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Charlie’s boats a long-time fixture in Park Rapids area

Charlie Kellner sits on a deluxe boat in his showroom. He and wife Jan purchased Charlie’s Boats & Marine in Park Rapids in 1986. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Editor’s note: The Enterprise

is highlighting some of

the area’s long-standing businesses as part of its Progress edition. See more in the section starting on page 1C.

BY Sarah smith

In the boat business, Charlie Kellner’s rule of thumb is that it’s got to float.

Then the Park Rapids man laughs in delight at his own joke.

Charlie’s Boats & Marine is a Park Rapids institution.

“I’m the longest that lived or survived or stuck it out,” the genial man proclaims.

The business, Jack’s Outboard, started as a small bait and tackle shop in 1948. Jack and Sue Bonk also repaired small Johnson outboards.

The Bonks sold to Chester and Dixie Hensel in 1964 and they added lines of Alumacraft and Glastron boats, along with an ice business.

When Hensel sold the business to Ted and Jim Dullum, the ice shed remained. The sawdust insulated ice finally melted two years later.

More boat lines and owners came. In 1977 Kellner began managing the place off Highway 34 across from Thielen Motors. Two years later A.G. Johnson acquired the business and wanted to change the name, which had become Martin’s Sports Afloat.

Kellner favored a return to Jack’s Outboard, but couldn’t reach the Bonks in time to OK the change, so by default it became Charlie’s Boats and Marine.

Charlie and wife Jan purchased his namesake business in 1986.

That little old building, we pulled as many walls out as we could to make it work,” he reminisced, shaking his head.

Kellner uses the original Bonk residence as his hunting shack today. The business building was used as a training burn by the fire department.

Kellner relocated further down Highway 34 to a space formerly occupied by Pier 34 next to L&M Fleet in 1996.

During his tenure, boats, especially pontoons, have evolved into “floating living rooms,” Kellner said.

Deluxe interiors are the rule, not the exception.

Pontoons aren’t made of flooring laid across floating barrels with picket fencing to hold the passengers on board. Anglers rarely putt-putt around the lake in the old wooden boat with a 5-horse outboard today. The Environmental Protection Agency put the kibosh on that years ago.

New motors must meet environmental standards, Kellner said, but in doing so they’ve become more fuel-efficient, quieter and “smooth running.”

And from 1993 until 2011, Charlie’s sold and serviced Artic Cat snowmobiles and four-wheelers.

But there was something about carrying and serving a diverse line of products that caused the business to simplify.

“Boats got us to where we were at so we returned” to the core products, Kellner said.

Snowmobile sales have “too many peaks and valleys,” he explained.

Kellner is a graduate of Nevis school. He attended trade school, specializing in marine and small engine repair. Two years out of high school his career was off and running.

Nevis was a town boasting four gas stations and three grocery stores, he recalled.

He misses the “old school” way boat manufacturers dealt with their dealers. That camaraderie faded away, replaced by a new business model without the warm handshake.

Companies and attitudes have changed,” he said with a trace of sadness in his voice.

But Park Rapids has changed along with the times. For one, the tax base and taxes have increased.

“The town has changed quite a bit,” he said.

It saddens him to see large empty buildings sitting vacant such as the old Pamida store, the old J&B Foods. He misses downtown’s department stores, Konshok’s and Bishop’s, even Fuller’s Tackle, where fish catches displayed in the window were a major draw to the downtown area.

He laughs at being arrested nowadays for transporting your catch to a downtown display. It would be illegal today.

“AIS is the next big problem,” he said. Last year his alert staff spotted zebra mussels in the tank of a boat bound for Hubbard County waters.

Speaking of staff, Kellner reflects on his longevity.

“It takes a little bit of skill, a lot of luck and good employees,” he said. “I’ve got to give credit to them.”

Kellner gave up fishing long ago, in 1973.

“I don’t have time to fish anymore,” he said. “I’ve got to keep my nose to the grindstone.”

But he will occasionally drop a line in the winter, he admitted.

He kept some memorabilia from his predecessors, ice picks from Jack Bonk.

A vintage 1952 Johnson outboard sits behind his desk in the showroom.

Above it, an old wooden crate in mint condition displays how outboards were shipped back in the day.

“They came by rail in those crates in the ‘30s,” Kellner said.

Unfortunately most of the crates ended up as kindling, he said. They would be almost as valuable today as their contents.

He’s very careful how he cleans the ’52, gently with soap and water. He doesn’t want to wash the decals off it.

He reflects on his career, which isn’t over by any means.

“I don’t know when I’m going to give up the ship,” he said.

And then he laughs that laugh, almost a giggle. Charlie is having the time of his life.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

(218) 732-3364