Bridging the Decades
This family business has served up fun for generations of lakeside revelers
by Virginia Lindauer Simmon
Charlie Auer, 78, is named for his father, who founded Charlie’s Boat House, where the Winooski River flows into Lake Champlain, in 1928. He and his sister Christine continue in their parents’ tradition, keeping alive a small patch of bygone days.
According to Christine Auer Hebert, there’s a preschool operator in Colchester who says she brings her charges across the Winooski River’s bike path bridge to buy candy at Charlie’s Boat House, “because this is the only place in the city of Burlington where we can give the kids a quarter and they can buy candy and go back happy.”
“We try to keep it so everybody can afford it, like my folks did,” says Hebert’s brother Charlie Auer. “We still try to have penny candy, but most of it’s 5, 10, 15, and 25 cents now. Chocolate bars are 65 cents.”
Auer, age 78, is the “Charlie” of Charlie’s Boat House — on a point where the Winooski meets Lake Champlain — which he runs with his sister, 83. He’s the namesake of their father, the original Charlie, who, with their mother, Ida Marie, launched the boathouse in 1928.
The property — six acres, says Auer, “three under water and three on top of the water, but we still pay taxes on six acres” — has breathtaking views.
Inside, the boathouse is jammed with memorabilia, antiques, collectibles — the remnants of a long history, well lived. The cash register, still in use, only goes up to $5. It sits on a glass case that once graced the Cambridge Market. Old fishing spears — used during the Depression by fishermen to catch fish or frogs for their families’ food — lie across ceiling beams. An old upright piano — Hebert rips off a few bars of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” — belonged to their mother. The bench was made from their father’s still.
The sign over the door says “Auer Family Boat House,” but Auer and Hebert insist that it’s still officially Charlie’s Boat House, which is painted in white on a large tire near the driveway.
The Auers’ joint history is the history of an entire century, and they recount it with apparently typical glee and good-natured ribbing.
“My dad was from Germany,” Auer begins, when asked how the boathouse came to be. “The first time, he came over on a schooner.”
“The next time, it was on a tanker,” Hebert interjects. They do this a lot — interrupting each other to make sure their facts or dates or names are correct. It makes for lively and enjoyable conversation.
The original Charlie was a man of many talents. His mother died not long after he was born, and when his father remarried, Charlie went to live on a farm with his aunt. There, he learned to butcher pigs and make beer, which was sold in his father’s biergarten.
“In fact,” says Auer, “my father made all the home brew for the German Club in Burlington until 1942, when he couldn’t get hops any more.”
At age 13, he was put on a merchant vessel by his father. “From there,” says Auer, “he went to Australia, and from there he went to Canada. In between times, he fell off the upper deck and broke his hip. He had to go back to work, and it pained him a long time; later on, he found he was a half-inch shorter in one leg.”
Eventually, he landed in Canada, where he got a job at Black Horse Ale, “because he was already listed as a brewmaster and a butcher.”
“My brother left one thing out,” says Hebert. “After Black Horse, he joined the Army. He left Canada and came to Fort Ethan Allen and joined the 2nd Cavalry.”
“They shipped him to Fort Bliss, Texas,” Auer adds.
“... and he fought Pancho Villa,” Hebert finishes the sentence.
He ended up in a medical company because of his knowledge of preserving meat and killing bacteria with salt. At Fort Bliss, he studied to be a medical technician and learned to read X-rays.
Charlie caught tuberculosis and, after seven years, received a medical discharge. He had a bullet lodged near his heart, and was told he would never work hard again, because if the bullet moved, he would die.
Discharged, he returned to Burlington “around 1917 or 1920,” says Auer,” and found a room in a house on Haswell Street — directly across from the Benoît family, whose daughter Ida Marie he would marry in 1923. They had four children.
“Our oldest brother, Vern, died two years ago,” says Hebert. “My sister, Julia, is older than we are; she’s had a massive stroke. So that’s why I’m stuck with my brother.” She laughs.
Sailing had engendered a love of water in Charlie, says Auer. He loved to fish. “He’d do anything to get by the water, and when he saw the mouth of the river the first time, he bought the old camp on Elbow Lane. He had only a couple of boats at first, but he rented the point, which is by the bridge, and that’s where he built the first boathouse. In 1940, he bought the place.”
