Burlington's Family Boat House
A beagle stood watch over the yard and waited patiently for his companion to come home from church. Picnic tables, benches and plastic, white patio chairs were scattered around him. A dark red building sat quietly behind the beagle, its wide barn doors closed to the public. White letters above the door read “Auer Family Boat House.” We had come to the right place. Stepping through an open side door, I was reminded of how long the boat house had been a fixture of the community. Relics of previous decades clung to the splintered walls. A piano sat in a corner with a light film of dust. A cobwebbed timeline of fishing poles sat neatly in the rafters above the entryway: wooden sticks with string tied around one end, simple metal poles with fishing line, a mechanical rod with a reel; all tools the family used to catch countless dinners.
Christine Auer Heber was standing behind the counter. Her slight frame was bent over a few papers on the desk. Although I had given fair warning for our arrival, she seemed surprised by my being there and my intentions to learn about the boat house for a possible magazine feature. Surprised or not, she hardly skipped a beat, and soon I was being told about all the artifacts inside the old house. Christine showed me into a side room where she pointed out an old cash register. The register had been in the family for as long as she could remember, and it still worked. They had used it right up until the day that someone decided to break into it, leaving a twisted metal wound on its lower half. Still the register held out, not relinquishing a single cent. (Despite its resilience, it was decided that it would be better to invest in a newer model.) Outside, kayaks and small boats were resting on the shore, their paddles waiting to be put to use. Wooden swings creaked back and forth as couples took turns swinging together in front of the lake.
Christine had to cut our tour short as she was late for church and was waiting for Charlie to arrive and take over. As soon as Charlie pulled into the driveway, Christine hopped to her feet and ran to her car, “I’m sorry, but I really must get to church on time!” she said. “Enjoy your time here!” As Christine was pulling out of the drive, the beagle, who had been watching us all the while, ran as fast as he could to Charlie’s truck.
“Lucky is always so excited to see me. You’d never know he had just seen me a couple hours ago,” said Charlie Auer as he slipped out of his truck and bent down to scratch his dog behind the ears. Lucky wiggled his body for a moment before taking off to run around the yard with a new burst of energy.
Charlie Auer and his sister, Christine, have been running the boat house for as long as they can remember. Their parents started the tradition in 1928 on the shores of Lake Champlain with a hundred-square-foot house. Their plan was to rent fishing equipment to locals. Soon after finishing construction, the family learned that the ground wasn’t stable enough to support the new house; they would have to move the building higher up on to the shore. Charlie chuckled as he remembered pushing the small house up the hill while his father towed it behind a pickup truck. The house was rolling forward with the help of several logs; every few feet, everyone would stop and move a log from behind the house to the front and start again. “It took all day, but we finally got it up the hill.” Charlie pointed at the right side of the boat house, “It is still sitting here after all these years.” In 1950, Charlie’s parents decided to expand the boat house to accommodate a living area, a cashier counter, a side room and a covered open space to hold events.
Every year during the warmer months, the boat house has been a haven for anyone interested in relaxing, eating snacks or listening to stories about the house and its keepers. Patrons have returned time and again to hear Christine’s stories about Champ, the Lake Champlain monster that peaks its head out of the water every so often. Charlie has shared countless stories of boat house shenanigans, including the times when he and his sister danced to their mother’s piano music or when there would be enough fish chowder to feed a hoard of neighbors. A more recent event involved a slew of local bagpipe players and most of the neighborhood.
As Charlie and I walked around the front yard, he paused and pointed to a tree that had a white mark several feet from the ground. “If it wasn’t for this community, we wouldn’t be standing here right now,” he said. In 2011, heavy rainfall and massive snow melt caused abnormal flooding around Lake Champlain, and the water level quickly rose to a record breaking 103 feet (over three feet above the flood stage). “We had never seen flooding like that before. It took out the furniture, the wooden tables and my mother’s piano.”
Needless to say, everything had been destroyed. In the next few weeks, over 100 people came by to help clean up. Woodworkers and furniture makers restored the swings. Garbage disposal companies hauled the debris away for free. “People came from all around to pick up junk, move things away from the water and help restore what could be saved,” said Charlie shaking his head. “The people here are really incredible,” he said. “They came out without even being asked. They just showed up and started helping and we were back on our feet by the next season.” Charlie looked over at a picnic table where Lucky had decided to settle down. “Looks like it’s going to be a good day.”
Part of me wanted to stay and enjoy the calm waves of Lake Champlain while sipping a lemonade, but a little annoying voice reminded me that we had a schedule to keep. I thanked Charlie for his time and for sharing his boat house with us and we hopped on our bikes for the next adventure. An hour later, we rode back through the neighborhood and were surprised to hear polka music playing loudly from the boat house. Charlie was swinging his hips and picking his feet off the ground as Lucky barked and wiggled along beside him. It was going to be a good day.