Story and photos by Holly Leitner
With its alluring, nearly seven-mile-long stretch of deep, fresh water, Geneva Lake has been a mecca for wooden speedboat enthusiasts since these boats became widely available in the 1920s. Today, people’s love and appreciation for these artisan-made boats has only intensified, and three prestigious craft boat builders call the area home: Streblow Custom Boats is celebrating its 72nd year in business; Bergersen Boat Co. builds custom Shepherd boats while also restoring classic wooden boats; and luxury wooden boat builder Grand Craft is new to the area, based in nearby Genoa City since 2021.
“There’s a big heritage of wooden boats on Geneva Lake,” explains Patrick Gallagher, owner of Grand Craft, and he says this makes for a natural habitat for wooden boat builders. The area’s cottage speedboat-building industry dates back decades, to boat builders like Williams Bay’s Globe Corporation and Gage Marine’s midcentury partnership with Hacker Boat Company to build the Gage-Hacker model. Since then, the area has continued to foster a tight-knit community of vintage and wooden boat enthusiasts, and has garnered national attention thanks to the annual Geneva Lakes Antique & Classic Boat Show. In the summers, the busy lake demands strong boats to stand up to its wake, and many masterpieces of wooden boat building have called Geneva Lake home over the years.
STREBLOW CUSTOM BOATS
The local industry as we know it today really all started with one namesake boat builder many years ago: Larry Streblow, founder of Streblow Custom Boats. Founded in the 1950s, Streblow is one of the oldest continuously operating wooden sport boat makers in the United States. In 1987, Larry Streblow and his son Randy moved their small boat building operation from Kenosha to the Lake Geneva area in order to be closer to their customer base. Randy went on to become a leader in the local wooden boat building community here, and mentored many of today’s current builders.
The signature Streblow design had first emerged in the early 1960s and remains nearly unchanged today. It features a V-drive with a wraparound interior configuration, a straight drive with the engine in the center, double-plank hull construction and a trademark white stripe on the side. The popular runabout has become an icon of Lake Geneva. Today, more than 100 Streblows grace Geneva Lake’s waters, and there are more than 500 Streblows on waters nationwide.
Randy Streblow passed away in 2011, but his legacy survives. In fact, the Streblow community has joined together in two “Wake the Lake” events, where Streblow owners gathered in their boats at sunrise on the west end of Geneva Lake and paraded toward Lake Geneva in Randy Streblow’s memory.
In 2020, Edward Cox took over ownership of the Lake Geneva business, keeping the local Streblow wooden boat building tradition alive. Several longtime Streblow craftsmen continue to restore vintage versions of the boat and build new Streblows. Cox says that each detail of both a new or restored Streblow custom boat is an artisan-crafted labor of love, carrying on the Streblow standard of perfection.
In 2021, Patrick and Rose Gallagher acquired Grand Craft, a well-respected wooden boat building company out of Holland, Michigan, and relocated the company to Genoa City, 10 miles south of Lake Geneva. Patrick has lifelong ties to the area and felt it was the perfect place to expand Grand Craft’s operations. “My goal is to maintain a high level of craftsmanship while also being a good business person,” says Patrick.
Grand Craft has been in operation since 1979, and some of their top sales markets include Florida; upstate New York; Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota; and Minocqua, Wisconsin. Today, at the company’s state-of-the-art factory in Genoa City, Grand Craft employs six craftsmen to build boats, all of which are individually handcrafted. The finishing process alone comprises 19 steps. The boat builders take great pride in their work, and have a motto in the shop: “They’re our boats until somebody buys it.”
Grand Craft offers five mahogany models: the Burnham, the Dearborn, the Roosevelt, the Winchester and the Wrightwood. The Burnham, the company’s flagship model, blends traditional art deco details with modern design features such as a steel- carved windshield, a swim platform and a 430-horsepower engine. Another model, the 36-foot Winchester, is often acquired by hotels and resorts as a shuttle boat or for evening charters, as it holds up to 26 people.
Because of the level of detail and the hours required to build these artisan wooden boats, Grand Craft boats are positioned at the luxury end of the price scale. A new Grand Craft boat in the 20-foot to 28-foot size will cost anywhere from $300,000 to $600,000, and a 30-foot custom model can range from $750,000 to $2 million.
BERGERSEN BOAT CO.
Lars Bergersen originally trained under Randy Streblow at Streblow Custom Boats, but today he owns and operates his own company in Lake Geneva, Bergersen Boat Co. Bergersen describes his training with Streblow as a “nothing less than perfection” mentorship, and says that he uses the knowledge he gained there daily.
In 2018, Bergersen Boat Co. acquired the Shepherd Boat name after Bergersen restored and fell in love with a vintage Shepherd model. Shepherd Custom Boats originated in Ontario, Canada, in the 1930s, and became popular in American vacation spots like Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and the Adirondacks.
Today, Bergersen uses several of the building concepts he learned at Streblow to build new Shepherds. The boats are built with white oak frames, with seamless scarf joints and a double mahogany wood bottom. Bergersen weds the classic design of the Shepherd with modern luxury, such as custom wine holders, built-in coolers, swim platforms and easy walk-on entries similar to modern fiberglass boats. Yet from the outside, the new Shepherds that Bergersen builds look like a nostalgic relic from a bygone era. They range in price from $250,000-$800,000.
One of Bergersen’s current projects is a custom Shepherd modeled after an Italian Riva Boat. As he explains it, classic Rivas are the Ferraris of wooden boats, known for their elegant curves and powerful engines.
Despite the march of time, interest in beautifully handcrafted wooden boats remains high, and thanks to the dedication and specialized training of these three local boat builders, the Lake Geneva area is an important center for the artisan craft of wooden boat building and a beloved destination for those who appreciate these beautiful, classic boats.