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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Goldenrod Showboat Celebrates its Centennial

The day was beautiful, and our need for a trip away from the city strong. Looking for a destination, we settled on tracking down the Goldenrod Showboat on the Illinois River. After all, we are in the venerable entertainment vessel's 100th year. Using directions from a friend sent last year after he stumbled upon it and Google Earth (which showed it a few miles from where it actually lies), we got a general idea of the location in Kampsville, Illinois and set out.

Of course, the Goldenrod now sits outside of its first Kampsville location. After not finding the boat on the town's riverfront, we asked a couple walking down the road how to find it. The man knew where it was, gave directions and proceeded to offer the information that his aunt was a waitress and actress on the Goldenrod between 1945 and 1950. Even in this unlikely new home, the Goldenrod is part of a local's family heritage -- how 'bout that?

A few miles later, we spotted the Goldenrod moored to a barge on a section of overgrown riverfront. The boat was unmistakable, and the deterioration has not claimed much of its integrity. Everything is still there, down to the boat's recent (and somewhat unattractive) paint scheme. The paint is peeling, the wood drying and in some places rotting. Yet the Goldenrod survives unharmed in its sleepy Illinois berth.

A few years ago, this outcome was far from likely. After its itinerant early years (more on those later), the show boat became a permanently-moored restaurant on the St. Louis riverfront. In 1990, the City of St. Charles, which had purchased the boat in 1988, moved it to the St. Charles riverfront. The restaurant closed in 2001, and in 2003 the city decided to sell the boat. The St. Charles City Council accpeted bids, and sold it to a company headed by John Schwarz. (The Council rejected Bob Cassilly's bid to move it back to the St. Louis riverfront.) Schwarz moved the boat to Kampsville, after announcing plans to restore the vintage vessel.

However, in 2007, Randy Newingham and Shelia Prokuski, owners of the site where the boat was moored, sued Schwarz for unpaid mooring fees. In September 2007, Newingham threatened to sell all or part of the boat for scrap to cover his costs. One month later, a Calhoun County judge ordered an auction of the boat, and the court accepted Newingham and Prokuski's lone $50,000 bid. However, by the end of the year the couple had reached and agreement to sell the Goldenrod back to John Schwarz. Schwarz moved the boat north. In 2008, however, Judge Richard Greenleaf declared that the proper court papers for the auction had not been filed, throwing the ownership in doubt. To date, the ownership has not been cleared.

Hence, the Goldenrod Showboat sits lonely on the side of Illinois Highway 100, and as summer sets in, disappears behind stands of grasses and the leaves of riverbank trees. The sturdy boat is crumbling, but not very rapidly. Asphalt roof paper provides cover for much of the deck area, and the boat is locked up tight. Hopefully, this is not how the Goldenrod will end its days, even if this sad state is how the boat will spend its centennial year.

The path from birth has been convoluted, but most of the Goldenrod's days have been good ones. Pope Dock Company of Parkersburg, West Virginia built the boat in 1909 for businessman W.R. Markle. Originally, the boat was named Markle's New Showboat. Built for entertainment, the boat would travel the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and stop at town where it would dock. Patrons would come aboard for a night of music, comedy and other live entertainment. According to most accounts, the boat was the last showboat built for the Mississippi and Ohio river circuits. At 200 feet long and 43 feet wide, the boat was one of the largest showboats ever built. The seating capacity was 1,400.

Markle lost the boat through foreclosure in 1913, and the next owner renamed the vessel the Goldenrod Showboat. In 1922, Captain Bill Menke purchased the boat and implemented a 12-month touring schedule. His tenure would be long and fruitful. Menke moored the boat at Aspinwall, Pennsylvania for two consecutive summers, 1930 and 1931. In summer 1937, Menke brought his show palace to St. Louis for repairs but ended up permanently mooring it here. According to "That Landmark on the River," an article by Mary Duffe that appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on December 10, 1968, the boat hosted stars like Red Skelton, Monte Blue, Kathy Nolan, Major Bowes and others during Menke's tenure. Menke reported that he had to ask patrons in southern towns to leave their firearms at the riverbank.

In 1963, Pierson and Franz purchased the Goldenrod Showboat. A few small fires led to major renovation, including a new steel hull. On Christmas Eve 1967, the National Park Service listed the Goldenrod Showboat as a National Historic Landmark, the highest federal distinction for a historic property. The National Historic Landmark nomination includes a short history of the boat, as well as the fact that the original hull is intact inside of the steel barge that now serves as the hull.

The National Historic Landmark nomination may be skimpy by today's standards of historic documentation, but the nomination's assertion of the great cultural significance of the Goldenrod remains true. This was one of the last and most lavish of the great river show boats, and it may be the only survivor of that type. Its future is important not only to St. Louis, its later home, but to the history of the 15 states the Goldenrod is known to have regularly visited between 1909 and 1937. The centennial of the boat should be a spur toward preservation. If the current owners (whoever they may be legally) cannot figure out how to bring the boat back to life, let's find the person who can.


