The Susan B. Anthony dollar had recently been released, but wasn’t yet weighing down the pockets of his workers. Patriarch Wiles decided he wanted to pay his employees their wages and bonuses in the form of the new currency so that when they spent the money, people would start asking questions about where it came from.
Soon, businesses in and around Skaneateles began noticing an influx of these coins and inquired. Although Mid-Lakes had been around since 1968, Peter Wiles’ off-the-path marketing scheme helped the business grow.
“That was my dad,” said Sarah Wiles, who is now co-owner of the family-run company, sitting in the back room of Mid-Lakes’ office on Jordan Street, a stone’s throw from Skaneateles Lake. “He was very smart and cagey—in the good sense.”
Coinciding with the publicity venture was Peter Wiles’ purchase of a 34-passenger vessel that carried the name Roamer. Before coming to the easternmost Finger Lakes village, the 48-foot-long vessel served stints on Lake George and at Bolton Landing, functioning as a sightseeing boat. In 1981, when Peter decided to expand the business further, he bought Roamer. His grand vision was to start dinner cruises, a trend that daughter Sarah said was just catching on at the time.
However, the history of the boat that is celebrating its 75th birthday during an all-day extravaganza on Sunday, July 1, almost never came to be. After purchasing Roamer, Mid-Lakes had to renovate the boat prior to its May 23, 1981, launch including installation of a diesel engine. Although it’s thought that renaming a boat is bad luck, Peter Wiles decided to change the name in honor of his mother, so it became the Barbara S. Wiles.
“My dad had always wanted a way to keep his mother’s legacy,” Sarah Wiles said. “This was the way to do it, in his eyes. Now here we are celebrating the boat’s 75th birthday.”
The following winter, while the boat was being brought off the water for the season, it slipped off the rigging and fell into the cold water, causing $20,000 in damages.
After almost 10 years of giving residents and tourists tours of the scenic lake, with its breathtaking views and meticulously planned properties, the Barbara S. Wiles was replaced by the bigger Judge Ben Wiles, named after Peter Wiles’ father and the actual Barbara’s husband. The Judge became the new dinner cruiser, leaving Barbara somewhat stranded. In 1992, however, coinciding with the residential growth of the lakeshore, the Wiles family transformed Barbara into a mail carrier.
Ed Littlehales, who turns a spry 92 next month, was brought to Skaneateles in 1920 when he was an infant. He lives at his family’s cottage on the lake, which is technically in Spafford. Littlehales is a retired forester for the U.S. Forest Service and was a good friend of Peter Wiles, who died in 1995. The pair would get together, Littlehales said, and talk for hours on end about anything and everything.
Littlehales decided, in 1971, that the hassle of riding his all-terrain vehicle up a three-quarter-mile path to retrieve his mail was too much. So he built a boat dock on the lake so Wiles could deliver it via water.
“I’m too doggone old to understand what ‘cool’ is,” Littlehales said when asked his thoughts of mail by boat. “It’s just easier for me to get mail that way. It’s an anachronism. It’s really fun to go down to the dock and get the mail. I mean, it’s right by my cottage, so why not? It’s the only boat that does a circle of the entire lake, so it’s kind of like its own tour guide.”
When asked how he thought his old friend would feel about the boat celebrating its 75th anniversary, Littlehales gave a circumspect answer. “Peter used to sit in that chair over there,” he said, pointing at a clearly dated piece of furniture. “I can’t tell you everything, but I can tell you he’d be very pleased.”
Barbara holds up to 34 people, and many residents have taken a tour on the craft. Out of 10 residents polled in the charming Skaneateles downtown, nine said they had been on the boat at least one time. Sarah said a lot of tourists come and use it as a way to see the lake and also learn about history. While it is impossible to find an accurate number of mailboats still in operation in the country, multiple sources indicate Barbara is one of just a handful left.
“I don’t have an exact number and I don’t know where to find one,” Sarah Wiles admitted. “But I’d have to say if there’s more than a dozen, I’d be surprised.”
Hattie Beck-Andersen, one of Sarah’s sisters, has captained the mailboat from time to time. She trains Mid-Lakes’ employees and steers many of the cruises. She described the experience of being on the mailboat as one that everyone should get to enjoy.
“It’s so nice when it’s hot out,” Beck-Andersen said. “Everyone comes to the end of the dock and waits for the boat to pull up. The people on board snap pictures; it’s like flies near a light bulb. When the sun comes out, the people come out.”
The July 1 Mid-Lakes’ celebration of the vessel has some special perks. If you were born in 1937, you get to take a cruise for free. The ship will depart at 1, 2 and 5 p.m., and tickets are $7.50 apiece and can be purchased at 11 Jordan St. starting at 9 a.m. Birthday cake will be served, and diamond earrings and Syracuse Chiefs tickets will be raffled off.
“There’s a lot of pride here and a great deal of history,” Sarah Wiles said. “It’s an awesome way to celebrate.”
For more information, call 685-8500.