ON GENEVA LAKE – There is no practical reason to deliver mail here with a 75-foot, twin-propeller tour boat powered with twin diesel Caterpillar engines.
But mail service to the docks of the well-heeled that rim this 5,401-acre lake isn’t about speed or efficiency. Instead, it’s all about promotion.
And what better way to get noticed than to have a handful of high school and college students jump from a moving boat onto a dock, race to a nearby mailbox, place the mail in the box and race back to the still-moving boat before it chugs out of range.
The scene was repeated Friday aboard the Walworth II. Eight young men and women tried out for one of the five to six openings for the 100th mail delivery and tour season that begins Wednesday.
“I feel like it’s not about the mail but about the history and the entertainment factor of it all,” said Ronan McCarter, 16, who will work on a fill-in basis this summer but has had three older siblings land the gig. “It’s just one of the coolest jobs on the lake. It’s not a normal job.”
No one got wet, although one jumper “missed” on purpose just to humor the gaggle of media that was out in full force to capture the event on a Chamber of Commerce day with full sun, a steady breeze and temperatures approaching 90 degrees in what is considered “Up North” for those in Illinois.
The Wall Street Journal, Beloit Daily News, Geneva Shore Reporter, Walworth County Today and television stations from Milwaukee were all on hand to document the tryouts, which included applicants reading a portion of the 62-page tour script.
In addition, efforts are being made to attract national television shows such as “Today,” “Good Morning America,” “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” Who knows, maybe “The Late Late Show” host James Corden will show up and do mail boat karaoke, something that Becke Connelly, marketing director for Gage Marine, owner of Lake Geneva Cruise Lines and the Walworth II, would more than welcome.
“Media attention is critical. It’s very important,” Connelly said of the free advertising and the history of the service. “It’s a big deal to the community. It’s just so unique.”
For the record, the mail boat story in one form or another has appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal at least seven times since 2004. The most recent was in July 2015 in a piece we picked up from the Beloit Daily News. But for the 100th anniversary of the service, we thought we’d check it out ourselves.
What photographer John Hart and I found was a tradition that rivals any in Wisconsin, be it a Friday night fish fry, tailgating at a Green Bay Packers game, picking cherries in Door County or deer hunting in November.
Besides delivering the mail, the jumpers also narrate the two-and-a-half hour tour, staff the snack bar at the back of the boat and serve as ambassadors to the throngs of tourists who flock to this area each summer. Those visitors spent $510 million in Walworth County in 2015, a 2.2 percent increase over 2014, according to the state Department of Tourism. Some of that included $35 tickets for the mail boat tour that departs daily at 10 a.m. from the Riviera Dock in downtown Lake Geneva.
The Walworth became the official U.S. Mailboat in 1916 when a daily route was established and summer residents signed up for mail delivery by boat since roads around the lake at that time were primitive. Mail arrived to the area via train, was sorted and then picked up at post offices in Lake Geneva and Williams Bay.
Tilford Stuyvesant, who launched the Walworth, and Ernst Liechty, bought Lake Geneva Steamer Line in 1918 and formed the Wisconsin Transportation Company, which was purchased by Russell Gage in 1958.
The Walworth II was built in 1967 to replace the Walworth. In 1979, the Walworth II was cut in half and then put back together after a 15-foot section was added to its middle to increase seating.
The captain of the boat, Neill Frame, is also a tradition. The Woodstock, Illinois, native started piloting the Walworth II part-time in 1969 and has been behind the wheel full-time since 1975 when most of the parents of those who tried out Friday were still in grade school.
“As long as the Post Office is still open I’m sure we’ll be doing it,” Frame, 75, said of the service that can deliver to 65 to 70 of the 75 mailboxes in a day, despite email, Facebook and mailboxes at the end of driveways. “This is history. The young kids that come aboard are amazed at why we do this but then when we do it they see the value.”
Kyle Foulke, 19, of Burlington, failed in his first tryout in 2014 because his tour narration wasn’t strong enough. He worked on his delivery and was hired for the 2015 season and rehired for 2016 after a successful tryout Friday. He fell in the lake twice last summer but is glad to be back for another season.
“It was a little nerve wracking at first (last summer) but eventually I really enjoyed it,” said Foulke, who recently completed his freshman year at Marquette University in Milwaukee but will attend Gateway Technical College in the fall. “It’s a lot of fun” Foulke said of his summer job, “that’s why I’m back here again.”
Sara Zaloudek, 18, just graduated from high school in Westfield, Indiana, and will attend Purdue University in the fall to study computers and information technology. She tried out Friday and, like Ronan, is considered a “jumper in training.”
“It’s not just about having a job and making money,” she said. “It’s more about the tradition of the lake. I’ve grown up coming here every single summer, so, me working here is showing my love for Lake Geneva.”
It’s also about carrying on a family tradition. Zaloudek’s mother, Kris Zaloudek, 50, a violin teacher, worked as a mail jumper from 1984 to 1988 after graduating from York High School in Elmhurst, Illinois, and while a student at Butler University in Indiana.
She was on hand Friday, along with several other mail boat alumni who were invited for a reunion. The key to avoiding a soaking is to lead with the right foot when jumping off the boat and lead with the left foot when getting back on. If the piers are wet, it’s best to take baby steps to avoid slipping. A smile needs to be a constant, she said.
Zaloudek’s experience that began more than 30 years ago has remained a highlight of her life, but at the time there was little media attention to the service.
“It was not something that people wrote articles about, did interviews or took pictures of and all of that,” said Kris Zaloudek, who is still friends with two others she worked with on the boat. “We have this common bond and we see each other every summer and we still have our friendship over 30 years later. That’s the best part of this.”