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Know Your Neighbors: Neill Frame

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Little can keep the Lake Geneva mail boat from making its daily rounds to shoreline residents. On the 100th anniversary of this famous mail boat’s first voyage, we caught up with the man who’s captained it for 54 years.

Neill Frame

Neill Frame

There was a time when it was commonly known that neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night could stay mail couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. Those words, inscribed on New York’s James Farley Post Office, have unofficially served as the U.S. mail carrier’s motto.

The same can be said for the mail boat crew that sails the waters of Geneva Lake, making deliveries to lakeside residents. Neither an ever-moving boat nor ever-increasing lake traffic can stop this team, which sails every June through September and celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

For the past 54 years, Neill Frame has stood at the helm, piloting the mail boat to private piers where a mail jumper leaps from the boat, runs to make the delivery and leaps back onto the vessel. The 2.5-hour round trip has proved so intriguing that Gage Marine’s Lake Geneva Cruise Lines has created a special tour centered around Frame’s route.

How did you come to have this job?

I’ve been around boats since I was 10, when my father and his brother opened a boat sales and service business down in Cedar Lake, Ind. Prior to that, we lived in Woodstock, where I was born. In 1959, the business was sold and my folks moved to Lake Geneva. By that time, I was married and had a young son, so I stayed in Indiana and visited on weekends. I liked to spend time down at the Riviera Docks watching the tour boats. The manager, who knew I was a boat person, asked me if I would drive one of the speedboat ride boats one evening. In 1963, I began driving part-time on weekends. A couple of years later I graduated to the large tour boats. In 1969, I began driving the mail boat on weekends. In 1974, I began working for the company full-time, doing maintenance and repairs in the winter and excursion trips in the summer. In 1975, I took over the mail boat full-time. For the past 10 years, I’ve been semi-retired and now only work in the summertime.

What has the experience been like?

I enjoy being around people and have had the opportunity to meet some really great people over the years. Some of our passengers return year after year, and I’ve gotten to know many of them. I work with a terrific group of young people as crew members and mail jumpers. Most of the kids are high school and college students, and work for us year-to-year until they graduate and get a “real” job. Many of them visit in later years, sometimes bringing their families to see what they did when they were kids. Some of our mail customers regularly wait on their piers in the morning to greet us. A few have been known to bake cookies for us.

What’s changed over the past 50 years?

Several of the old historic mansions have been torn down and the properties have been broken into smaller parcels. Others have been upgraded. This means many more piers and many more boats to deal with. Today, there are more than 1,200 individual piers and more than 6,000 boats permanently moored on the lake. On weekends the lake can get pretty busy. There’s a lot more junk mail and fewer letters. There are still a lot of bills, though.

Do the jumpers ever fall in or drop the mail in the water?

Jumpers sometimes fall in, usually on the jump back onto the boat. Something will happen on the dock that might slow them down. They lose their concentration and timing, and they might come up a little short and miss the boat. We always pick them up.

Do you always go the same direction?

We do. The helm, or steering wheel, is on the starboard, or right side, so that we can see the pier as we approach and can better judge distances and speed. The boat usually doesn’t stop, but keeps moving ahead. The boat weighs more than 60 tons, and if we lose control and hit the pier, it could do a lot of damage. We drop off and pick up passengers at the other municipal piers and some of the camps along the way, so we always try to be on time.

What’s the hardest part of the job?

The hardest part is trying to maintain control of the boat so that the mail jumper can hop onto the pier, deposit the mail, pick up the outgoing mail and return to the mail boat. If the wind is blowing and the lake is rough, that can be a challenge. Some of the piers are tucked back behind other, longer piers and can be difficult to reach. It takes a certain amount of skill to maneuver the boat through some very tight places.

Does any weather prevent you from delivery?

We never leave during stormy weather or lightning. Historically, the summer storms are pretty short, and we can usually delay our departure until things calm down. I can recall only two times we cancelled the trip. On one of those days, we encountered hurricane-type winds, and although the boat could handle the rough waves, we couldn’t safely run close to the piers. The other time, three very intense squall-type storms moved quickly through the area over a three-hour period. The mail person and I took a speedboat around to make the deliveries. We actually had to ride out one of the storms at our office in Williams Bay.

What is it about your job that’s intriguing?

The challenge of safely maneuvering the boat to make the deliveries, the wonderful customers through the years, the terrific crew people I’ve met and worked with – all go together to make the job gratifying and fun to do day in and day out. And I get paid to do it! I’m often asked why I’ve done it for so long, and all I can answer is that the job has kept me young, and I’ll hope to keep doing it as long as I’m physically able.

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