TOWER- It was a typical winter for Sunrise River Boatworks partners Dana Hein and Jeff Larson, as they worked in their heated Tower shop on restorations of three wooden boats, but there was a …
TOWER- It was a typical winter for Sunrise River Boatworks partners Dana Hein and Jeff Larson, as they worked in their heated Tower shop on restorations of three wooden boats, but there was a pleasing, unique twist to the task. All three, two 23-footers and an 18-footer, were for local owners.
“They’re all special,” Larson said about the boats they take in, “but it was a special winter for the area to have three Lake Vermilion boats that are due to go back on the water this summer.”
Hein was busy giving the last Vermilion craft a final inspection on Friday morning, closing out the duo’s sixth winter in the shop, but inside, three more boats, the most their workshop will accommodate, were lined up in various states of restoration.
Larson said the duo has been working together for over 20 years.
“Dana and I had a custom wood shop up in Ely and we did a lot of remodeling,” Larson said. “We were going to start working on our own boats. We found a building in Tower, and there was a need locally. We knew there was work out there, but there’s no guarantee. You’ve got to earn it. We were prepared to do that.”
The pair made a connection with Aaron Starkey, owner of Sunrise River Boatworks, and the Tower shop is a contractor operating under the Sunrise banner.
While Larson and Hein pride themselves on their craftsmanship, there’s another aspect of the business that’s equally important.
“You’re saving history, keeping history alive,” Larson said. “You’re honoring the men and women that were part of the industry back in the day when they were built new. I often wonder what they would think sometimes about how we take craft they had built and re-do them with some modern materials and techniques they didn’t have access to. A lot of the boats now are probably nicer than when they came off the showroom floor.”
And it’s not only the preservation of physical history that keeps Larson enthusiastic about his craft.
“Every boat has a story, and that’s what I like,” he said. “Some stories get lost over the years, depending on what happens with the boat. But some stories don’t because some of the same people still own them or it’s been in the family or with the neighbors and they can always tell you about it.”
Larson stepped around two larger boats in the shop to point to a small boat that looked somewhat like a cross between a canoe at the bow and dinghy at the stern. The exposed middle third section of ribs had the gleam of fresh wood, while the outer hull, covered with weathered red fiberglass, was still awaiting repair.
“It’s called a Rehbein,” Larson said. “These were made in Duluth by Mr. (Lloyd) Rehbein. He made them in his garage. The current owner, it was his father-in-law’s. He proposed to his wife in this boat.”
It turns out, as often happens with stories that are passed along orally, that the owner didn’t actually propose to his bride-to-be in the boat, but it was abundantly clear that if not for the boat, there might not have been a proposal.
Al and Pattie Pitoscia are celebrating their 46th anniversary this year, and they recalled the role the Rehbein played in their courtship, which took place on Island Lake north of Duluth. Pattie’s family had built a cabin there, and a lake cabin wasn’t complete without boats.
“I believe my dad actually knew Mr. Rehbein, and he actually built that and a canoe for my dad,” Pattie said.
“We were 15, 16, that’s a long time ago,” Al said. “Moms and dads weren’t real excited about late nights having their daughter out alone with her boyfriend up at the lake. However, she was able to drive that boat over to the Island Lake Inn area where I happened to be hanging out, and she would pick me up and we would go out in the middle of the lake and ‘garden by the moonlight’ and all that stuff.”
“It had no running lights; we weren’t exactly safe or legal,” Pattie laughed. “My parents wouldn’t know because they thought I was there with my friend.”
Al didn’t deny that the topic of matrimony occasionally came up during their nighttime outings.
“I’m sure there were plenty of conversations that I probably deflected about marriage at one time or another in that boat,” he chuckled.
“We did talk about how many kids we wanted to have, I remember that conversation there,” Pattie said.
Sentimentality appears to be a family trait. Al and Pattie first met at the Proctor Skating Rink, and when the building was torn down years later, Al went to the site and picked up some pieces of concrete from the foundation.
“I still have them in my garage,” Al said.
The couple’s granddaughter, Hailey, has that same sentimental streak, and when a discussion arose about whether to do some repairs to the cabin or restore the boat, she knew exactly what she wanted.
“That’s the first boat that I learned to drive on,” she said. “Almost every family member, the first boat they’ve started on is our little Rehbein.”
Pattie wanted to focus on the cabin and display the weathered boat inside, but Hailey found an ally in Al.
“It’s part of the family legacy,” he said. “It has been one of those things that every individual in our family has come through in four generations now. We’ve got some younger grandkids coming up and they need to experience that.”
It wasn’t automatic, but Al and Hailey eventually prevailed.
“It’s just a family heirloom that we wanted, and she caved,” Hailey said.
“Hailey is very sentimental with things like that,” Pattie said. “Knowing that my dad and mom and my brother and myself grew up with that boat means a lot. It’s important to me especially now that I’ve lost my brother. It’s a lot of memories of me and my brother going out fishing in that boat. One time we were out in that boat we caught seven walleyes in seven minutes.”
A woman that Al worked with told him about the Tower shop, and while he was already considering other options, the drive to Tower was worth it, he said.
“They just seem to do things a cut above, and their vision was a little more forward-thinking,” he said. “I saw the work that Jeff and Dana do – they’re artisans, they’re not just people who build boats. I was really impressed.”
The Pitoscias are in no hurry to get the Rehbein back. They have other boating options at the cabin, and will let Larson and Hein take as long as they need to get the Rehbein just right.
“We’ll mix up some stains and get some similar color to blend that,” Larson said, pointing to the new ribs. “Then we’ll flip her over and re-do the glass.”
These are the sorts of stories that Larson and Hein enjoy.
“We need to make money to afford to keep the shop going, but that’s not the only goal,” Larson said. “It’s the pleasure of the work, seeing the smiles, keeping the history alive, seeing a boat come in and go back out on the water, and the stories that pop up. The owner of this will put more money into this than what it’s worth on the open market, but that’s not what’s important to them. It’s keeping the memory alive for the family, and that’s pretty cool.”