Speed Boats in the TALL CORN State (1974)

by Robert Speltz
(reprinted from the Antique Boating, July 1974)

I am sure you think this a strange title – but let me explain, Iowa is a state few of you think of as a mecca for old inboards, but you couldn’t be more wrong.When I was only a lad back in the early `50s, a lake just west of Mason City, Iowa, namely Clear Lake, still had a number of old inboard speedboats. This article will describe a rather unusual situation that we as antique and classic boat lovers will enjoy,

Clear Lake is a resort area dating back to the early 1900s. Once called the “Saratoga of the West,” she boasted good fishing, swimming and boating, There were launch rides available, of course, and fishing boats for hire by the plenty, but still, if you really wanted to give that girl friend or wife a REAL thrill, you boarded the ZEPHYR, COMET, BABY ROCKET, CLIPPER, JEEP, SPORTSMAN, MISS CLEAR LAKE, or one of the numerous other boats, and “streaked” across the Lake at nearly 40 MPH feeling the spray in your face.When I was about 10 years old, our whole family rode in the BABY ROCKET, a 3 cockpit 1927 Chris Craft in mint condition. Little did I know that day that some years later, my Dad would own that very boat!
Speedboat rides were a big business at Clear Lake until about the mid- `50s when fiberglass, aluminum, and more modest priced outboards, made it possible for the average man to buy his own boat and no longer care about speedboat rides. Today there are none of the old beauties I am about to describe left on the Lake.

Witke’s Boat Co., Clear Lake, no longer in business, sold Chris Craft power boats up through the 1960s. From about 1935 to 1955, speedboat rides were a major part of their everyday business during the busy tourist seasons. On some occasions their “stable” of speedboats for hire numbered as high as eight! Some of their more famous boats are described below:

1. SPORTSMAN – 24′ Chris Craft utility 1950 model,
2. JEEP – 18′ Chris Craft runabout 1939.
3. COMET – 24′ Chris Craft 3-cockpit, 2 windshield runabout.
4. MISS DETROIT – 16′ Gar Wood single cockpit 1939.
5. NO NAME – 22′ Chris Craft 3-cockpit runabout 1949
6. NO NAME – 22′ Chris Craft sedan hardtop 1951.
7. COMET 11 – 21′ Chris Craft 3-cockpit runabout 1937

This was pretty much the complete list excluding several larger cruisers they used for scenic tours around the lake. I believe a ride was about $1.50 for adults and 75 cents for children. It sure was fun to sit in those “rumble seat” cockpits and hear the mighty roar of those Packard, Scripps and other engines.

Witke’s main competition was from The Tourristville Boat Livery over on the south shore of the lake. Originally starting as only a bait and fish boat rental operation, they too were an old line, well established dealership of the period. Tourristville soon started selling small outboards and then Gar Wood, Truscott and finally, Century which they sell to this day. Strangely enough, a rather intense rivalry soon arose between the two firms, each saying their boats were the biggest, fastest and ran on the most exacting time tables. Here is a list of Tourristvilless boats:

1. CLIPPER – 221 chris Craf t 3-cockpit runabout 1928.
2. BABY ROCKET – 22″ Chris Craft 3-cockpit runabout
3. NO NAME – about 30′ 3 cockpit mahogany runabout
powered by a 750 H.P. Typhoon engine, a real rare beauty
built near Minneapolis, I believe,

Tourristville also had an old double-end launch called the PRINCESS that used to take scenic tours around this lake daily and on Sundays. As I said before, even though they never had the number of boats Witke’s did, they were very competitive, and daily you could see boats from both firms racing across the lake.

Clear Lake, up until about 1960, also sported a very deluxe amusement park repleat with Roller Coaster, Dance Hall, and other types of entertainment. Witke’s had a very fancy dock at the park where you could board the COMET, JEEP, SPORTSMAN, etc, or any other boat and cross the lake to their main docks in downtown Clear Lake. Tourristvilles not to be outdone, soon opened a satellite dock just west of the park and both firms “ballyhooed” for business using loud speakers, bill boards, etc. to get customers. As I look back now, I think the average “speedboat” ride lasted about 10 minutes, but to a boy of ten, it seemed forever.

There was one other independent operator on Clear Lake and his one speedboat was a 4 cockpit Gar Wood called ZEPHYR, powered by a 12 cylinder engine. She was painted white, red, and black and has since been destroyed along with all the others.

I hope this little article helps you recall boats that used to be. Ours is an interesting hobby. Let’s all do our part to spread the word about it.