By then, the land was washing away, so Charlie moved the boathouse back. “He tied a rope around a building, and tied the boathouse to the back of Vernon’s car,” says Hebert. “Then he says to the three little kids at the back of the boathouse, ‘When I tell you to push, you push, and don’t stop till I tell ya.’”
As the kids pushed, Charlie and Ida Marie threw rollers under the boathouse, which had been jacked up. “As one popped out the back, they had to hurry up and put it in the front,” says Auer.
“They pulled the boathouse to where it is today,” Hebert continues. “My father had these barrels all ready to put it on.” She chastises Auer for being a “scavenger” as she recalls his finding, a couple of years ago, the very jacks they had used to raise the building still under the boathouse.
When the Auer children were young, Ida Marie ran the boathouse and the children helped. Charlie worked at the woolen mill in Winooski, and later at G.S. Blodgett Corp. during the day.
Ida Marie had come to the marriage with her own set of skills. She had played piano for silent movies at the Strong Theater, says Hebert, made rifles in Olean, N.Y., during World War I, “and my mother also led the sufferance. That was all before they married.”
She put her skills to good use at the boathouse. After they moved the building, she helped fill the land and hand-made the boats. The boathouse rented out 35 rowboats during World War II, and Ida Marie grew a victory garden on North Avenue, the products of which she preserved or turned into vegetable soup or fish chowder and served to whoever came by. “We’ve got the medal that Gen. MacArthur gave her for a victory garden,” says Auer.
After the war ended, they put on the first addition to the boathouse. This brought a new era of activity, as the family began to hold round and square dances. They began hosting a closing party on Labor Day. “We’d eat from 5 to 7,” says Hebert, “then a band would play from 7 to 11, and they let my mother play with them.” Through an arrangement with a Winooski pig farmer, Charlie obtained the less desirable cuts of meat and kept the family and business supplied.
The second addition went up in 1952. Auer helped his father on that project. After that, bathrooms and a porch were added, and a locker room where fishermen could store their things. “We don’t rent them anymore,” says Hebert. “My brother said there are too many scavengers there.”
Auer and Hebert helped out at the boathouse over the years, but they had their own lives to pursue. They married — he in 1949, she in 1957 — and had families of their own. Auer recently retired after 40 years with the Army National Guard, but every summer, would pull the boats out each morning and put them away in the evenings. Hebert worked for the telephone company when her children were in school, and was at the Chittenden Bank for 22 years before retiring.
When Charlie died — in 1990 or ’91, they say — Ida Marie was 86, and she continued to run the boathouse. “She ran it alone from age 86 to 93,” says Christine. “We were helping out, but working. When she was 93, we took over, but she was still the boss until she was 98 and she died.”
Auer and Hebert have continued in the family tradition, welcoming visitors, whether they’re paying or not. These days, they rent rowboats, canoes, kayaks, and sea kayaks of all shapes and sizes. The grounds are open for folks who just want to come sit in the shade. People come from all over the world, says Hebert, “from India, Japan, China, Jerusalem, Germany, France ...”
“I think the farthest are Nepal and Russia, I guess,” adds Auer.
Before the bike path bridge was opened, bike ferries crossed the river from their property. They threw a big party to celebrate the bridge’s opening in August 2002. “I think it was my brother’s birthday,” says Hebert.
“That was also the dedication of Local Motion,” says Auer. “Everybody was there: Gov. Douglas; past Gov. Dean; representatives; senators.”
Between them, Auer and Hebert have seven living children. Asked if it’s possible that one or more of their kids will carry on the family tradition, Hebert is quick to reply. “Well, they’re too young right now! We’re going through the spell now like my mother went through,” says Hebert, “because we were all working. It’s just my brother and myself, and my husband helps.”
“... and good friends come down and help,” says Auer.
“I’m there one day, my brother’s there the next day,” Hebert continues.
“Unless it’s cold. In May and June, I’m down there alone,” counters Auer.
“I don’t come out until Father’s Day. Too darn cold!” •