North Dakota semi-truck driver shows off 100-year-old boat in Holiday Inn waters
DETROIT LAKES, Minn. - Rocky Ballinger admits that as a trucker, he sees a lot of miles and a lot of potential purchases along those miles.
"When I'm on the road, I get myself in trouble a lot out here," he said with a laugh. "I see a lot of stuff. I end up bringing home a lot of stuff."
Ballinger drives from North Dakota to Pennsylvania every week, and now spends a majority of his weekends on Detroit Lake in his new boat: a boat, he says, he picked up by accident.
Several years ago, he pulled into a town along Lake Erie, looking for some soft stone to haul home. He passed by a marina with large, wooden boats in it.
"A little farm boy from North Dakota, I couldn't believe it," he said. "I fell in love with them."
He bought a 1959 model 46-foot Chris Craft boat and used it for two years on the Erie Islands.
"We loved it so much that the lady in the marina said, 'You know, Rock, we got something here you might be interested in.'"
Ballinger said she had a boat in storage for about five years, which happened to be located right next to his own storage unit, but he had never noticed before.
"I absolutely fell in love with it and said I've got to have this."
The boat came from a family in Canton, Ohio, which had parked it at Alexandria Bay, New York, the northern point of Lake Ontario, where the St. Lawrence Seaway enters the Great Lakes. The family's father's dream was to purchase the boat for his family to come back to -- a Field of Dreams-esque "build it and they will come" thing. But he got cancer and died before the dream could be a reality.
So after Ballinger sold his Chris Craft boat, the family sold him the 100-year-old boat. That was two years ago.
"I told the family, 'Don't worry, your father's dream will never die because that's my dream.' Not just for my family, but I want everyone to enjoy this boat," he said.
His intention was to put it in the water at Lake Pepin in Red Wing, on the Mississippi River. His ultimate dream is to take the boat on The Great Loop.
"All the way down to New Orleans, around Florida, come all the way around up to the Eastern Intracoastal Waterway, then you come across the Erie Canal into the Great Lakes again, and then you go all the way down to Chicago -- a lot of people don't realize there is an Illinois canal that goes back over to the Mississippi and then back to Red Wing. I'm 55 years old; hopefully, I can get that done before I'm 65."
The boat sat at his farm in Verona, N.D, for a year and a half because last year the trucking industry slowed so much he didn't have the money to buy a slip in Red Wing.
But this year, he decided he needed to get used to the boat and get it into the water. Boats aren't supposed to be kept out of the water for more than two years, he said, and this boat had already been out three years.
His initial plans were to moor it off a friend's property on Pelican Lake. Then he remembered that Detroit Lakes used to have the Island Girl, and wondered if the docks were still in place to hold a boat of that size.
He contacted Holiday Inn and talked with General Manager Jeff Jasperson about docking it at the Holiday Inn. Unfortunately, the dock already at Holiday Inn was too small for the boat. He said that Jasperson couldn't justify to the Holiday Inn owners spending the money to put in the docking equipment needed for the boat.
Ballinger said he decided to pay the cost himself just to be able to have the exposure at the Holiday Inn. A deal was reached where Holiday Inn would provide the water and electricity for the boat, hoping the boat would bring more customers into the Holiday Inn to see it.
The next hurdle was getting it into the water.
A boat of that size is not meant to be backed into the water, Ballinger said. They are usually picked up in a sling and lowered into the water.
"Then you soak them in the water, letting them hang in the sling for a day, day and a half. All wood boats shrink, they leak; that's just the way it is."
So normally a boat's pumps would be turned on while it's in the sling for that day and get the water out before it's even an issue. That's another luxury Ballinger didn't have.
"The only way to get this in the water was to back it in," he said.
The process ended up taking six hours. And that was with six assistants.
"It leaked so bad that when I first backed it out onto the lake, it brought on so much water that the cushions on the back couches were floating.
"It's still taking on water, but not too much. My pump is able to keep up."
The future isn't certain for Ballinger and his boat, the Miss Brenda Dae, named for his wife. The Holiday Inn would like him to host dinner cruises, he said, which he's considering.
"I told them I just need some time. I gotta see if this thing sinks, you know," he said with a laugh. And if it all works out, "it might be there for a long time. I don't know quite yet."
He would also like to host weddings and wedding parties on the boat.
"My main goal is not only for me to enjoy this boat, what it was like at the turn of the century to have a boat such as this; it's for my family, for all people. I want everybody to enjoy this thing."
The inside of the boat is well-restored, most of it original, he said. It sleeps eight people and has two bathrooms, with its own built-in septic system. In 1910, it was steam-powered, but was changed over to diesel in 1960.
"What I want this boat to be is a floating museum," he said. "I want everything in this boat to be museum-type, turn of the century."
He said he has no intention of selling the boat at this point, and during their weekends in Detroit Lakes, it's all about enjoying the boat, taking it out and just relaxing.
The Detroit Lakes (Minn.) Tribune and the Herald are owned by Forum Communications Co.