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The finale: Volunteers to say farewell to the Goldenrod Showboat

Volunteers will gather on Thursday at a remote spot on the Illinois River to say their final farewells to the Goldenrod Showboat, a St. Louis landmark they worked relentlessly to preserve.

The century-old showboat suffered irreparable damage last summer during efforts to save it from the flooding river. Since then, volunteers have worked on weekends to remove artifacts -- chandeliers and gilded mirrors, furnishings and photographs -- for future display in museums.

For 50 years, the Goldenrod Showboat entertained St. Louisans down on the levee with lively ragtime and jazz festivals, campy vaudeville and happy musicals. But many of the volunteers who’ve been working to preserve the historic landmark and return it to the St. Louis riverfront never heard the music -- they weren’t even born when the Goldenrod was moved from St. Louis to St. Charles in 1989, where it served as a dinner theater.

In recent years the showboat’s been parked near Kampsville, Ill., about 80 miles north of St. Louis, where it has awaited salvation -- or salvage. 

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
The sign of a fading star.

That’s where Jacob Medford, 24, discovered it five years ago.

“I never saw it in its heyday. I didn’t even know what it was when we came here the first time,’’ he said.

The Goldenrod was already a sad sight by then. Faded, chipped paint. Shattered windows. Rusty. Broken.

But Medford was mesmerized by the fading star.

“I was 19 years old, sitting in the driveway here looking at the showboat in the middle of the night,’’ he said. “I just remember pulling out of the driveway that night, and I just had this feeling, ‘I’m coming back. Something’s drawing me to this place.' ’’ 

Medford has been helping to care for the showboat ever since. He’s the vice president of the Historic Riverboat Preservation Association, the nonprofit that was working to buy and preserve the Goldenrod. The vessel is owned by the dock owners who won it in a foreclosure action, but they had given  the preservation group time to raise funds to buy it. 

Medford has been leading the efforts to salvage artifacts.

A handful of volunteers have come on weekends all fall and winter. Others stop by to take a last look -- and stay to help for a while.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Rhonda Wieneke and Jacob Medford head home after a wet workday on the Goldenrod.

Instead of ragtime music, they work to the hum of a generator powering lights in the theater that’s been dark for 15 years.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, they were also dealing with rain and a slippery riverbank.

“It’s just a muddy mess out here,” Medford said. “It’s one of the muddiest days I’ve ever seen, but our volunteers still come out no matter what and work and work and work.’’

Never mind its appearance now, volunteers talk about the Goldenrod’s glorious past.

Samantha Scott, 24, says it’s irreplaceable.

“It was beautiful,'' she said. "I’ve always had an interest in older objects and pieces of history. It was just one of the most beautiful things in the world.’’

Like many in the group, Scott was recruited by Medford. She’s from his hometown -- Jerseyville, Ill. -- about an hour away. Scott put in hundreds of hours.

“It’s been a challenge, but it’s never felt like a challenge,’’ she said. “It always just seemed like it was something we were called to do."

Medford has also had help from family members. His aunt and uncle, Rhonda and Fred Wieneke of Jerseyville come every week.

Fred Wieneke, a retired union carpenter, has salvaged wood from the Goldenrod that he plans to make into shadow boxes with pictures of the Goldenrod -- a future fundraiser for a riverboat museum the group would like to see built.

“I came out here to start helping Jake -- and then  you fall in love with the boat,’’ Wieneke said. “Usually, I start something I never finish it. But this one -- it’s going to be all the way until the end.’’

Credit Historic Riverboat Preservation Association / Goldenrod Showboat
Volunteers have worked for months to remove artifacts from the Goldenrod Showboat before the vessel is scrapped.

The Goldenrod was named a National Historic Landmark in 1967 and is believed to be the last of the showboats that delivered entertainment to Midwestern river towns in the early 20th century. 

When the Goldenrod was built in 1909 for W. R. Markle, a successful showboat owner, it was lavishly decorated, costing $75,000 -- about $1.8 million in today's dollars. In 1937, the Goldenrod was permanently docked in St. Louis by longtime owner Capt. Bill Menke. The growing motion picture industry had taken its toll on showboats.

Talk to the volunteers long enough, and someone will probably tell ghost stories. The group’s raised money for their preservation efforts by hosting tours and paranormal investigations on board.

Scott insists that she’s heard footsteps and music. And volunteer Shana Wankel has captured ghostly images in photos.

“I’m definitely drawn to the energy on this boat,’’ Wankel said. “It’s like stepping into a time capsule.''

But on Thursday, they’ll say goodbye to the Goldenrod. They’re planning what Medford is calling a celebration of life, but he knows it will be a tough day for everyone.

“My last time walking off this boat I’ll probably tear up,’’ he said. “Everyone’s going to. Letting go is hard.”

Medford said he’s already working with several local museums that are interested in exhibiting artifacts from the Goldenrod.

“Some people have told me, 'You essentially failed,' ’’ he said. “But I don’t see it that way. We’re not going to preserve the entire showboat, but we're preserving the interior. We’re preserving the heart of the showboat. And without our group it would never have happened.''

For more photos and history of the Goldenrod Showboat, see our previous coverage:

Can this floating landmark from the St. Louis riverfront be saved?

Final curtain: The damaged Goldenrod Showboat poses for pictures one last time

Credit Historic Riverboat Preservation Association / Goldenrod Showboat
The pilot house was removed from the Goldenrod Showboat in hopes that it will be reconstructed as a museum exhibit.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.