See the Mail Boat at the Whitefish Boat Show

Pictured is Ben Knebel, captain of the Whitefish Mail Boat, with a load of passengers. Knebel delivered mail by a wood boat (at the time one of the only motorboats on the chain) for 39 years. See the restored mail boat at the Whitefish Antique and Classic Wood Boat Rendezvous at Moonlite Bay June 17. Photo courtesy of A Taste Of History

For 39 years, residents and resorts on the Whitefish Chain received their mail from Ben Knebel, who traveled the chain by boat. Residents would eagerly await the boat on their dock or place a mailbox at the end of the dock if they couldn't be there.

A beautiful 22-foot 1949 Chris Craft Sportsman, the Whitefish Mail Boat will be on display this Saturday, June 17, at Moonlite Bay in Crosslake for the Whitefish Chain Antique and Classic Wood Boat Rendezvous. 

The show runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and admission is free. You'll also be able to see many other spectacular boats, from small antique duck boats to large, lavish boats that approach yacht status.

According to an article from Inforum News, the Whitefish Mail Boat was residents' link to the outside world during the summer months. In the winter, Knebel delivered mail by car. He delivered mail by boat for 39 years, from the 1930s to the late 1960s. The article reports that for many years, the boat was one of the only motorized boats on the chain. Since that was the case, he would provide tours on the boat for $2 a person, and often provided rides to children.

A Taste of History, a collection of Crosslake history assembled by the Crosslake Historical Society, tells how Knebel was a legend. He not only delivered the mail, but often groceries as well. Knebel's father, John Knebel, was the founder of Ideal Township. When John moved to the area in the late 1800s to early 1900s, the piney area was advertised as a remedy to some ailments. John, who suffered from asthma, found that the area really did provide relief to his troubles, and he termed the area "Ideal." He was chairman of the township's board. Knebel followed in his father's footsteps when he later became active in the community's government.

Knebel's last delivery in the mail boat was Sept. 15, 1969. That wasn't the end of the mail boat, though. Inforum reports that Joe Ruttger, who recalled memories of riding around the lake with Knebel, began searching for Knebel's mail boat. He was able to find it based on its registration number. Ruttger, whose parents owned The Whitefish Ruttger Resort, teamed up with Ron Schultz, whose family owned and operated Tip Top Resort. The two set about restoring the boat after finding it permanently parked in a backyard. The article reports that Ruttger and Schultz had to rent a crane to transport the boat.

Over 13 years, the two men resorted the boat, which was in rough shape. About half the original mahogany and cedar wood was maintained. The men found a replacement engine of the same make and model as the original and restored the chrome. Today the boat gleams with a shine that would have onlookers wondering if it time-traveled from a 1949 showroom floor.

The Whitefish Antique and Classic Wood Boat Rendezvous has been a tradition at Moonlite Bay since 1988. In addition to the boats on the water, model boats and other displays can also be seen at the event. Awards are presented in several categories. Boats on display value as high as $1 million.

But if you miss the June 17 boat show, fear not. The boat is on display the rest of the year at the Crosslake Historic Log Village, and so is Knebel's own mailbag. Together they mark a time gone by on the Whitefish Chain.

(Purchase A Taste of History, a comprehensive book of Crosslake area history that's loaded with pictures and recipes, at Judy's House of Gifts in Crosslake. Special thanks to the Crosslake Historical Society for the use of their photo for this story.)

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