Otto Wadewitz and the Founding of the Fairhope Yacht Club

 By Louis Zadnichek II

 
(Author's Note: The following was developed from independent research; discussions with Senior Equity members Bob Bung, Jack Bonnell and Gavin Hunter; data provided by Dick Ammann, Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI; Gene Krause, Waukesha, WI; Chester Krusienski, Racine Yacht Club, Racine, WI;  and past stories in the Mainsheet by former Fairhope Yacht Club Historians Jeannette Bonnell, Sara Johnson Cox and Past Commodore Barbara Brown. I'm deeply indebted to everyone who volunteered their efforts in compiling and preserving this history. While not intended to be a full and complete history of our organization's early years, this article will give Club members a true appreciation of our "FYC Roots." All rights reserved for the Fairhope Yacht Club. Louis Zadnichek II, November 7, 2005) NOTE: You may click on any picture for a larger view.
 

Who Was Otto Wadewitz?

Otto Wadewitz was the founder and first Commodore of the Fairhope Yacht Club, five term commodore and benefactor of the Racine Yacht Club, nationally known speed boat racing pioneer and brilliant Wisconsin machinist and inventor. Otto Wadewitz is shown here in a studio portrait photograph taken some time in the late 1930s or early 1940s. (Photo from Gene Krause Collection)

Hundreds of years ago when the Mobilian Indians roamed the pristine Eastern Shore, what we call today Fly Creek and what our grand-parents called Bayou Volanta was a cold, clear stream. It flowed through the piney woods into what the Spanish explorers would call "Bahia del Espititu Santo," or Bay of the Holy Spirit. Huge flocks of pelicans and gulls would glide over the waters. We, of course, know this body of water today as beautiful Mobile Bay.
 
At the mouth of the creek, the flow was obstructed by meandering sandbars that reduced the depth to about two feet depending upon the tide. At low tide, it was possible to take a running jump from one side to the other. A footbridge and carriage roadway had been built for ease of crossing to Sea Cliff summer homes. Deer drank from the creek side banks, while otters, crabs and fish played in the sunny shallow waters. Today with all the man made improvements, it's difficult to believe what a natural wonderland it once was.
 
Fairhope of the late 1930s was still largely a quaint village founded upon the socialist utopian theories of Henry George and effectively controlled by the Fairhope Single Tax Corporation. The thrifty hardworking community had mostly escaped the worse of the Great Depression that had ravaged so much of the country. Most residents had little or no spare money, but there was enough for food on the table and the needs of day-to-day life.
 
Although no one can be sure of exactly "why" all these years later, a brilliant Wisconsin machinist and inventor was attracted to Fairhope. He was searching for a site to  build a woodworking factory to supply small toys and game pieces for his family's huge business headquartered in Racine, WI, north of Chicago. His name was Otto Wadewitz (pronounced "WAH-duh-witz") and he was to have a long lasting impression on Bayou Volanta.      
 
Otto was born on April 1, 1876. He was the oldest of five surviving children born to Henry and Augusta Mehlberg Wadewitz in the small isolated German-speaking farming community of Waubeka, WI. His father Henry was a native of Germany and a mason who built barn foundations. Otto and his siblings all spoke German at home and only learned English after enrolling in grade school. All the Wadewitz children learned at an early age the importance of working and studying hard for success in later life.
 
The Wadewitz family moved in 1887 to Iron Mountain, MI, where Henry took a job working in the mines. About two years later, Henry was killed in a mining accident. Augusta then moved her family to Port Washington, WI. In later years, she moved again to Racine and remarried. Otto, as the oldest son in a fatherless home, would've had great responsibilities thrust upon him as a teenager helping to support his widowed mother and siblings. The surviving children of Henry and Augusta Wadewitz are shown here, circa 1905.  The are, left to right: William, Ed, Loretta, Otto and Alfred.  Otto would have been approximately age 29, and already had a very determined look about him. (Photo from Dick Ammann, Racine Heritage Museum Collection)
 
Despite his Wadewitz family responsibilities and having to support himself, Otto met and courted Mary K. Caspers. Both were age 20 when married in Racine on July 28, 1896. Otto and Mary were to have six children, five of whom survived. Mary was a petite lady also of German heritage. She is remembered as a totally devoted mother who stayed at home with her children while Otto was either busy at work or involved with his boating passion.  
 
