Where The Heck Is Chetek And Why Should Anyone Care?

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Today we have a great report from fellow Woody Boater John Baas, who was up in Chetek, Wisconsin last weekend with his classic boat. As you will see in his story, this local boat show is different from your standard show, and could be a candidate for the smallest boat show in the country.

But regardless of the size, what’s significant about this show is the fact that folks are gathering together to celebrate classic boats, specifically the Chetek Boat Company, and the contribution they made to the wooden boat industry for 20 years. – Texx

Locked and loaded for the 4.5 hour ride to Chetek.

Chetek Fly-In and Boat Show
Story & Photos by John Baas

Where the heck is Chetek and why should anyone care? For those of us with varnish in our veins, Chetek is a small town in northwest Wisconsin where, 66 years ago, two guys and two dozen or so of the local citizenry invested money, sweat and knowhow in a new wooden boat company.

1951 Chetek Brochure

Vintage 1951 Chetek Boats Brochure.

For anyone else, this sleepy lake country town some 100 miles east of Minneapolis is a northwoods playground of fishing, boating and watching sunsets. On this Sunday it was also host to the 4th annual Chetek Fly-In and Boat Show. Emil Mix and Vern Larsen made a lot of wooden boats here. Plywood, cedar strip and lapstrake boats flowed from the factory. The last of them left the finishing room in the mid 1960’s. Mine, a 17’ lapstrake outboard was built in 1959.

Home again in Chetek.

I became an official Woody Boater on June 25th, 2006 when I bid $380.00 at a farm auction for a cool looking old boat with a McCulloch Flying Scott motor all sitting on a Sterling Self Centering trailer. I wasn’t looking for a boat. I was looking for implements to use with our vintage Massey Ferguson tractor. Turns out I had purchased a Chetek Duchess. The most terrifying aspect of buying an old wooden boat was how to tell my wife. But that’s another story.

Several years ago I contacted John Banks at the Chetek, WI museum looking for some information about the Chetek Boat Company. I’d just completed a cosmetic update that included a lot of sanding and a lot of varnish. But I didn’t know anything about Chetek boats or the city in northwest Wisconsin from whence they came.

1961 Chetek Brochure
John filled me in on some of the history, including the fact that the company began making wooden boats in 1947 and continued into 1965 when a second fire at the factory put the boat building side of the business out of business. The company built wooden toboggans and dog sleds for a short time but by 1967 the Chetek Boat Company was no more. I thanked John for the history lesson and almost jokingly said how neat it would be to have a Chetek boat reunion in, of all places, Chetek!

With absolutely no help from yours truly, John Banks partnered up with the local airport which was hosting a fly-in for vintage aircraft. Since airports typically don’t have boat ramps, ours was a “dry show”. There were a handful of Chetek boats the first year. My wife Pam and I took our Chetek Duchess utility on a five hour trailer ride “back home”. One of the locals told me he had “two, three of these boats at home but didn’t think it was such a big deal.” There are some pretty big and fancy vintage boat shows around the country, but Chetek’s could be among the smallest.

Sponsored by the Chetek Historical Society, the show is now open to any Wisconsin boat builder (any vintage boat, really). Previous shows saw Shell Lake, Thompson, Cruisers Inc and Dunphy boats among the Chetek vessels.

Mike Haley’s classic 1955 Feathercraft Vagabond II.

You’ll also see vintage aircraft at the Chetek show.

T-6 Trainers on display in formation and also flew formation fly-bys during the show.


The vintage graphics are always fun to see.

The kids can ride an antique fire truck. This 1940 Chevy was purchased new by the Chetek Fire Department. The firefighters did the restoration themselves. The truck is the hit of every local event.
Chetek Fire Truck
Everyone enjoys an old fashioned chicken dinner complete with ice cream for dessert. You’d swear Sheriff Andy Taylor and Opie would be sauntering by any minute.

This year’s show stopper was William Wivell’s cool original 14’ 1953 Chetek Aqua Flyer (shown below).

This boat is legendary in that it has never been in the water! Bill owns 6 Chetek boats, but this one is the prize of the fleet. Not only has this boat never been wet, it has never been off its original Montgomery Ward’s trailer.

Chetek’s Sig Rishovd brought his ’59 Chetek Mam’sell complete with it’s period McCulloch Scott outboard and two-tone Vollrath single spoke steering wheel (shown below).

Vollrath single spoke steering wheel.
This year’s show was a success for all involved but especially for our ’59 Chetek Duchess. She took the “People’s Choice Award”. And just yesterday, our ’59 Chetek won Best Wood Outboard at the Pewaukee Glacier Lakes ACBS Chapter show.

The People Have Spoken!

Our Chetek lapstrake has the optional ventilating windshield, a $95 option in 1959.

Middy Mae

“Middy Mae” resting at the dock on Lake Chetek.

We named our boat the “Middy Mae” in memory of my wife’s mother, Middy, and my mother, Mae. She turns heads where ever we go. Oh, and by the way, we sold the tractor.

John Baas

Thanks John for taking the time to prepare this great story and send it to us here at Woody Boater. I have to admit that beyond the Chetek Boat Company name, I didn’t know anything about the history of the Chetek marque. But I do now thanks to John.


