"We always caught our limit," Vera said of walleye.

Walker resident Vera Stewart will mark her 100th birthday Sunday with area residents invited to celebrate the event with an informal parade of kids, kazoos, cars (vintage welcome), balloons, banners, troubadours or whatever emerges from imaginations.

The parade will form at 1:30 p.m. Sunday on Fifth Street (by Zona Rosa) and set off toward the lake at 2 p.m., heading right on Cleveland where the centenarian — Vera — will be viewing from the north side of the street.

All are welcome to join the fun.

Birthday greetings may be sent to Vera Stewart at PO Box 544, Walker, MN 56484.

Emigrating north

In a handwritten journal, Vera reflected on the decades of piloting fishermen out to explore the waters of Leech Lake.

It was October 1960 when real estate agent Warren Greeley of Walker approached Lee Stewart, who was harvesting corn on his farm south of Ida Grove, Iowa, Vera wrote.

Just previously, Lee and Vera had spent several days at the Chase Hotel in Walker, traveling with Amos Grant Company Realtors with an aspiration to purchase a resort.

“We did not find what we wanted,” Vera relates. And they headed back to their Iowa farm fields.

Vera Louise Lantz graduated high school in 1937 and assumed the role of a rural school teacher, often walking three miles to the school house, unless Lee drove by to offer a ride.

Dances at the fire hall had ignited a romance, “and the first thing we knew, we were married,” and moving to the farm.

Realtors Larry Dayton and Greeley would soon amend the Stewarts’ vocational compass, introducing them to owners of Dick’s Launch Service on Walker Bay. They met the Ellis Knapp family, Ellis, Vi and Dick the owners.

The Stewarts’ interest was piqued; a subsequent purchase agreement with the Knapps was approved.

The City Dock Launch Service consisted of three, 26-foot Chris-Craft launches and two rental cottages.

Although the pair were astute fisherfolk in Iowa, “We had never fished Leech Lake,” Vera said of their intrepid business venture.

Son Jerry, who was employed in Colorado at the time, joined his parents in their new venture.

The first guides for the launches were Dick Knapp, Clarence Fisher, and Lee and Jerry Stewart.  The fare was $5 for a half-day trip and $7 for an entire day. An all-day charter was $45 for six or less. And this included bait and fish filleting; walleye predominant, Vera recalled.

In 1962, a 28-foot Chris-Craft was added to the fleet.

“That year, Byron Godberson from Midwest Industries from their hometown of Ida Grove, built and assembled an electric lift to accommodate the 28-foot launch,” Vera said.

In 1964, the Stewarts purchased Walker Boat Service, located on the west side of the City Dock, owned by Doris and James Groth. The business consisted of a snack bar and one launch.

Bonnie Swendsen, who was working for Walker Boat Service prior to the sale, had been encouraged to “get outside and meet that young fellow,” (Jerry Stewart) by Doris  Groth. Bonnie was about to add Stewart as her surname.

Vera had initially been opposed to moving north, enjoying her job with the federal Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service in Ida Grove.

“I walked into the (Walker) ASCS office one day and told them, ‘If you ever need help, call me.’ ”

Vera began working on a part-time basis, shifting to full time a year later. She subsequently became Cass County’s ASCS executive director, retiring in 1986 after 24 years.

“We hired Rose Schultz to run the launch service,” she said.

Notable clientele

“Over the years, more than 40 fishing guides were employed, some full-time and some part-time, as needed,” Vera recalled. The fleet consisted of eight launches. “Several of the guides eventually started their own services, such as Al Maas, Rick Runquist, Jeff Woodruff, Gary Trimble and Larry Anderson.”

No single guide worked for the service for more than 20 years, she said.

Other local guides, included Bruce Woodford, Windy Voight, Leon Arola, Billy Collins, Curly Lien, Joe LaGoe, Jim Nelson, Merv Johnson, Kenneth Johnson, Dick Reed, Ed Byrnes, Frank Biene, Fred Runquist, Milo Mitchell, Mike Stardahl, Mark Kimberly, Ron Geiser, K.C. Johnson, Vern Garoutte, Big John, Dan Grier, Ron Kirsten, Keith Neptrom, Terry Chalich, Keith Ogle, Bill Alderson, Vern Caldwell, Jerry Turgeson, Snap Geving, Clarence Sauve, Jerry Hartel, Don Fisher, Gene Troyna, Don Graham and Art Kays.

“I was sometimes up until midnight” to match guides with clients,” she said, despite having to return to her role at the ASCS the next morning.

The Leech Lake mail boat, owned and operated by Vera Fisher, was assisted by the launch service to carry an overflow of tourists.

Through the years, there were many notable and frequent customers — Gov. Harold LeVander, race car driver Mario Andretti, members of the English Parliament and many company executives.

In 1983, after Lee died, son Jerry and his wife, Bonnie, took over the launch service.

Pepper’s Beach Bar and Grill, named for the parrot that served as the maître d’, was operated by Jon and Lara Stewart, located at the City Dock Launch Service location.

In 2005, the Chase Hotel Corporation purchased the west side of the city dock.

“As there are many privately owned boats now, the demand for launch fishing has been reduced, therefore, also the fleet,” the centenarian said.

“Operating a fishing business for 50 years on Leech Lake holds many memories, many friends and many fish stories…” Vera reflected of her life on the lake.

“We always caught our limit of walleye,”  she said of their fishing ventures.

For more information on Sunday’s parade, contact Jean at (218) 652-4311.


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