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Riverboats get Kraft touch

Tiny workmen go about their jobs. A photographer snaps pictures of a passenger posing casually on the upper deck. Capt. Wethern steps out of the pilothouse to see what's going on.

By all appearances, the Sea Wing is enjoying another beautiful day transporting passengers up and down the Mississippi River. Some travel aboard the paddlewheeler; some hop over to the "party barge" lashed to its side, where beverages are offered.

Dick Kraft spent months replicating the scene in miniature, recreating the image of fun and adventure that was the Sea Wing before July 13, 1890. On that day it capsized in a storm on Lake Pepin, and many lives were lost.

The huge scale model of the Sea Wing and its barge, the Jim Grant, is Kraft's latest project. It's on display in the window of the What Not Shoppe, 211 Bush St.

Models of all kinds

Kraft, of Maiden Rock, is especially fond of making models of paddlewheel riverboats. Sharing window space downtown with the Sea Wing is about a 3 1/2-foot model of one he named Therapy because he undertook the project after being told he had cancer and likely would live only three months. That was "at least 10 years ago," he said.

The Therapy, made from a kit, is a radio-controlled model with a pair of tall smokestacks, fancy latticework and a working paddlewheel. Many admired it when the model was displayed at Ole's Bar, which Kraft owned for several years with his wife, Sue, and brother-in-law, Dennis Walsh. They sold it about six years ago.

"I've always done woodwork," said Kraft, who studied years ago at the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee. He makes models of all kinds. He particularly likes doing his own designs and building from scratch.

His first big steamboat replica about 20 years ago was of the Lady of the Lake in Lake Geneva, Wis., where he had a carpet and tile business.

"I love the water," Kraft said. His stepfather was a towboat captain on the Mississippi years ago. "I like to find boats people really haven't seen much of." That includes historic vessels such as the Civil War era Monitor and Merrimac, and a Spanish galleon, plus boats that have sunk.

Riverboat history

Living on Lake Pepin, he became interested in the riverboats that played an important role in history. He found photographs in a book about the Sea Wing disaster that show both the boat and the barge, then created a design and began work.

It only took about three months to finish, he said, but "I work intensely. I work night and day." What Not Shoppe owner Dennis Napper, who invited Kraft to display his riverboats, estimated that Kraft spent 800 to 900 hours building the Sea Wing.

He spent another $450 on miniature people to represent passengers and crew, and he built it so that he could add a motor and make it a working model.

Details make the model an authentic duplicate, from the twin smokestacks billowing clouds to the crate of chickens on the lower deck to the pretend carbide lantern which glitters like the rhinestone he used to make it.

Kraft was surprised to discover in his research that the red poles on the sides are not structural supports but bumpers to provide protection when other vessels pull alongside.

He also learned that the Sea Wing, which was out of Diamond Bluff, was a working boat on weekdays, hauling booms and logs, and turned into an excursion boat on weekends.

Other projects

He's working now on a replica of the paddleboat Prescott, plus he wants to make a model of one of the Red Wing riverboats and he has started a smaller replica of the riverboat Robert E. Lee.

In his spare time, Kraft also makes replicas of Indian items, does archeological research and collects riverboat memorabilia. His summer project is converting his houseboat into a riverboat.

Most of Kraft's vessels are displayed in his home. The downtown exhibit was a result of his and Napper's shared interest in the upcoming Grand Excursion. A fleet of vessels including several riverboats will be coming upstream in 2004, and stopping in Red Wing for a celebration that July.

"The Sea Wing had such significance for us, being a rivertown," Napper said, "plus we're gearing up for the Grand Excursion."

People have come into the store to inquire about the cost, but to him, "It's a museum piece." Kraft feels the same. "I wouldn't want to sell it to one individual," he said. "Nobody'd ever see it again."

After Red Wing, the Sea Wing will travel to Stockholm for display this summer in the Amish store.

Ruth Nerhaugen can be reached at nerhaugen@republican-eagle.com or 388-2914, ext. 119.

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