27 replies
  1. Randy Rush Captain Grumpy
    Randy Rush Captain Grumpy says:

    John your my kind of guy! Very cool show! Maybe ill bring my orphan Carver home too!

  2. Andreas Jordahl Rhude
    Andreas Jordahl Rhude says:

    It’s a Chetek by heck ! Was on my way to the show with a, gasp, Thompson lapstrake, when I blew a bearing on my trailer (1960 Trailcar). 7 AM on a Sunday. Fat chance of finding any repair place. Good thing AAA answered the phone.

    The Chetek show is great. Some wonderful boats with enthusiastic participants and planners and the aircraft make it a unique event.

    I will make it next year.

    There is an article on Chetek boat history at http://www.acbs-bslol.com in the “Boatbuilders of the Past” area


      • Andreas Jordahl Rhude
        Andreas Jordahl Rhude says:

        No, not planning on Gull Lake. Need to save money to pay for new wheel bearings, etc…. Wish they did not go to a 2 day show this time. Makes it very unlikely for me to ever attend.

  3. m-fine
    m-fine says:

    A fly-in boat show sounds like a great idea, but I imagine the FAA would make the STC process for adding the trailer hitch to your Cessna a bit difficult.

  4. John Baas
    John Baas says:

    That Carver is a beaut Randy! Built in Pulaski, WI she sure qualifies for the Chetek show! Would love to see her there. 2014 show is August 10th.

  5. Sean
    Sean says:

    What a fantastic show! WWII birds AND woodyboats….apparently size is not everything. I guess there’s an addition to the bucket list.

  6. John Baas
    John Baas says:

    And for breakfast, you can’t beat the Chetek Cafe. German and American food. This is the Strammer Max. Rye bread and mettwurst under those eggs. Each bite gets a pickle and a dip in mustard. All for $6.79!

  7. rabbit
    rabbit says:

    I’m sitting at my cabin in Balsam Lake, Wisconsin. Chetek is about thirty miles away. Should I go to the show or fire up the Ensign and burn some more gas on Balsam? Exactly. More woody boating.

  8. Neil Hoehle
    Neil Hoehle says:

    I made the show the first year, but scheduling conflicts have conspired the last 2. I’m going to shoot hard for next year, and bring up my 1961 Empress.

  9. Texx
    Texx says:

    I now like Chetek boats. Now that I know what they are and where they were made.

    May have to them to my “mooch a ride list.”

  10. Stan Petersen
    Stan Petersen says:

    I own a 1954 14′ Chetek which belonged to Real Runabouts Author Bob Speltz. I found it in Iowa with a hatch cut into the deck with a towel bar as a handle. (Gas can was stored there) I brought it to Florida to restore (great learning experience) displayed it at the Sunnyland Boat Show in Mount Dora, then taken to Iowa Great Lakes Maritime Museum in Arnolds Park, Iowa on Lake Okoboji. Powered by Bob’s original 1954 25 hp Johnson. It is still there.

    • John Baas
      John Baas says:

      Stan, You mean this boat? Its a photo from the ACBS site Andreas linked to above. He wrote the article about Chetek boats’s history. It would be a great honor to have it come to Chetek for next year’s show!

  11. Stan Petersen
    Stan Petersen says:

    Yes, that’s it. I am now living in Florida and I’m afraid my traveling to far away boat shows are history. It would be great fun to bring her to Chetek, however.

  12. Jim Metcalf
    Jim Metcalf says:

    We have two Chetek boats in the lobby of Sterling Bank. You should stop in and see them next time you are in Chetek.

    • John Baas
      John Baas says:

      Jim, what will it take to get them over to the airport for next year’s show on August 10th? I will help with a tow vehicle.

  13. Garver Brown
    Garver Brown says:

    I was very happy to see Mike Haley’s 1955 Feathercraft boat featured in this article. He had been to 2 other upholsters to make upholstered seats for the boat. They both turned him down then he came to me. I had no patterns at all only a couple pictures off the Feathercraft website to go by. It turned out to be quite a project for me. But one Im very proud I got to do.

  14. Ken Harlson
    Ken Harlson says:

    My father worked at the Chetek Boat factory and was present when the plant caught fire. I’ve always wanted to be able to purchase and restore one of these watercraft. I’ll have to at least make it to a show to see one as I haven’t seen one since about 1966.

    • Texx
      Texx says:

      Thanks for chiming in Ken. There are a few Chetek boats around and it’s always great when we see one at a boat show or event. Best found around Wisconsin and Minnesota (close to home). – Texx

  15. Stan Petersen
    Stan Petersen says:

    2/9/2016. I came across these “conversations” today. Here is an update on my 1954 Chetek. In Sept. 2015, I attended the ACBS annual meeting & boat show in Minnesota. My son, Dave, helped me move the Bob Speltz Chetek from the Iowa Great Lakes Maritime Museum to the Minn. Lakes Maritime Museum in Alexandria. Check recent issue of Rudder for a very nice article of the Museum and photos of the Chetek.

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