By Anne Morrissy
Anyone who has been to Fontana in the summer is familiar with two iconic businesses — Gordy’s Lakefront Marine and Chuck’s Lakeshore Inn. But not everyone knows that these two local landmarks have a patriarch in common — both were owned by Gordon “Gordy” Whowell and are now in the hands of his two sons — Tom and Jamie.
Though their father passed away in 1988, Tom and Jamie have taken over the family businesses and have now brought their children into the daily operations as well, in the hope that the legacy their father started will live on into the next generation. Tom and his family (wife Geri and kids Tom Jr., Rallee, Steele and Tigrr) took over Gordy’s, while Jamie and his family (wife Carol and kids Julie, Naomi, Jamie Jean and Brandee) now run Chuck’s. So chances are, if you’ve done any kind of business in Fontana, you’ve benefited from the vision of Gordy Whowell.
Gordy started his business in Fontana in 1955 and helped it grow from a small boat ride and rental business to a relative empire in Fontana — one that peddles summer fun of all kinds. Today, the Whowell family controls a majority of Fontana’s downtown lakefront business district. But it didn’t start out that way.
“A MILLIONAIRE’S THRILL FOR ONE THIN BILL”
Back in 1944, Gordy was a young father and a salesman in an automobile dealership in Chicago’s western suburbs. One day, he agreed to take a customer’s boat in as trade, and that set the course for the rest of his life.
“He rented a house here [in Fontana] for a month, put the boat in the water and the family used the boat the whole time,” Tom remembers.
They liked it so much that the next summer, Gordy bought a house in the area and moved his family — his wife Jean and his two sons, Tom and Jamie — to Fontana permanently. “We had so much fun and my mother enjoyed it a lot, so they found a house in Indian Hills, bought it and moved us up here,” Tom adds.
“My mother didn’t want to raise the family in the city,” says Jamie. The house the family purchased in Indian Hills would turn out to be Gordy’s home for the rest of his life, and Jean’s until her death in 1971. It became a gathering spot for family and friends and one in which his employees would congregate for Sunday night dinners for years.
Gordy continued to commute to the auto dealership in Illinois, and supplemented the family’s income with a variety of jobs including rural route mail carrier and selling cars in the auto auction in Fontana.
About 10 years later, in 1955, he became a partner in a small summer business on the lakefront in Fontana that offered speedboat rides to visitors.
Though the idea of a speedboat ride business may seem quaint today, in the 1950s the only boats on the lake were classic yachts and small fishing boats. Faster, modern speedboats were such a novelty at the time that speedboat ride businesses sprang up in Lake Geneva, Williams Bay and Fontana. Gordy’s motto at the time was “a millionaire’s thrill for one thin bill.” (His speedboat rides cost just one dollar.) These rides proved so popular that Gordy’s business quickly evolved into boat rentals and boat sales, as customers clamored for their chance to spend time on the lake in the trendy new boats.
“We bought six boats and started renting these big-engine things,” Tom remembers. “At one time we were probably the biggest boat renter in the state of Wisconsin. People would line up out our door in the morning in the ’60s just to rent a boat. We had different boat [manufacturers] custom-make boats for us for rental. We had them tailored where they were more utilitarian, more functional, easy to clean … and tried to make them as safe as we could.”
“A BIG, VERY GENEROUS HEART”
One of Gordy’s competitors on the lakeshore in Fontana at the time was a small bait and tackle shop on the site of the current burger shack (cheekily named Gordy’s Bait Shop in honor of its predecessor.) The bait and tackle shop also rented a few fishing boats, and shortly after Gordy’s boat rental business began to take off, the owner of the bait shop approached him wanting to sell. Entrepreneurial in spirit and already invested in the Fontana business district, Gordy jumped at the chance and added the bait and tackle shop to his now-growing portfolio in the 1960s.
“[Gordy] was a very, very well-loved person in the community,” explains his daughter-in-law Carol, who along with her husband Jamie now runs Chuck’s Lakeshore Inn. “He had so many friends and was so happy here. He had a wonderful sense of humor, knew just about everybody and loved his family dearly. He often would comment to anyone in earshot, “Ah, it’s a good life,’” she adds.
Tom concurs: “Gordy would strike up a conversation with a stranger and in 10 minutes they’d be close friends. He had a big, very generous heart.”
In fact, he was so generous explains Carol that he helped just about anyone in need. “He often would tell us, ‘You never loan anyone money expecting to be paid back — it’s just important to help others.’”
Kim Minette and sister Becky Millar and their five siblings grew up next door to the Whowells in Indian Hills and fondly remember how Gordy became a second father to them. “He loved us despite the craziness of seven kids running around the neighborhood,” says Minette.
“We knew him all of our lives,” adds Millar. “When I turned 18, I walked into Chuck’s and said ‘Gord, I’m looking for a job.’ His reply was, ‘Okay dear you start tomorrow.’ I started the next day. That was in 1974 and I’ve been there on and off ever since.”
Minette adds, “He was a really big part of my life. He was my mentor; a great businessman, but he never forgot the human aspect of the business. That’s how I try to go about my professional life — how Gordy would have done things. His picture is on my desk at work and I’m really proud to say I worked under him — he was a wonderful, wonderful man.”
CHUCK’S LAKESHORE INN – AN ICONIC LOCAL SPOT
In 1969 the boat business was booming, but Gordy saw an opportunity to invest in another type of venture when Chuck and Betty (Freese) Gasser, owners of Chuck’s bar down the street, decided it was time to retire. They offered the business to Gordy, and soon everyone’s favorite boat rental and repair guy was now a local tavern owner as well.
