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Historic tug, new life

Mel and Carolyn Maierhafer posed on the deck of their new vessel, the L.L. Smith Jr., Wednesday so Marie Cooney could snap a picture. Her friends, she said, were not going to believe it. The vessel, part of the University of Wisconsin-Superior's ...

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Maria Lockwood Carolyn and Melvin “Mel” Maierhafer of Fremont, Wis., pose on the deck of their new tugboat, the former UWS research vessel, L.L. Smith Jr., at the Spirit Mountain Marina. The couple plans to turn the boat into a floating summer cottage without losing its historic charm.

Mel and Carolyn Maierhafer posed on the deck of their new vessel, the L.L. Smith Jr., Wednesday so Marie Cooney could snap a picture. Her friends, she said, were not going to believe it. The vessel, part of the University of Wisconsin-Superior’s aquatic research and education program for three decades, had changed hands.

"I’m just tickled," said Cooney, who splits her time between St. Paul and Duluth.

Photo ops are one of the many perks to owning the tug boat, built in Knudsen Shipyards of Superior in 1950. It also offers museum-worthy pieces in the engine room and wheelhouse as well as plenty of busywork.

"Since we came up here, we’ve been working on it," said Mel Maierhafer of Fremont, Wis. The exterior of the cabin had already been sanded for painting and the head sported a fresh coat of primer. Work is often interrupted by visits from local residents eager for a tour of the historic boat, which has been anchored at Spirit Lake Marina and RV Park for the last five years.

"All this history," Maierhafer said. "I don’t know how many of these engines are left. Everybody who comes down is just amazed at this engine."

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"Everyone just loves it," his wife said. "Of course, they don’t have to work on it."

One fellow stopped by seeking coffee Wednesday, something the couple has not yet stocked in the research area-turned-temporary-galley.

"We’re going to stay here for a while, because we have some wonderful neighbors," Maierhafer said.

Eventually, the pair plan to move the Smith closer to Fremont for use as a summer lake cottage. But it will winter in Duluth.

"It’s pretty hard to take it out of the community," Maierhafer said. "Everyone we talk to knows the L.L. Smith."

In 1978, UWS purchased the 58-foot harbor tug and repurposed it for aquatic research and fishery science. Four years later, its mission shifted to environmental education. Over the course of its stay with UWS, the ship welcomed college students, school groups, public officials and more.

"It has reached thousands of people in the Twin Ports area," said UWS Natural Sciences Department Chairwoman Mary Balcer. "For many of them, it was their first time out on Lake Superior."

From an environmental perspective, the program was highly successful. The hands-on work of collecting water samples, testing water quality and seeing lake microorganisms opened people’s eyes to a whole new world, Balcer said.

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"They were able to experience that lake and begin to understand their role in taking care of it," she said.

Monetarily, however, the program wasn’t able to maintain its course. Changes in staffing and grant funding coupled with an aging vessel led to the permanent docking of the Smith in 2010. It went to auction on the Wisconsin Surplus Auction site this spring. When bids closed on Aug. 4, the Fremont couple had won the boat for $22,250. Or, more correctly, Maierhafer had. It was, he said, a case of raising his hand one too many times during the course of the online auction. While he’d purchased a generator and some rock hounding equipment through the government surplus auction site, this was the biggest win to date. His wife of 23 years didn’t say much about it at first.

"Since we’ve been up here and been working on it, she said the next time you want to bid on something like that, you let me know," Maierhafer said. "And I think she’s going to stand there with a hammer."

Quick decisions have led to many adventures for Maierhafer. It started when he walked into the Fremont Supermarket for a pack of cigarettes, and walked out owning the store. He’s also purchased a plane, a helicopter, a houseboat and motorcycles.

"We’ve never owned a tugboat before," Maierhafer said.

At UWS, the decision on whether to replace the Smith remains up in the air. Campus administration and staff plan to meet to look at what the options are, Balcer said.

Research has continued at the college with the use of other vessels, including outboard motor boats and a 20-foot Bayliner. But the Smith was something special, with the ability to take groups of 30 passengers out at a time.

"The boat served a very important educational purpose her for 30 years," Balcer said. "It was able to get people out and give them a hands-on experience. Now it goes to a new stage."

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Maierhafer, 75, expects they will spend the rest of their lives working on the Smith.

"Maybe a little sooner," his wife said. "We’re both kind of workaholics."

Whatever pace they set, they plan to preserve the boat’s character. They own a piece of history, Maierhafer said, and they plan to enjoy it.

Related Topics: SUPERIORDOUGLAS COUNTY
Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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