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45 Years of the Best Steamin’ Event on Winni!

The Laker - September 6, 2017

By Kathi Caldwell-Hopper

(Courtesy photo)

“Gee, I can’t believe it’s been 45 years!” says Lee’s Mills Steamboat Meet founder and organizer, David Thompson. He laughs as he recalls the early steamboat meet “back in 1972” that came about after some guys who liked antique boats got talking about having a get-together. It was planned to be some boat lovers meet up to show off their boats and maybe have a picnic or cookout.

These days, steamboat enthusiasts from all over the world attend the steamboat meet at the Lee’s Mills location in Moultonboro. “We are expecting the guys from the United Kingdom this year,” David adds. “They love my son’s steam truck and would take it back to England with them if they could!”

As the calendar turns to September, thoughts turn to fall activities, such as apple festivals, fairs and pumpkin carving. But if you live in the Lakes Region or love old steamboats, you are in for a treat at the unique event when steamboat lovers from all over bring their boats to Winnipesaukee for the chance to share stories, get suggestions on repairing an engine, and to show off their steamboats and generally have a grand old time.

In today’s day and age of speedboats, fast cars and super highways, steamboat travel may be a thing of the past, but that doesn’t mean there is no interest in old-fashioned steamboats; indeed, a core group of steamboat enthusiasts from all over the world pack their bags and travel to the Lee’s Mills Meet every year. According to the event founder/organizer, if you are into steamboats, attending the Lee’s Mill Meet is a bit of a rite of passage.

David laughs as he says, “If you haven’t been to the event, you need to attend because everyone does at one time or another.”

This year, the Steamboat Meet will be held from September 8 to 17 in Moultonborough. David started the event 45 years ago to share the hobby of steam boating with other owners of the unique boats and to provide a great spectator event for the public. The event is quite casual, and David says there are no set hours, although the boats are there usually by about 9 am.

David expects about 50 to 55 steamboats will participate in the meet this year, many return aficionados who love to show off their steamboats and hang out with other boat owners and also answer questions that spectators may have.

Leading up to the event, David fields inquiries from steamboat collectors, enthusiasts and from people who don’t know much about steamboats but want to find out more. “We have been getting a lot of calls asking about the event,” he says.

As president of the Lee’s Mills Steamboat Association, he coordinates steamboat participants and catering and a lot more as he and his helpers prepare for the annual steamboat event.

David is a lifelong expert when it comes to anything steam operated and he has passed his love on to his sons Dave Jr., Blair and Brian. His daughter, Kelly, contributes to the event by making a variety of foods and her famous apple pies! No one leaves the meet hungry, according to David.

Steam boating just seems to come naturally to David and his sons (Dave Jr., Blair and Brian). David grew up spending a lot of time at Goodhue Hawkins Navy Yard in Wolfeboro where his father and grandfather worked on the lake running and fixing commercial steamboats.

“My grandfather had steamboats in the early 1900s and my Dad followed. In the 1930s, the last of the steamboats were dying off. After that, they went to gas powered. Then, during World War II with the gasoline shortage, steamboats were a good way to get around,” David says.

David learned at a young age how to work on the little steam-powered vessels. Over the years, he has owned many steamboats and he loves to talk about the old-fashioned vessels. This year, as in the recent past, he will be bringing his Viking 1969 steamboat to the meet.

Historically, the Lee’s Mills meet started casually and to a large extent, the event has continued to have a laid-back, come-as-you-are atmosphere. “I started the meet in the early 1970s after we were down at the Weirs for a boat show.” David and fellow steamboat owner/friends discussed the growing interest in antique boats and steamboats. The group talked about having a cookout. A few steam boater owners showed up and it just grew from there.

Those who come to show off their steamboats, to share stories and ask questions about problems they may be having with their steamboat are all welcome, although you must contact David ahead of time at 476-2224 to let him know you will be bringing a steamboat to the event.

Last year’s event saw about 300 people a day on weekdays and about 1,500 people on weekend days, quite a healthy number of people who are interested and curious about steamboats.

David says it takes a lot of wood to fire the steamboats at the meet, but it is just one of the many things that it takes to run the meet.

David’s family is involved in the popular Lee’s Mills event. Daughter Kelly runs the Cook Nook at the steamboat meet and sells lots of homemade foods and even homemade pies. David chuckles as he relays that his daughter “always has apple pies in the freezer, ready to go, with more to be made!” Kelly makes and freezes the pies – which is a lot of work – and bakes them the night before the steamboat meet begins. Hungry boaters and spectators are very grateful for all Kelly’s baking, and the food is a popular part of the event.

Son Brian seems to have inherited his father’s love for “tinkering.” Brian, with the help of a friend, built a beautiful steam-fired truck that took over a year to build. It is a model of a 1908 English steam powered truck and quite a conversation piece.

Just being at the meet and seeing the incredibly beautiful little steamboats is a treat in itself. (Be prepared to watch the steamboats taking it slow – they typically travel about four to six miles per hour.)

“The boat owners are all very friendly and they love to answer questions,” says David.

Although the atmosphere of the meet is casual and there is no spectator admission fee, donations are always welcome.

It seems there is something for everyone at the upcoming steamboat meet. If you love to “tinker with engines” or if you enjoy history and old boats or have a love of photography and are looking for some unique subject matter, the meet has it all. And if you love a good home cooked dessert or meal, you will find a lot to choose from at the meet as well!

While steam boating is a very specialized hobby, it seems to draw people like a magnet. It has been a part of David’s life since he was a child and he is happy to share his knowledge and love of this piece of boating history with others.

Organizing the 45th annual Lee’s Mills Steamboat Meet may indeed be a lot of work, but this time of year excitement runs high in the Thompson household as David answers phone calls and prepares for the event.

As the calendar turns to September, get ready for the unique event that offers something for everyone. Bring the kids, bring older family members and friends for a look back at steam boating. And plan to celebrate the 45th anniversary of one of the most unique events held yearly on Lake Winnipesaukee.

For information on the September 8 to 17 Annual Lee’s Mills Steamboat Meet, call David Thompson at 603-476-2224. Lee’s Mills Road, the site of the steamboat meet, is located off Rt. 25 in Moultonborough, NH. Follow Lee’s Mills Road and the Loon Center signs; the meet is beyond the Center.)


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