Close to the time of his marriage, Otto, with the help of two friends, had built his first sail boat. By 1906, Otto and his growing family were living in Milwaukee, WI, where he was one of the organizers of the Kinnickinnic Yacht Club.  This  organization was later merged into today's South Shore Yacht Club. Following in 1912, Otto moved to Racine to join his two younger brothers Ed and William who had earlier founded the Western Printing & Lithographing Co. in 1907. Otto's machinist skills were needed to operate and maintain the stationary steam engines that powered the fast growing printing plant.  

 

Beginning with just five employees and first year's sales of $5,000, Western Printing & Lithographing Co. grew to become one of the largest commercial printing businesses in the Midwest. During the 1930s and 1940s, the Wadewitz brothers printed such well known names as Golden Books, Big Little Books, Dell Comics and paper backs, early Disney  material plus a wealth of magazines, publications and advertising of that era.  Western Printing & Lithographing Co. had grown by 1954 to over 3,300 employees working in more than 2,500,000 sq. feet of manufacturing space at several locations across the US. Gross revenues in 1956 were in excess of $55 million. Otto, a machinist by avocation and trade, preferred installing and maintaining the printing presses, lithography, bindery and other  specialized equipment, leaving the day-to-day executive operation of the company to his two brothers. The hardworking Otto was also an inventor who held several patents in his own name, including a spring powered engine starter. The huge Western Printing & Lithographing Co. plant in Racine, WI, is shown here in a mid-1930s aerial view.  The connected buildings and employee parking lots covered approximately three square city blocks in the city's industrial section.  The company stock eventually became public in the 1960s.  The business was later purchased by the toy maker Mattell. (Photo from Educational Research and Applications Corp.)

 
Otto's fascination with boats continued to grow after he joined his brothers' printing business. Racine was then homeport to the second largest fleet of commercial steamers and sailing vessels on Lake Michigan during the early 1900s. Otto is remembered as having two great passions in life, work and boats. If not hard at work over long hours, Otto could be found on the Racine waterfront watching the boats come and go.  Shortly after moving to Racine, Otto's interests changed from sailing to power speed boats. Finally, his mechanical nature  and boating passion had intertwined themselves.  Otto  pioneered early day speed boat racing with the Jay-Eye-See I and Jay-Eye-See II in contests across the United States.   These wood hull speed boats were equipped with powerful unmufflered gasoline engines with straight stacks that shot fire into the air.
 
Both of these early day speedsters were named in honor of the J.I. Case Co., farm equipment manufacturers in Racine (later to become International Harvester). Case benefited from the name brand publicity and paid the railroad freight charges to move the boats from race to race. It was reported as deafening to see them go by in a flash. A famous race horse owned by Case's founder also had carried the same proud name.
 

It was during this era that the daredevil Otto founded the Power Boat Club of Racine. He reportedly promoted and took part in high speed power boat races on Lake Michigan off the Racine shoreline. Such world famous boat racing names as Gar Wood, Sir Henry Seagrave, Guy Lombardo and the Chrysler brothers could be found gunning their engines and roaring down the race courses at speeds of 100 mph or better. It was an exciting time in Otto's life.

 

When a combination of the Great Depression and complaints to the Racine authorities about the thundering noise coming from the unmufflered speed boats curtailed racing on Lake Michigan, Otto then joined the struggling Racine Yacht Club. He brought his power boat racing inclinations with him, however, in a more muted tone with large wood cruisers. In short order, Otto became commodore in 1933 and would serve at the helm for five continuous terms through 1937. This achievement has not been surpassed.  Otto was to successfully lead the Racine Yacht Club through the worse years of the Great Depression. He became the club's benefactor as well as commodore and helped it to survive financially during those troubled years. Otto was later memorialized by the club when their board of governors named a new 210-foot timber dock in his name during gala ceremonies in 1955. The Racine Yacht Club is still very much in existence and is known as one of the finest yachting organizations on Lake Michigan. Mary Wadewitz, then age 79, is shown here being honored by Racine Yacht Club Vice Commodore James Dunham upon dedication of a new 210 foot long timber dock in March 1955. The dock, costing some $13,500 at the time, had been named in memory of her husband Otto Wadewitz. (Photo from Bob Bung Collection)

 

After arriving in Fairhope, the enterprising Otto Wadewitz set his sights upon the out-of-business Peoples Canning Company. He purchased the cannery from the Fairhope Single Tax Corporation in 1938. The old canning equipment was promptly removed and a complete woodworking plant was installed. Otto, expert machinist that he was, assembled all of the woodworking machinery himself. 
 
