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After more than 60 years, Fort Wayne man still hooked on wooden boats, antique boat motors

Wednesday, September 18, 2013 - 6:13 am

When Dick Rodenbeck graduated from high school in 1952, the first thing he bought was a small, wooden racing boat and a motor.

“I didn't have a car,” the Fort Wayne man, now 80, recalled, grinning.

More than 60 years later, Rodenbeck's love of classic boats and motors is still cruising: Now retired, he spends part of his free time fixing or building wooden watercraft and repairing old boat motors. He also enjoys collecting toy boats and toy boat motors.

“I sit down and read in the evening,” he said. “Otherwise, I've got to be doing something.”

Rodenbeck grew up on the water.

His mother's parents had a cottage on Lake Wawasee, and his family went there many weekends during the spring, summer and fall — and even occasionally in the winter once his grandfather retired and his grandparents lived at the lake year-round. His grandparents loved to fish, and so did his parents, himself and his brother.

One of the prized possessions in his boat motor collection is the slim, part-brass 1917 1 1/2-horsepower Evinrude engine that once powered his grandfather's boat.

When Rodenbeck bought his small racing boat in 1952, it was right in the midst of a racing craze, he said.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the average middle-income guy could afford a small racing boat and motor and join in races on area lakes and rivers, he said. Locally, people used to race from Johnny Appleseed Park north up the St. Joseph River.

He joined the Navy, however, and never had a chance to compete in local boat races, he said.

After his military service, Rodenbeck returned home and married his wife, Lois. They started a family, which eventually grew to four daughters and three sons. He began a long career in the tool-and-die and manufacturing industry, which included 28 years at Zolox in Fort Wayne — most of those years as plant manager.

Busy lives didn't keep them off the water, though. The family went tent camping every other weekend and brought a boat with them, he said.

“Our girls have water-skied since they were age 6,” he said.

They started by going to Crooked Lake in Steuben County in northeast Indiana, which had a campground along the lake. Then they began going to Ludington in west-central lower Michigan.

Most of their children still boat or camp with their families, he said.

“They look back on our camping and boating with real fond memories,” he added.

Rodenbeck also made use of his love of woodworking and for building and repairing things.

When he and Lois bought their first house, they had the builder construct only the outer shell of the home. They hired contractors to install the electrical wiring and to plaster the walls, but they put in about everything else, including plumbing, flooring and septic system.

With seven children, they also had five cars running. He did the maintenance work on all of them.

“A lot of things I learned from getting books and reading how to do things,” he said. “I have all kinds of books on all kinds of things.”

Reading about how to build a wooden canoe, for example, inspired him to build two wooden canoes of his own.

He also became interested in old Thompson wooden boats, in part because he found a few of them for sale.

“I just like the shape of them and the size of them,” he added. “I like the way they ride.”

Thompson started building wooden boats in 1904 in Peshtigo, Wis., and continued using wood until switching to fiberglass bodies in the 1960s, Rodenbeck said. Most wooden boats were expected to last about 10 years, he added, but a limited number have survived, though often in need of repair or restoration.

He and Lois bought their first Thompson, a 1948-49 model, about 10 years ago.

He had to replace only a few support boards in the floor and back of the boat. He later bought a 1956 model that needed more work and fixed it up.

More recently, he paid $50 for another 1956 Thompson that needs major work, just to have a project to keep him busy, he said. Many of the ribs that hold together the boat's wooden plank body have rotted out and need to be replaced.

On a recent day, the boat — its paint scraped away to bare wood — hung suspended from the hoist system he rigged up in his work shed. The building is crowded with old boat motors, tools and a pile of scrap wood he will feed into the old wood stove for a little warmth this winter.

The Rodenbecks also enjoy going to auctions, and “somehow we got hooked on starting to buy (old boat) motors,” he said.

When they started 25 years ago, you could buy an old boat motor for less than $50, he said. Now the motors usually cost $100 or more, so they have cut down on their buying.

Rodenbeck also has a long list of other projects that keep him busy. Those include repairing quality furniture and clothing that have been donated to Cross Border Partners, a Fort Wayne ministry that provides second-hand items to the public and to people in need.

Lois volunteers there, usually helping sort donated items. If they find a good jacket, coat or other piece of clothing with a broken zipper, she brings it home for him to fix.

“They call me the 'Zipper Guy,'” he says, smiling.

He and Lois no longer get out in a boat as much as they used to, but they still enjoy the outdoors. They often stroll along trails at area ACRES Land Trust nature preserves.

“We are very comfortable with doing what the day dictates,” he added, “and having a good time doing that.”