festival day brings hundreds of wooden and fiberglass boats to the water and land outside Lord Fletcher’s. The docks fill quickly with hardcore boat enthusiasts and curious newcomers alike. In addition to the boats, the event features vendors and activities for kids.
“We have some of the best antique boats in the country based here,” says Bildsten, mentioning the show typically features well-known makers like Chris-Craft, Century and Gar Wood. “We increasingly have some of the classic fiberglass boats as well, the ones from the late ‘50s and ‘60s that have big fins and bright colors,” he says. The boats also range in size, with some as large as 40 feet that include a kitchen and living quarters. But that doesn’t mean classic boats are elitist or inaccessible, Bildsten says. “Once you get a boat restored properly, they really last and they are much more affordable compared to a new boat. It’s not about the money,” he says. “It’s about the passion.”
The passion of the show’s participants is palpable, and it’s not hard to get them talking. “We all love to tell the stories of our boats—just ask us,” says Steve Shoop, a show participant who also sits on the club’s board of directors. Shoop owns several boats, and each has its own interesting tale. “One of my boats is very unique to Lake Minnetonka, as it was delivered new to Excelsior to be used as a speed boat ride at the Excelsior Amusement Park,” he explains. The boat, a 1948 Hacker Craft, was used in the park from the late ‘40s to early ‘60s, and underwent seven years of restoration in the early 2000s.
Another one of Shoop’s boats also has a special connection to Lake Minnetonka—it sank there. “I first saw [the boat] when I was working at a local marina and a customer called and asked if we could pull his sunken boat from the bottom of Lake Minnetonka. That was in 1981,” he says. The formerly submerged boat is a 1959 Biesemeyer Flat Bottom V-Drive. In 2020, an additional boat of Shoop’s will complete the restoration process in time to hit the water for the club’s show, a 1955 Chris-Craft Holiday Sedan.
Mark Setterholm, another participant, has several classic wooden boats, but favors some of them more than others. “My two favorites are a 1969 22’ Riva Ariston and a 1969 30’ Lyman Sportsman Open Lapstrake Utility,” he says. The Riva Ariston is an Italian speed boat one could easily imagine popping up in a James Bond film, while the Lyman Sportsman is a big, open boat that Setterholm says is perfect for entertaining a group—and it’s still remarkably stylish. Setterholm’s boats have won awards at the show in the past, and he’s hoping to bring home another one this year.
Stories and awards aside, there’s something special about the craft of these classic boats. Setterholm argues it’s all about the wood. “I think wood, especially mahogany and teak, is such perfect material to build boats with,” he says. “When people get to ride in a varnished, mahogany boat, they will remember the experience forever.”
Shoop shares a similar sentiment. He says classic boats “just ride differently. They put you back in time.”
For Bildsten, who keeps a Gar Wood Ensign at his cabin in Wisconsin, it’s the experience of taking a classic boat out on the water. “Being on the water with a wooden boat, the sound is amazing, the ride is amazing,” he says, adding that the ride is softer due to the wooden construction. “I like to say every view is better when it’s framed in mahogany. You might see a loon, or cabin or beautiful sunset, but it looks even better off the bow of a wooden boat. I just never get tired of it.”
For those interested in dipping a toe into the world of these special boats, the event is free, family-friendly—and a boatload of fun.
Real Runabouts Rendezvous
9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Lord Fletcher’s Old Lake Lodge
3746 Sunset Drive, Spring Park
Bob Speltz Land O’ Lakes Chapter of the ACBS
Facebook: Bob Speltz Land O’ Lakes Chapter of the ACBS