Anonymous said...

Yes I remember taking a few dates back in the late '60s on her when she was moored next to the recently built Arch. Thanks for the great story but not surprising she's still stuck in the Lou limbo.

barb said...

My mother lived and worked aboard the Goldenrod for 40 years while it was moored in St. Louis. She was an actress, musician, secretary and sometimes cook. Thanks for the great article. I spent many summers aboard the boat and have fond memories of Capt. Bill and his brothers.

jbpiv said...

I lived and worked on The Goldenrod from 1989-1991 during it's transfer from The Pierson Family to the City of St Charles. It is too bad that St Charles didn't have the right mindset to keep the boat up. The restoration at the time was good. I hate hearing how it is being neglected now. Somebody please come to her and restore her to her glory! It should go back to St Louis, it needs something on its riverfront!

Anonymous said...

I operated the Goldenrod from 1975 to 1984 and without fear of correction those were its golden years. We turned the boat into a very successful business and a cultural icon in St. Louis. The reasons for its demise are two: bad weather and bad city government. During the last two years of operation of the boat we were closed for 9 months due to flooding on the Mississippi. If people can't get to the boat your business declines and decline it did. As for reason number two, the city was unwilling to take a stand on an issue that seriously impacted our business. Some of you in St. Louis may remember, but here is how it went down. Young urban youths (that is the euphemism of choice) congregated in Forrest Park in large numbers on weekends. Nearby residents fearfully called the police and the police reacted with mounted patrols driving the "urban youths" out of the park. Forrest Park residents were happy, the "UYS" were not. They sought another congregating point and that just happened to be the Levee. Crowds began to gather in large number every weekend and the upshot? They began harassing our customers and we started receiving phone calls in the hundreds canceling reservations. Fearful people would no longer come to the levee. A call to the city resulted in some sort of affirmative action drone being sent down to the boat to accuse me of racism. I was the racist when the majority of my employees were black, I was the racist who hired black actors for the first time on the boat, and I was the racist who hired and promoted blacks into management on the boat. I think not.
For the boat to return to the levee would require a mindset that probably doesn't exist in St. Louis government. They would have to want it to succeed and actively abet that effort. I don't think that mindset exists.
Do you see a thriving tourist business on the levee today?
I agree with most on this list that the venerable old girl needs to be saved but it would probably have to be somewhere else.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your Goldenrod piece immensely. I have in my files a pictorial article from Pix magazine, July 12, 1938 which might be of interest to your site. Let me know if interested.
G. William oakley

Anonymous said...

To Barb:
I suspect you are Blanche Forbes daughter. Your mother was living on board with Charlie Menke when I took over in 1975. They lived in an apartment at the back of the boat. Your mother was a wonderful source and told many stories of the early days of the boat. I think I have a picture of her playing the violin.
G. William Oakley

Anonymous said...

last year while riding my motorcycle from Chicago to St.Luis along the Ill 100 i spotted a boat. i stopped to have a closer look. its size and bright colors charmed me but its loneliness scared me. i raced away in fear not knowing her name or history, only that she was large and spooky. those images of the desolate boat haunted me for a year. i drove a 600 mile round trip yesterday so i could have a closer look, so i could research and ease my interest. it was the Goldenrod that i had spotted and it begged me for a year to come visit her and get to know her. Now i know her.

Anonymous said...

I worked on 5 of the last shows performed on the Goldenrod stage.

It was an honor, each and every time, to walk up that gangway to enter the theater.

What a tragic shame that more hasn't been done to save her.

I loved being a part of her history, even if it was at the end.

If someone does take the helm once again, I'd love to be a part of it!


Eric Reiss said...

I was hired as musical director by Frank Pierson back in February 1975 to add musical entertainment to the popular melodramas performed on the Goldenrod. I was a student at Washington University at the time. A couple of months later, William Oakley, who ran the successful Heritage Square Opera House in Colorado took over the daily management, fired the old melodrama team and brought in his own folks, including the talented pianist Daryl Ott. I was one of only three entertainers asked to stay on, which I did for several months. Although the new melodramas lacked the "authenticity" of the earlier shows led by actor Bill Rowley, Oakley did create a solid business out of what had become a tired concept. Among other innovations, Oakley supplemented the melodramas with tightly scripted 39-minute vaudeville shows of very high quality. Although I only appeared in five shows at the Goldenrod, I am deeply grateful for having had this opportunity - and to play at the 1975 National Ragtime Festival. And it was truly an honor to have known both Frank Pierson and Bill Oakley. As for the boat itself, to let this landmark decay further would be an absolute scandal. I sincerely hope the old girl will be rescued and revived by people who love her as much as her former "crewmembers".

Anonymous said...

My parents were investors in the 60's and I spent many summer weekends "helping" while they put in sweat equity. She looked pretty decrepit at that time -- she looks a lot better even now.