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Saturday, Apr. 30, 2016

Boathouse: The Collection

Thursday, June 26, 2003

If you have sharp eyes, you can spot a new detail nearly every time, from an antique bike hanging from the ceiling over your table to a real six-foot swordfish with a gaze that seems to follow you around the room.

For owner Gary Gaffney and manager Audra Bentsen, the enjoyment patrons get out of the unique surroundings is all part of the charm of the Lake Avenue eatery.

"People will look around and look around while they eat, and we enjoy the fact that they enjoy it," Gaffney said.

The Boathouse collection has been assembled over a number of years, and is growing all the time.

"Some of the things here were found at swap meets all over for us, others just show up laying around somewhere," Gaffney said. "And the girls here will go to garage sales and if they spot something interesting, they'll grab it for the place."

"Interesting" is written all over the place - quite literally.

Soon after the eatery opened, at Balloon Days 1994, a BVU art student scrawled his name, "Wickett" and the date on a dollar bill, and taped it to the wall. A visiting entertainer liked the idea, and taped one of his own to the wall on the other side.

A tradition was born, and now the place is spotted with over 2,000 bills, bearing names, promos for organizations, nuggets of philosophy, and the occasional thought that can't be repeated in a family newspaper.

"Good things come to those who wait," one promises.

"Where the hell were you - I was here!" another cries.

Although the dollars are constantly moved to make room for more patrons' input, Gaffney can still lead you to the Wickett bill in an instant - it's known around the place as "the first one."

But the real attention-getters are the antiques springing out from every nook and cranny. Several rare classic bicycles from generations ago hang from the ceiling, sometimes with baskets of plants sprouting off them.

There's a hood from Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s race car, a tarnished antique trumpet, an early Coca-Cola promotional sign, half a wooden beach umbrella over the bar, which itself nests inside the vault of what was once the pioneering Toy Bank at that location.

Classic nautical gear is everywhere. The restrooms are hidden in a replica of an old-time boathouse, underneath a classic "woodie" skiff.

An antique canoe hangs upside down from the ceiling, surrounded by ancient oars, a working ship's light, early wooden water skis, surfboard, large ship's wheels scavanged from Florida, aged life preservers, a rudder studded with more of those dollar bills from patrons, an old sign advertising lakefront cottages for rent, and lots of classic rods and reels. A hidden speaker notes every so often that "It smells like fish in here."

(The only fishy odor is from the specialty menu, on which everything from lobster to alligator can be had. While the atmosphere is relaxed, the kitchen is eclectic and well-reviewed.)

You might even spot a sign with swimming pool rules, once posted at the AmeriHost Inn.

"I look for anything I can stick up for people to enjoy," Gaffney said.

It's good to have friends, too - the bikes are loaned from Lakeshore Cyclery, other items from Wittenberg Distributing, the giant swordfish from Hamilton Law Firm, where the proprietors' mother wrestled it in years ago on an excursion off the coast of Florida.

The menus rest behind a brass piece once used to tie a large sailing vessel at dock. Above it is a popular device used to calculate world time years ago.

At the opposite side of the bar is a ship's bell. There are old-time paintings ranging from pirate gallions to early 1900s sailboats, and a rare 1870s photo of a woman leading an ox cart down the pioneer street where the Boathouse now stands.

At the exit is a bulletin board to capture many of the good times at the hotspot. Stapled up are photos of favorite past musicians who have plied their trade, present and past workers, and partying patrons. Senator Tom Harkin's photo rests next to that of a punk rocker-type guy with facial piercings and a pink feather boa, Governor Tom Vilsack's close to a human pyramid shot performed by the rowdier barmaids one evening.

"I don't know if the decor keeps people coming back, but it's a lot of fun, and we're always on the lookout for something to add to it," Gaffney said.

And there's always room for another patron to add another dollar with a scrawled bit of wisdom for the ages.

"A few more and we'll just start on another wall," the owner smiles.