Otto Wadewitz and the Founding of
the Fairhope Yacht Club
(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
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?
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.