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By Marty Benson
Gladys Culver, 98-year-old North Webster resident, still meets people to whom she and her husband rented cottages in the late '30s, still lives in the same house on Webster Lake …
And still asks her son when he's going to become a biology teacher.
Given that she taught for 42 years and her son's biology major was geared toward a similar path, it's a natural mom question.
Except that almost anyone who water skis or wakeboards anywhere probably knows—or will eventually know—her son's business on a first-name basis.
Bart's Water Sports started when its namesake graduated from IU and couldn't find his mom's dream job in a place he wanted to live.
A competitive water skier, he decided to lean a few tools of his hobby against a tree on Indiana 13 in summer 1972, and see what he could sell. He soon realized he needed to branch out to mail order to make money.
Now he has the means but no plans to move the business elsewhere. Other homes in Bloomington and Florida await when he and wife Cinda need a change.
The same things that have kept the avid birdwatcher near his hometown, he said, draw others.
"Having the ski-able lakes and the nonski-able lakes gives two distinct recreational options—active boating stuff on the bigger lakes and the wildlife on the smaller ones.
"The rural atmosphere allows me to do the things I want to do. I'm not particularly interested in urban activities."
But he is interested in urban people, the influx of which he said separates the town from many of its like-sized peers.
"The seasonal people add a cultural and stimulating atmosphere to a small town," he said.
"Bart's" has morphed from treeside into a fountain-fronted, spotless modern building. But it's still in North Webster, still on Indiana 13, and mom still keeps after the owner about when he's going to get a real job.
Before her parents bought a vacation home on Webster Lake six years ago, Fort Wayne's Megan Maroney had tried water skiing a few times, but with little success.
Now 17, she's a regular in Webster Ski-Bees shows.
Her family getaway's location near the home of 39-year-old club president Mike Jones, who's skied for the Bees since age 10, provided the spark.
"Mike taught me everything I know," she said.
She serves as a base for the junior pyramid, performs a two-ski line with seven other girls and pulls the flag for the big pyramid in the seven annual weekend events that originate off Town Park's shore.
The shows start with a "boat parade," a high-speed, often shore-hugging demo of the ability of driver and craft. In and of itself, it'd be worth the price of admission, if there were one. A donation bucket is passed to keep one of North Webster's proudest traditions abuzz.
While the club has family bloodlines—Mike's 11-year-old son Carter is an active member, his older brother Doug is show director and a driver, and his 15-year-old son Wyatt skis—newcomers are welcome.
"Nine times out of 10, people just walk up and join us," Mike said.
Like Maroney, such rookies don't have to be Joe Water Skier to start or find a niche. The club is stocked with veterans ready to teach, plus all necessary equipment.
"We prefer (new members) know how to do something (on skis) but they don't have to be proficient in anything," said Doug, who lives in nearby Warsaw and has a cottage on Webster.
Nearly 30 years ago, Mike was a newbie who had learned the sport behind his parents' 10-horsepower fishing boat.
The club comprises 50-70 active members. About 30 of them, ages 6 through 70, do the shows.
The top skier is 40-year-old vice president Gary Harris, who became a Ski-Bee at age 6, and used to perform professionally at Sea World in Florida and California, and at Marine World in California. The kids haven't quite reached that level, but advancement is the minds of many.
One is Kayleigh Yahne (pronounced Yaney), a 13-year-old from Carmel, whose father Brian and 16-year-old brother Tyler also ski in the shows. She climbs to the top of the junior and big pyramids after three years in the club.
"I want to learn whatever I can, whatever they will teach me," she said.
The Bees draw as many as 400 spectators, some lining the shore, others forming a ring around the cove in watercraft of all kinds.
Like any venerable organization, the club has had its ups and downs. Doug said it's in great shape now, and son Wyatt, one of the show's busiest skiers, has the attitude to keep it that way.
"I'd want to keep skiing as long as I could but when the time came I would gladly step down and become president or vice president and then drive, and after that do dockwork," he said. "I want to stay involved as long as I possibly can."
Members of the Ski-Bees demonstration team perform on Webster Lake in the summer of 2009. The shows can be seen at regular times throughout the summer at Town Park’s beach in North Webster.
A love triangle was revealed in the checkout line at Clayton Garden Center last spring.
Betty Plew bumped into the Waltzes from Barbee Lake. Betty's husband Tom had worked with Dick Waltz for 30 years in nearby Warsaw. Naturally, they inquired about Tom.
"Oh … it's the other woman," said a deadpan Mrs. Plew, followed by a pregnant pause.
The dumbfounded couple didn’t know what to say.
"It’s Dixie," she said.
"He’s restoring the Dixie," referring to Webster Lake's 65-foot passenger sternwheeler.
Tom's not the only local to be swept away by the vessel. Boats bearing the name have been hauling passengers around the lake since 1929.
The current boat has undergone many renovations, the last of which was completed last May. Tom headed the mechanical effort.
Funding flowed from local supporters who formed the nonprofit Dixie Sternwheeler, Inc., in December 2007, to save the crumbling craft.
"People around here really love this boat," said Tom, who's also the group's secretary. "Maybe the people around the lake love it more than the patrons (who are often from elsewhere)."
The lake's affair with the boat took anchor in 1906, when Joseph Breeck, Plew's great uncle, rode a covered wagon up from Lamb, in Switzerland County, with his wife Eliza for a visit. He took a ride on the lake in an excursion boat that caught his fancy, and had a vision of piloting a bigger boat on Webster, like those that traveled the Ohio River.
After owning two other passenger boats on the lake, the second called The Dixie, and buying a steel hull at the Barbour boat works in St. Louis in 1928, Breeck launched The New Dixie, which is today's Dixie.
When owned by Ernest "Tag" Huffman, who bought the boat in 1959, a tradition of lakeside residents blinking their lights at The Dixie and receiving a blink back started.
The story is that the first mate once had a night off interrupted by a last-minute request to work. His girlfriend didn't believe him, so he said he would have the captain blink the lights when they passed her house to prove it. The Dixie's been blinking since.
"People get upset when you don’t blink back," Plew said. "That’s a big thing. People go out of their way, run, drop everything to go blink."
Check RideTheDixie.com for schedule and cost.
Built in 1929 by Joseph Breeck, the Dixie is Indiana’s oldest sternwheel excursion boat. The Dixie takes regularly scheduled cruises seven days a week from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day. Each cruise lasts about an hour.