TOWN OF WESTPORT — When the Mary B skimmed across the ice of lakes Monona and Mendota in the early 1950s, she shared her exploits in the Wisconsin State Journal sports pages with the University of Wisconsin boxing team, three-time NCAA champion Don Gehrmann’s ability to run the mile for the Badgers and basketball games at Central High School.
The 39 foot-long ice boat could fly across frozen waters at nearly 100 mph, won numerous prestigious regattas in the heyday of the sport and is a quintessential part of Madison’s history and our connection to water, even in the depths of winter.
The Mary B, made with Sitka spruce, was a rock star before the arrival of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley but has come out of retirement after nearly 15 years of storage in a Waukesha County barn.
The boat made an appearance at the Frozen Assets Festival in front of the Edgewater Hotel last month on Lake Mendota and a few weeks later even sailed for a bit on Lake Monona. The plan is to get her back in the game to compete not only on home ice but on lakes Winnebago, Big Green, Geneva and beyond.
“It’s a very important, prominent part of the ice boating history of Madison and this (boat) wound up being on top of the heap until the smaller boats came in which were smaller and used modern materials,” said Jerry Simon, an ice boat builder who has been involved with the sport for nearly 60 years. “This was the best of the big boats.”
There are few boats of Mary B’s size that still compete. The racing circuits primarily consist of smaller, single-sail boats that hold one person. They include 23-foot-long Renegades that feature 18-foot-tall masts and 67 square feet of sail. Skeeters are 30 feet long with 28-foot-tall masts and 75 square feet of sail.
The Mary B, considered a stern-steerer boat, has a 40-foot-tall mast that holds 360 square feet of sail. She is a yacht among skiffs and a mobile, historic and highly decorated treasure of the hard water.
And now, the Four Lakes Ice Yacht Club in Madison is working on a plan to raise $40,000 to make the boat race-ready. The costs include about $5,000 in restoration work, the purchase of a $12,000 enclosed trailer in which to store and transport the boat and another $15,000 to buy the ice boat from Don Anderson, owner of The Boathouse of Madison and who rescued the ice boat from storage.
“It was in a pretty dilapidated building but it was in really good shape,” said club member Peter Fauerbach, whose family has been involved with the sport since the early 1900s. “There were some rodents that got in and made a nest in one of the sails, so it’s not pretty but we think we can get those back into pretty good shape. The wood was fantastic.”
And so is the boat’s history.
It was in the late 1940s that O.T. Havey, a Madison electrician, commissioned Frank Tetzlaff and Carl Bernard to build an ice boat that he would name after his wife.
Although, the boat would have never been built had Havey not learned how to swim in Token Creek near the family farm in the town of Windsor. After graduating from DeForest High School, Havey got a job as an apprentice wireman for the Western Electric Company in Chicago. In 1915, the company’s annual picnic was scheduled to be held in Michigan City, Indiana, so the company chartered five steamer ships to transport 7,000 employees and their families down the Chicago River and across southern Lake Michigan.
Havey, then 21, was aboard the Eastland that was overloaded with 2,500 people. The steamer capsized in the river and 800 people died. Havey, saved a 4-year-old girl before being picked up by a tug boat. His future wife, Mary, also an employee of the company, but who had not yet met O.T., watched the tragedy unfold from shore.
“It was the (worst) mess you ever saw,” Mary Havey told the State Journal in 1975.
O.T. Havey later moved to Detroit before serving in World War I. He returned to Madison after the war where he was the long-time owner of the O.T. Havey Electric Co. His success in electrical work allowed him to spare no expense on the $9,000 ice boat.
Tetzlaff was a master carpenter who helped translate some of Frank Lloyd Wrights plans for the construction of the Unitarian Meeting House on University Bay Drive that was completed in 1951.
Bernard grew up on Gorham Street along Lake Mendota where his grandfather, who came to Madison in 1837 and had been building ice boats since the 1850s, started a boat livery business in 1874. The Bernard Boat Livery offered tours of Lake Mendota aboard boats that could hold up to 100 people. The livery also built and rented boats during open water and in 1940 had a fleet of 27 ice boats that it rented during the winter.
Despite the qualifications of Carl Bernard and Tetzlaff, who about 10 years earlier had built another well known ice boat, the Fritz, it took the men three years to build the Mary B. Their workspace was the Bernard Boathouse that is now part of James Madison Park.
Deb Whitehorse, whose father built ice boats in the basement of their Monona home, is a member of the Four Lakes Ice Yacht Club where she organizes races and events and writes about the sport’s history. She said wood for the Mary B was purchased by Tetzlaff at the nearby Marling Lumber Co.
“He picked out all of the best wood from a car load of Sitka and you can see that now in the care he took,” Whitehorse said as she looked over the Mary B. “There’s just so much Madison in this boat.”
O.T. Havey didn’t race the boat. He left that up to skippers Carl Bernard and later, James Payton. The duo combined to win 13 major regattas between 1949 and 1964. It won the Randolph Hearst Cup four times in the 1950s. Henry J. McCormick of the Wisconsin State Journal wrote about the 1954 race in which the Fritz beat the Mary B.
“The Fritz handled the light wind and the troublesome ice the way Fred Astaire handles a slippery dance floor,” McCormick wrote. “Owner O.T. Havey’s Mary B was as pretty as a girl in her first formal, and skipper Carl Bernard sailed her with the calm assurance of a fellow who knew he had the best date at the party.”
The Mary B last raced in 1992 and in 2000 was on display at the Strictly Sail Boat Show in Chicago before being wrapped in canvas tarps and going into storage.
The boat’s hull weighs 600 pounds and her 26-foot-long runner plank that balances the boat is 400 pounds. But if the creation of a nonprofit is successful, money is raised and the restoration completed, the Mary B may once again vie for a trophy.
“This is probably one of the most famous ice boats that nobody knows about,” Anderson said. “It’s just been sitting in storage for years. There’s a lot of history there but now we want to win races and be competitive.”