Chuck’s had begun life many decades earlier as The Lakeshore Inn, a local tavern situated in an old house that rented rooms above the bar. When the owner of The Lakeshore Inn couldn’t pay his bills, the house and bar went into foreclosure; Betty Freese’s father decided to buy it with the intention of trying to sell it. Unfortunately he couldn’t find a buyer, so he went into the bar business reluctantly. Betty and her sister worked there as teenagers, and one day Betty met the jukebox man when he came to switch out the records in the jukebox. “She fell in love with the guy who brought in the records and she married him — that’s how Chuck came into the picture,” Carol explains.
Betty’s sister had married a local man named Del Pontius, and together the two families ran the bar as Chuck and Del’s Lakeshore Inn for several years before Del left to open a Pontiac dealership in Walworth. From that time on, the bar was known simply as Chuck’s.
When Gordy bought Chuck’s, he sold his boat business to his sons Tom and Jamie so he could focus on the bar. Because Chuck’s was located in an uninsulated and unheated house, the bar had always been open only seasonally, and it didn’t offer much in the way of food. “In the early days, we only had some stacked ham sandwiches, liverwurst sandwiches, hot dogs on the roller,” Carol remembers. “There was no kitchen yet.” Slowly, Gordy began to make subtle changes. In the 1970s, he added a furnace so the bar could stay open year-round. In 1976, he added a kitchen after a test run at offering hamburgers proved to be extremely popular.
“My husband [Jamie] installed a flat-top grill in the kitchen which is the grill we still use today,” says Carol with a laugh. “We always say our burgers are so good because the grill is ‘seasoned.’ An old chef tried to recreate the burgers when he moved on to a new place, but he said he just couldn’t do it. There’s something about that grill.”
During those years, Gordy’ life-long love of cars flourished. The car salesman that once sold Fords now was driving a Cadillac. He even purchased a limousine outfitted with a horn that played a fun, upbeat tune that announced his arrival or departure. Grand-daughter, Julie Leronimo remembers her grandfather driving her and her friends to their high school prom in the car.
Gordy Whowell passed away in his sleep in June 1988, just a few months after a fire destroyed Chuck’s, his beloved bar. Jamie and Carol were careful to rebuild in a way that would keep the spirit of Chuck’s intact, after all, this Fontana hot spot had a following like no other place on the lake. They even painted the new maple floors gray to match the old ones.
“One of the best compliments we got after we reopened was from a customer who’d been there many times before but hadn’t heard about the fire,” Carol remembers. “He came in one day and sat down and said, ‘Boy, you’ve really fixed the place up.’ He had no idea that it was a completely new building.”
In the years that followed Gordy’s passing, Tom and Jamie agreed to split up the businesses between them.
GORDY’S LAKEFRONT MARINE – AN ERA OF GROWTH
By 1997, Tom was ready to expand the Gordy’s portfolio. A few years earlier, a Chicago trader had opened the Tequila Roadhouse, a short-lived, Southwest-concept bar and restaurant next to Gordy’s Marine in Fontana, but by 1997, he was ready to sell. Tom decided to buy it and overhaul its image, installing a nautical theme and even adding a back bar that is a replica of the stern of the Effie, a 1948 Chris Craft Sportsman that was the first boat Gordy bought for the speedboat fleet in the 1950s.
Tom named the restaurant Gordy’s Boat House and covered the walls with photographs of Gordy and the business as it evolved over the decades: photos of the tanned, blond, All-American-looking youths hard at work on the Gordy’s piers throughout the years (including Tom and Jamie themselves as teenagers), photos of beloved boats, staged humorous photos that were used as business Christmas cards, photos of the iconic red Gordy’s jacket in front of famous sites all over the world: the Eiffel Tower; Neuschwenstein Castle in Germany; the Himalayan village of Ladakh, India; the White House in Washington, DC.
The same year that Tom bought the restaurant, he acquired the Cobalt boat franchise and broke ground on Cobalt Farms, Gordy’s storage and service facility located between Fontana and Williams Bay on Highway 67. “One of the unusual things about Gordy’s as a marina and one of the reasons we are ranked number one in service is that in most marine businesses, the service department is often the last one to receive any attention,” he says. “Gordy’s service department is perhaps the most spectacular part of our business. We really believe the single most important building block for a successful marina is the service department.” Tom’s daughter Rallee, who heads up the service department, was named Marine Woman of the Year by Boating Industry in 2013.
Tom attributes Gordy’s success to a “combination of good luck and good sense” and emphasizes their attention to customer service in all areas of their business. “It’s why many customers feel that Gordy’s goes the extra mile for them,” he says. “They feel that Gordy’s is willing to extend itself, willing to do a little more than anyone else. We try to live up to that.”
This summer, Gordy’s Lakefront Marine celebrated its 60th summer in Fontana. Tom set aside a weekend in June for a special reunion dinner complete with a full schedule of events to celebrate the milestone.
What started as a simple business venture to offer boat rides on Geneva Lake has blossomed into business models which encompass boat sales, rentals, service, storage plus restaurant/entertainment venues. Between them, Tom and Jamie have 22 grandchildren, who are seeing firsthand what their great-grandfather set in motion on Fontana’s lakefront 60 years ago. With luck, this third generation and beyond will carry on the legacy of bighearted Gordy Whowell.