The new manufacturing business was named the Western Woodworking Company. It was to mass produce countless numbers of gum wood pieces for use in popular games such as bingo, chess and checkers. Small wood toys for children were also machine crafted by employees in an era long before computer games had been imagined. All the gum wood came from trees harvested in the greater Fairhope area.  
 
Fairhope residents quickly went to work cutting, stamping, painting and varnishing the game pieces and toys. They were shipped back to Western Printing & Lithographing Co. for assembly and marketing. Big business for its day had come to Fairhope. After plastics transformed the wood game piece and toy industry in the late 1940s, Western Woodworking was closed. Its assets were then sold to the Western Lumber Company. Both businesses were located on the site of what is today's Fairhope Post Office on Fairhope Avenue.
 
Wisconsin native Floyd Bung had married Otto and Mary Wadewitz's daughter Gertrude during the early 1930s in Racine. Floyd and Gertrude later found themselves transferred to Fairhope in 1943 to run the woodworking plant. Floyd became an early FYC member and served on the Board of Governors during the mid-1950s. His son Bob became a Charter Junior and went  on to be a prominent member and sailor despite being handicapped with polio.  The Bung Family owned and operated the Western Lumber Company.
 
Members may not realize it, but Fairhope has been a winter home for wealthy Midwestern "snowbirds" since the founding of the community in 1894. Otto and other Wadewitz Family members soon discovered that the balmier climes of Mobile Bay were preferable to the cold winds off Lake Michigan during the long winter months. Thus, Otto with his passion for power boats was soon familiar with Bayou Volanta and Mobile Bay. It was a natural progression for Otto to gather with his new boating friends and found a yacht club here.
 
According to senior members, the best swimming hole on Bayou Volanta was in a spot located just across from where the old Clubhouse office door was located. Many newer members may not know this, but the original creek bed runs alongside the old Clubhouse and under the bridge up past the island. Today's Fly Creek was dredged long afterwards. The story is related that the founding Club members so enjoyed cooling off in the swimming hole that they chose the shore side bank for what was to become today's Club.  One can only now visualize Otto and his new found Bayou Volanta boating friends all enjoying the cool waters on a swelteringly hot summer evening. But, in all likelihood, during such a dip conversation turned to creating our Club and the rest is history. In October 1939, Otto and his friends informally organized themselves as the Fairhope Yacht Club. The Club was already well established as a boating and social group encompassing family and friends before the organization was formally incorporated in Alabama on May 5, 1942.
 
Founding members are recorded as Otto Wadewitz, first commodore; Herbert Forster, vice commodore; Marvin Berglin, secretary; Robert Faulkenbery and Dr. C.J. Godard, treasurers; Rudolph Tuveson; Homer Vincent; Walter Forster; John Greggs; Roy Meyers and L.W. Schnitzer. Afterwards, Gavin Hunter was the first new member to join. Gavin, who is the last surviving member of that early group, remembers that the first Club constitution and by-laws were patterned after those of the Racine Yacht Club. Otto was elected first Commodore and would serve three years until 1945 at the close of World War Two.
 
The Wadewitz, Godard and Berglin Families all joined together and donated parcels of waterfront property on both sides of Bayou Volanta to the nascent Fairhope Yacht Club. The land on the south side of the creek provided access to the all-important swimming hole that had prompted founding of the Club. This incredible generosity and farsightedness took place during the time span bridging the end of the Great Depression to the early uncertain days of World War Two. It insured that many future generations of boaters would be able to enjoy the wonderful benefits of being a Fairhope Yacht Club member.  Commodore Wadewitz is shown inspecting the FYC Star Fleet on a clear Winter day in the early 1940s. The three boat Star Fleet (left to right) was owned by early Club members Ralph Young (Rex), Gavin Hunter (Star Gazer) and Past Commodore Marvin Berglin (Spika). The boats were launched or lifted ashore by a hoist.   Ashore, they were  placed on a marine railway constructed near the mouth of Bayou Volanta approximately where today's gazebo now is located.  (Photo from Bob Bung Collection)
 
Shortly after incorporation, plans were made to first dredge Bayou Volanta and construct a breakwater. Early member Jack Stapleton was appointed a committee of one to procure and set 10 wood pilings to mark the channel into Mobile Bay. These pilings are remembered as having been purchased for $2.50 each and set for $3.00 apiece. The creek was dredged to a 50 foot width, 7 foot depth and out into the Bay for a distance of 500 feet and back up the creek to the bend allowing for navigation at low tide for most boats of the time. Work began in April 1943 and was finished two months later. Bayou Volanta would never be the same.
 
