It may have been the railroad that brought the first tourists to the island city of Minocqua in the early 1900s, but it’s the boats that keep them coming back. Whether it’s a fishing adventure, a run on the boards (water skis, In Northwoods parlance), or a sunset cruise with refreshments, visitors expect to get out on the water when they head north.
The classic Northwoods version is known as a “wet” boathouse, because it’s built out over the water, allowing boats to be driven into the shelter of its walls. in 1979, the Wisconsin state legislature restricted construction over the water, putting an end to new boathouses.
What is it about boathouses that is so evocative? Since many were smaller reflections of the architecture of the main house or lodge, maybe it’s their “dollhouse” charm. Maybe it’s nostalgia, since most of them date back to the first half of the 20th century. Possibly it’s simply their association with sun-filled days of relaxation. As several National Register listings note, “Boathouses are a resource uniquely tied to the resorts and summer homes of Oneida County.”
One of the most notable boathouses on the Minocqua chain of lakes isn’t really a boathouse at all. it’s a lodge with a couple of boat slips carved out below the living room. The distinction, says owner Jim Walker, is that the slips under his home are cut into the shoreline, not built out over the lake. The home above the slips was built in 1948 by Hilton H. Slayton, a fund manager from St. Louis who got in a little trouble with the sec. according to legal documents, “various of [Slayton’s ‘managed funds’] annual and other reports under the [securities act of 1933] appear to be false and misleading,” and further, that “Slayton and the people he did business with ‘participated in the mismanagement of the portfolio for their own benefit.’”
According to local reports, Slayton eventually fled to Canada, leaving behind a Gatsby-esque estate with many of the original furnishings intact. Ellenwood — the multi-acre property was named for Slayton’s wife — is once again for sale. It still has the distinctive feel of a vintage northwoods summer retreat, complete with a small private island, guest house, caretaker’s quarters and, at one time, a bandstand.
The boat slips are enclosed in rustic walls. On one is a letter dated August 5, 1959, from the Oneida County district attorney to Hilton Slayton: “I have been informed that you are in the possession of a cannon in which you have been using blank cartridges and firing said cannon at various times of the day and night, causing considerable disturbance and uneasiness to residents on Lake Kawaguesaga. Rather than charge you at this time with a violation of the statutes, I am requesting that you immediately cease and desist from using this cannon…” local legend holds that Slayton used the cannon to announce cocktail hour.
Ellenwood, with its full home built above the boat slips, is one of a kind. Most landmark boathouses on the Minocqua chain of lakes have a second story with simpler living quarters above, or perhaps a recreational room for entertaining. One such is the Coys’ Eagles Nest, a picturesque red boathouse with a corner tower, visible on the shoreline of Lake Minocqua just east of the Highway 51 bridge.
During the depression of the 1930s, the property was turned into a retreat called Pinewood Manor, later Minocqua Manor Resort. In the late 1950s, the property was returned to single family use. The Coys are the seventh owners and have been restoring the boat house to its original character.
On the west side of the highway 51 bridge lies what today is the Thirsty Whale, which was built in 1902 and operated as a boat livery for many years, and later a bar. The place went through many names before becoming the Thirsty Whale in 1970. Today it’s a year-round bar and grill and home of the original ‘summer hummer,’ a drink made with the Thirsty Whale’s own signature ‘limon’ mixture and now served throughout the Minocqua area.
Across Lake Minocqua from the Thirsty Whale lies the Beacons, a resort and timeshare property that was once the summer home of Fred. B. Snite, Jr. The Beacons’ distinctive lighthouse-style boathouse was built in 1908 and, according to local legend, was used by Snite to watch boat races, using mirrors and a periscope. Snite, son of a Chicago financier, contracted polio in 1936 at the age of 25, and spent the next 18 years lying on his back in a 700-pound respirator, which enabled him to breathe. famous as “the man in the iron lung” and “the Boiler kid,” Snite lived a surprisingly normal life and was known for his quick wit and ready smile. Using a chest respirator, he was occasionally able to leave the iron lung, but only for a couple of hours at a time. He married in 1939, and before he died of natural causes at age 44, he and his wife and three daughters enjoyed summers on Lake Minocqua.
If you don’t have your own boat to tour around the lakes and view these beautiful boathouses, consider renting one or grabbing a seat on one of several tours available through businesses like Minocqua Pontoon Cruises.