A Man Of His Times- Lowell Walter, his Frank Lloyd Wright House, and his Thompson TVT
by Gary Baker
Lowell Walter was a man of his time, born when dirt roads were the norm across the Midwest. Walter started a paving company just prior to World War I that he ran for 30 years. After returning from the war, he built a personal fortune as a paving contractor and land speculator that enabled him to live comfortably at home in Des Moines. Although the company he founded still exists, he is most remembered in Iowa for his Frank Lloyd Wright designed summer home at Cedar Rock, located on a bluff overlooking the Wapsipinicon (Wop-see-pin-ee-con) River in northeastern Iowa. Our boating interest in Walter lies primarily with his pre-war Thompson boat and its preservation at the Cedar Rock Visitor Center.
Walter was a trendsetter in many ways, not in the least being his friendship with the noted architect Frank Lloyd Wright. In 1948 construction started on Cedar Rock on a site where two Indian lovers, “Wapsie” and “Pinicon,” were ambushed and drowned according to local legend. By then Wright was well into his Usonian (taken from United States of North America) period. These houses were intended to be an affordable, stylish design for the working American family. The Usonian style is made up entirely of blocks, its roof having no pitches, dormers or gables with a completely flat roof. Usonian homes have an open living area, with the bedrooms in another section of the house, and a kitchen designed for use without servants.
Cedar Rock was one of only 19 signature homes designed by Wright, the “signature” being a “Cherokee Red” ceramic tile with his initials embossed in the tile as shown above. This designation meant that virtually everything in, on, and around the home was designed by Wright, even the coasters on the coffee-table. By contract with Wright the Walters were allowed to bring food, clothing, and books into the home but were restricted as to furniture location, type, and layout. Even the pots, pans, and tableware were specified in the contract. According to tour guides at the site, the only thing allowed on the property that was not designed by Wright was the Thompson TVT featured below.
Lowell Walters boat was as special as his house. Built by the Thompson Brothers Boat Manufacturing Co of Peshigo, Wisconsin, it was regarded as one of the best and fastest boats on the market at that time. Built sometime between 1930 and 1942, this Thompson was acquired by Lowell Walter sometime in the early 40s from Charles Roberts of Independence Iowa. During that period, the Thompson was frequently seen in Lowells hunting and fishing trips up and down Wapsipinicon. Walter was known as an avid hunter and fisherman in the area. Friends would often see him out on the Wapsipinicon trolling for the big one while feeding some of the critters that had grown used to his surreptitious mid-river feedings. Knowing that Walter was only 5’4″ tall and slightly built, there was nothing to weigh down this particular Thompson.
Described similarly in both1933 and 1949 Thompson catalogues, the Thompson V-Type (TVT) Outboard Motor Boats were made with a round bilge, but having a V-type bottom. According to the factory, these made the boats ride level and plane easily, but also to make “full-speed turns in perfect safety.” This particular Thompson was a double-cockpit sixteen footer, with a white bottom, green spray rails and varnished sides and transom. BSLOL’s own resident Thompson expert, Andreas Jordahl Rhude, suspects this is a “Thompson Deluxe Speedster” model. This particular model of boat was shown in the 1942, 1943, and 1945 catalogs, but not in 1944. If Thompson described its’ boats accurately their catalog descriptions, in this would fit nicely with what we know of Lowell Walter. The words “speedster” and “deluxe” definitely fit the man.
Walter’s Tompson was powered by an Evinrude 4 cylinder Speedifour, repudiated to be the fastest stock outboard made at the time. This engine, serial # 7033-00008, developed an advertised 33 horsepower and cost over $400 1940’s dollars to buy. Equipped with all the latest gadgets — electric start, center-mounted cable-drum steering, F-N-R gearing and remote spark advance, this bad-boy must have been the terror of the county with speeds in excess of 30 mph in the narrow Wapsipinicon. The Evinrude lacks only a set of decals to be ready for a show.
With all due respect to the boathouses of the Muskoka, no antique or classic boat ever had a more suitable boathouse than that provided for Walter Lowell by Frank Lloyd Wright. A hundred yards or so from the house Wright built a boathouse and guest quarters for the Walters. Jutting from the riverbank, the boathouse replicated all the elements of the main house. It boasted the same horizontal brick elements, a large fireplace that would hold logs 5 long and small sleeping quarters. A specially designed dolly and pulley system was located on a ramp underneath the boathouse guest room for the Thompson.
Walter kept the boat until the early 1970s, when he sold it to Dwight Burghart. Burghart is said to have run the Evinrude for the first season, then swapped it for a more modern version until it was retired in 1979. Pat Lewis, the chief tour guide at the Visitor Center, explained, “One time Mr. Walter flipped the boat over in the river, and soon after that was willing to sell.” Little is known about the restoration of the boat, but there are several faded photos of the boat as it was being updated into its current condition locked in a glass case in the Visitor Center. In 1991 it was donated to the Cedar Rock State Park by Dwight and Nancy Burghart, quickly becoming the highlight of the Visitor Center. All appears ready to go for an afternoon spin, as long as you are willing to re-thread the steering cables beforehand and charge the vintage Delco battery. This is one nice vintage Thompson. The last step on the closing checklist at the park is to take out the old boat cover and cover up the Thompson on its cradle outside, fine treatment for an old lady.
Cedar Rock was left to the State of Iowa along with a substantial endowment for its maintenance and expenses by Lowell and his wife, Agnes in 1981. In a sentiment taken from the plaque at the park, There are very few of these beautiful boats left to admire.” Why not admire this one on your next trip to Iowa? The Walter residence is open to the public and free of charge from May 1 through October 31, located 2 miles from Quasqueton off Highway 20 in northeastern Iowa. Closed Mondays, they may be reached at (319) 934-3572 or at their website at: http://www.state.ia.us/dnr/organiza/ppd/cedarock.htm. There are guided tours on the half-hour, with ample time to tour the home, boathouse, and inspect the Thompson. The visitor center contains much interesting documentation and literature of interest to both boating and Frank Lloyd Wright fans.