The first Club regatta was held that Fall on September 12, 1943 when 13 boats sailed a 17 mile course. The first Club fleet reportedly consisted of five Snipes and the second fleet were four Fish boats purchased from the Grand Hotel. In 1944, Fairhope Yacht Club joined the Gulf Yachting Association (GYA) as its 11th member. Also the same year, membership reached 225 and fundraising  began to build a new Clubhouse that would've cost $20,000. The structure was never built due to wartime manpower and material shortages.
 
In the Club's beginning, the only structure on the property was an old fish house built of Fairhope clay tile measuring 10 x 12 feet. It would serve as the first Clubhouse. The fish house was quickly enlarged in 1943 to 12 x 20 feet. The fish house later became part of the old Clubhouse's business office and kitchen. Even after the fish house was enlarged, most Club larger functions continued to be held on the grounds, or, in case of bad weather, at other popular Fairhope meeting places such as Burkel's skating rink at the foot of Pier Street and the Fairhope Casino at the foot of the old wood Fairhope City Pier. The enlarged Clubhouse is shown in the mid-1940s. The original fish house roof outline can be seen at the rear. This section was screened in and encompassed what later became the ballroom. The bar was located in what we remember today as the Jubilee Room. The parking lot was hard packed sand and clay. The later large bar and main dining room were added to the sides of this early structure. (Photograph from Bob Bung Collection)
 
Presiding over early membership meetings, regattas and other Club events was the ebullient Commodore Otto Wadewitz. His boundless enthusiasm and love of boating, coupled with a strong German work ethic, held the early organization together and strongly promoted its phenomenal growth. Otto was every bit the go-getter whose personal presence would quickly fill a room. He is also remembered as an animal lover who always was accompanied on and off Club grounds by a small mixed breed dog named Brownie.
 
Otto was a physically stout man nearly six feet in height who weighed close to 200 pounds in his prime. He is remembered as being mainly interested in racing and cruising large power boats. Engine powered craft fit perfectly with Otto's mechanical aptitude and natural inclination to go where he wanted at any time. Otto had sandy gray hair and a dark sun tanned complexion. He was a heavy chain smoker with nicotine stained index fingers. Authoritarian in nature, the outspoken Otto was a man's man who enjoyed a strong drink.   
 
Otto's pride-and-joy was his large wood motor yacht Rex that measured 49.5 feet in length. A 96 hp Buda diesel drove a single propeller and while not the fastest cruiser of its type on Mobile Bay, the boat had an excellent reputation for mechanical reliability. The luxurious Rex slept eight guests in comfort, had a complete wheelhouse, salon, full galley, two heads and was fully wired for electric lights. The Rex had been originally built as a 37-foot cruiser by the Chris Somers Boat Yard in Milwaukee, WI.

After Otto had purchased the motor yacht, he found that she squatted badly at speed nearly flooding the stern. Thus, Otto cut the cruiser in two at the middle and added a new 12.5 foot mid-body along with a fan tail stern. Afterwards, the 49.5 foot Rex performed perfectly. Otto had kept the cruiser at the Racine Yacht Club on Lake Michigan, but personally brought her down the Mississippi River and across the Gulf of Mexico to Mobile Bay and the Fairhope Yacht Club in 1945. The 49.5 foot motor yacht Rex was Otto's pride and joy. She is shown here prior to World War Two on Lake Michigan off the Wisconsin shoreline. The Rex was berthed at the Racine Yacht Club. Otto can be seen leaning out of the wheelhouse to check the engine room exhaust that vented through the side of the yacht.  (Photograph from Bob Bung Collection)

Chester Krusienski, age 93, who has been a loyal and dedicated Racine Yacht Club member for 80 years, was part of Otto's crew aboard the Rex on its voyage down the Mississippi River. Chester, who was present when Otto was put up for membership in the Wisconsin club, remembers his trip down the Father of Waters as one big adventure. The Rex was always dodging logs, steamboats and barges. He recalls the fast moving river as being in Spring flood stage with many of the navigation pilings and marks missing.  

