The day started with a baseball game – Ronan defeated Thompson Falls 9-0, breaking T-Falls’ 14-game winning streak.
But that wasn’t what drew 5,000 people from all over Montana and from out of state to Polson on the afternoon of Sunday, August 4, 1935.
The main attraction was the inaugural Cherry Time Regatta, the first in a series of off-and-on speed boat races on Flathead Lake over the decades to come.
Polson business owners organized the event to promote the town and its products, handing out 1,500 bags of locally grown cherries to the crowd.
The weather was a bit dicey. Polson’s Flathead Courier newspaper reported the event was delayed for a time because of high winds. “The rough water prevented the arrival of a number of boats from the upper part of the lake, and made impossible some of the other features of the program.”
Seating, to accommodate 500 people, was set up along the shoreline by the highway bridge. Vendors were selling ice cream and soft drinks.
“Some of the fastest speed boats in western Montana have been entered In the afternoon’s boat races,” reported the Courier.
Hometown favorite Ray Boettcher was entered in a number of races. So were Jerry Kaiser and Ben Fisher from Missoula and Ernest Klepetke Jr. from Anaconda.
Klepetke won the first event for Class “C” outboards, with Kaiser and Fisher taking second and third. Klepetke also won the Class “A” race. Boettcher won the fourth race of the day for inboard motor boats.
The final event of the day would be “an unlimited free-for-all for the championship.”
A surfboard exhibition, featuring Margaret Gridley and Dick Hutchinson from Coeur d’Alene, was a crowd-pleaser between races, as were the log-rolling contests “staged by lumberjacks of Rollins and Somers to determine the championship of the Flathead Lake region.”
The Cherry Time Regatta was followed in 1955 by the Copper Cup Regatta.
Fred Farley, a hydroplane racing historian, tells an interesting story about the inaugural event. A delegation of Polson businessmen went out to Seattle hoping to arrange sanctioning for the Copper Cup.
That didn’t happen, but one of the members of the Montana delegation spotted a man he’d served with in WWII. That man was famous band leader Guy Lombardo, who was in Seattle with his hydroplane, the TEMPO VII.
Farley says, “Guy was persuaded by his Navy buddy to stop off in Polson the following weekend and park TEMPO VII (G-13) on display.”
“Lombardo talked three other teams – the MISS CADILLAC (U-45), the GALE V (U-55), and the MISS U. S. (U-2) into likewise visiting Polson on their way back East from Seattle.”
According to Farley, there had been no plans to put any of the famous boats in the water – they were just there as show pieces.
At some point, though, the racers agreed and “a 2.5-mile course was hastily set up … inner-tubes (were) substituted for buoys (and) TEMPO VII won all three heats.”
The following year’s race, the 1956 Copper Cup, marked the beginning of some 25 years of American Power Boat Association-sanctioned events on Flathead Lake.
Like many, I was bitten by the hydroplane racing bug back in the ’50s, although bitten isn’t the right term.
I’d been stung – literally, by bees – at a lunch stop on the way to the event held at either McGregor Lake or one of the Thompson lakes between Libby and Kalispell – I can’t recall. I was miserable and at the same time mesmerized by the speed and the skill of the drivers.
That led to my teenage-years-project, refurbishing an old mini-hydroplane and racing it about Savage Lake near Troy to daydreams of one day joining the elite drivers in the unlimited class.
Reality, of course, got in the way. On my final outing in the sleek little racer, with my weight full forward to maintain the flat plane of the craft, the spark plug jarred loose and fell out of the old refurbished outboard engine.
It was as though I’d slammed on the brakes.
The nose of the hydroplane cut into the surface of the water, plowing downward, nearly pitching me out. Thankfully the boat was water-tight, with enough buoyancy to bounce back to the surface along with its nearly drowned driver holding the steering wheel in a death grip.
That was enough for me. I figured something like journalism might be a safer course.
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org.