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Full Steam Ahead At Lee’s Mills Steamboat Meet

Kathi Caldwell-Hopper - September 2, 2013

Steamboat Meet

Those who love to tinker with steam engines are looking forward to the Lee’s Mills Steamboat Meet.

Every year about this time, David Thompson gets steamed up. He fields phone calls and inquiries from steamboat collectors, enthusiasts, and curious people who don’t know much about steamboats but want to find out more.

As president of the Lee’s Mills Steamboat Association, David coordinates steamboat participants and catering and a lot more as he and his helpers prepare for the annual Lee’s Mills Steamboat Meet on Lee’s Mills Road in Moultonborough.

David is a lifelong expert when it comes to anything steam-operated and he has passed his love on to his sons. “I’ve just been interested in steamboats forever,” he says with a casual shrug of the shoulders.

David is not a boastful person, and one might actually consider him very matter-of-fact and somewhat modest about his deep knowledge of steamboats. It just seems to come naturally to David and his sons, Dave Jr., Blair, and Brian.

Indeed, David grew up around 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 around. After that, they went to gas-powdered. However, during World War II, with the gasoline shortage, steamboats were a good way to get around,” David says.

By being around a father and grandfather who ran and fixed steamboats, David learned at a young age how to repair the little steam-powered vessels. He has owned about 20 steamboats and loves to talk about his hobby, to promote awareness of steamboats.

“It’s a dying hobby, I am afraid,” he claims with regret. “I’m not sure why people love them, but they are great. However, most of the steam boaters are people beyond retirement, and younger people just don’t have the time or interest to tinker with steamboats.”

If it is true that steam boating is fading away, now is a great time to see the little boats at the Lee’s Mills steamboat event that runs Sept. 6 – 15. “We will have about 50 to 60 steamboats at the meet,” David goes on to say. “I started the meet in the early 1970s after we were down at the Weirs for a boat show.”

David and friends discussed the interest in antique boats and steamboats at that time. “We said we ought to have a get-together on a Sunday with a cookout. Four steam boaters showed up and it just grew from there,” David recalls.

The event has, indeed, grown in spectator popularity as well. Steam boaters and spectators come from all over the country and beyond for the meet in Moultonborough. “We have members in China and we have United States steam boaters from as far away as Virginia,” adds son Brian. “It is called the biggest steamboat meet in the world.”

Those who come to show off their steamboats, and to share stories and ask questions about problems they may be having with their steamboat, are welcome, although they must contact David ahead of time at 603-476-2224.

Spectators and steam boaters rent vacation houses, hotel rooms, and cottages so they can enjoy an event that has grown in popularity every year.

“We had 1,500 spectators on the final Sunday of the meet,” David says. “On the first and last Sundays of the meet, we have a steamboat parade and people love it.”

David currently owns a 35-foot fiberglass steamboat and he is what one would consider an expert. He speaks fondly of the classic Humphrey Bogart-Kate Hepburn movie, “The African Queen”, as a media method for reviving an interest in steamboats. “That movie put steam boating on the map. And it showed how much work it is to power a steamboat with wood!”

Steam boaters aren’t afraid to get dirty, as did Bogart in the film. And, as Bogart’s character says, “Steam boaters have to be people who like to tinker!”

David’s entire 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, from lasagna to burgers, hot dogs, and chili, and even homemade pies.

Son Brian collects steam engines and loves the steamboat meet as a place to talk engines and steam and boating for 10 days straight. Brian seems to have inherited his father’s love for “tinkering” and is one of those lucky people who can figure out and fix just about anything.

Brian built a beautiful steam-fired truck that took more than a year to build. “I built it with my dad and another steam boater, Dick Marden. We built it from scratch and, believe it or not, we use the steam truck’s steam to make ice cream! We make ice cream at the meet and give it out to spectators. They love it!”

For those looking to get a ride on a steamboat at the meet, if you play your cards right, one of the boaters might give you a ride, but it is not a guarantee. Just being at the meet and seeing the incredibly beautiful little steamboats is a treat in itself. Those lucky enough to get a ride must be prepared for a slow ride; the steamboats’ top speed is about four to six miles per hour.

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

Organizing the meet is a huge amount of work, from the early days when David’s wife, Nancy, cooked all the food for the dinner at the end of the meet to today’s coordinating for the meal with Hart’s Turkey Farm. And there is the fact that a lot of dry wood is needed for the steamboats. “We pre-bought a lot of dry wood this past year,” David explains. “We figure we will burn about seven cords of wood at the meet.”

Although the atmosphere of the meet is casual and there is no spectator admission fee, a modest, $10 fee is charged for each steamboat participating. Donations are always welcome.

Due to liability issues, only service dogs (dogs assisting people with disabilities) are permitted at the Steamboat Meet at Lees Mills.

It seems there is something for everyone at the upcoming steamboat meet. If you love to “tinker with engines” as David calls it, 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.

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 September 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.

When it comes to steamboats, getting all steamed up is a very, very good thing.

For information on the 41st annual Lee’s Mills Steamboat Meet, taking place Sept. 6-15, call David Thompson at 603-476-2224. Lee’s Mills Road, the site of the steamboat meet, is located off Route 25 in Moultonborough. 

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