With Otto being in a "rush" to get the Rex to Fairhope, he drove his crew relentlessly. One night, they became lost and then seemed to go hard aground. When the sun came up, Otto and his crew discovered they had strayed out of the river channel into a flooded farmer's field where the Rex's propeller had snagged on a submerged barbed wire fence. Chester recalls that fortunately a U.S. Coast Guard picket boat saw them and one of the Coasties dove over the side with a wire cutter and freed the Rex to continue on her journey.  The beautifully refitted Rex is shown here shortly after her arrival at the Fairhope Yacht Club in 1945. Otto personally brought his 49.5 ft. wood cruiser down the Mississippi River and across the Gulf of Mexico to Mobile Bay. The oversize registration number was required during and immediately after World War Two for visual identification by the U.S. Coast Guard. (Photograph from Bob Bung Collection)

The Rex had been requisitioned from Otto by the U.S. Coast Guard during World War Two. The Coast Guard then brushed haze grey paint over all the varnished wood and polished brass so the yacht could be used as a patrol boat on Lake Michigan.  At the time she was requisitioned, the Coast Guard had agreed to restore the Rex to her as-acquired condition upon return. Thus, all the grey paint had to be later stripped off the wood and brass returning the yacht to her original fine appearance. The refit left her good as new.

Otto also later received a formal thank you letter from the Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal for the Rex's contribution to the war effort patrolling Lake Michigan. This letter authorized the yacht to display two chevrons, one for each six months of war service. When the Rex arrived at Fairhope Yacht Club for the first time in 1945, there was a large reception to welcome her to Bayou Volanta, then starting to be better known as Fly Creek. The Rex was the largest yacht at its time to be berthed at our Club.

Due to her size and single propeller, the Rex is still remembered as being tricky to turn in the 50 foot wide dredged channel. Otto, his boat crew and Club members ashore all had to work together handling the lines to get the big motor yacht safely in and out of her berth just to the rear of the Clubhouse. Otto, who lived ashore at his Idlewilde Farm off today's Thompson Hall Road in Fairhope, spent much of his free time with Club members and friends aboard his beloved Rex cruising the waters of Mobile Bay.

Otto had returned to Racine to celebrate with his wife Mary their 50th wedding anniversary on July 28, 1946. Not feeling well, Otto traveled afterwards to the world famous Mayo Clinic in Minnesota where he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Otto was ill for a little over one week and died at age 70 on August 6, 1946. He never revisited Fairhope. Otto was buried in Graceland Cemetery at Racine in Block 2, Lot 231. His wife Mary, born January 9, 1876, survived him by 12 years passing away on June 27, 1958. She rests next to him. Otto and Mary Wadewitz are pictured here at their Racine home celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary on July 28, 1946. This is probably the last snapshot ever taken of Otto as he died of cancer a little over one week later on August 6, 1946. (Photograph from Bob Bung Collection)

 

James Gaston, second Commodore elected in 1946, and the entire Fairhope Yacht Club membership were shocked and greatly saddened by Otto's unexpected death. However, Otto and his Bridge had previously so well organized the Club functions that his untimely passing, while genuinely sad, did not directly effect the day-to-day operations or growth in membership.  Otto's son-in-law Floyd Bung later sold the beautiful Rex to settle the estate and she has disappeared into the mists of time.

 

The first Wadewitz Regatta was held a year later in the Fall of 1947 to commemorate Otto's memory as Club Founder and First Commodore. The regatta has been held faithfully every year since including the latest on October 1st.  This followed Hurricane Katrina's storm surge on August 29, 2005 that destroyed the old Clubhouse. Not even recovering from a 15 foot storm surge could dampen the Club's enthusiasm for honoring its founder. 

 
The Wadewitz Regatta is truly a fitting memorial to a fascinating man and boat lover who, while cooling off in a swimming hole with friends on a sweltering summer evening, had a brilliant idea. This idea coupled with a tremendous amount of hard work, risk taking and financial commitment in very uncertain times resulted in a genuine success story beyond anyone's wildest expectations at the time. 
 
Thank you Otto Wadewitz.