LAKE GENEVA — Many changes have taken place in the Lake Geneva area since 1969, but one thing that remains the same is Neill Frame as captain of the U.S. Mailboat.
This summer, Frame celebrates his 50th year in command of the prestigious lake vessel that famously delivers mail to lakeside residents six days a week all summer.
Frame, 79, is well known as Lake Geneva Cruise Line’s recognizable, welcoming and enthusiastic mailboat captain, and he has no plans to turn the helm over to anyone else just yet.
“I feel good, mentally and physically. I’ll keep coming back. As long as management doesn’t tell me not to,” Frame said, laughing. “I smack a pier or two once in a while, but it’s alright, because we own a pier company, too.”
Jack Lothian, general manager of the Lake Geneva Cruise Line, owned by Williams Bay-based Gage Marine, said Frame has played an integral role in making the mailboat tour a memorable experience for mail recipients and passengers alike.
“Neill is outstanding. He’s really an institution within our community,” Lothian says. “The mailboat is known nationwide, and a big part of that is the way that he’s built the experience on board.”
After half a century of making sure the mail gets through to summer residents around Geneva Lake, Frame has made some valuable friendships among his shoreline customers.
Margaret Farwell Goes is a lake resident and the first stop on Captain Frame’s daily route. She has used the mailboat delivery service for 31 years, and she looks forward to beginning her day with a visit from Frame.
“He always has a cheery smile and a few words for you,” Goes said. “He’s a wonderful gentleman.”
Frame has been working on or around boats since he was 10 years old.
Originally from Woodstock, Ill., he moved to Cedar Lake, Ind., when he was 9. In 1950 his father and uncle purchased a boat business in Cedar Lake.
Growing up on the water and working at his family’s business is where Frame found his passion for the industry that would stick with him for life.
“That’s where I learned to love boats,” he said.
Frame’s family sold the business to retire in 1959, and his parents moved to Lake Geneva. Although he remained in northern Indiana, Frame drove up to visit his parents on the weekends, and he could not help but be drawn to where some of the most prominent boats on the lake were featured.
He hung around Lake Geneva Cruise Line enough that he eventually was offered a job.
A plum assignment
Frame began his career with the cruise line in 1963, starting out giving speed boat rides. By that time, he had relocated to Milwaukee and was commuting to Lake Geneva on the weekends for work on the water. After a few years of driving speed boats, he was taught how to operate some of the excursion vessels.
This included, among others, the U.S. Mailboat.
By 1973, Frame moved to Lake Geneva and began working for Gage Marine year-round. In addition to driving boats, he helped perform maintenance work on Gage’s fleet of boats in Williams Bay.
During one off-season, Harold Friestad, who was the cruise line general manager at the time, gave Frame a new assignment.
With several captains piloting the mailboat at different times, some had difficulty remembering where to avoid obstructions. As a result, the boat was getting banged up, and needed frequent repairs. Friestad asked Frame to take over the mailboat route full-time to provide some consistency.
Ever since, Frame has been the captain at the controls of the mailboat, delivering daily to lakeshore residents while providing a guided, informational tour for passengers who want to watch the mailboat in action.
With help from the mailboat “jumpers” — young mail carriers who leap on and off the moving boat at each delivery stop — Frame has created a lake excursion experience unlike any other on Geneva Lake.
Lothian credits Frame with helping to develop guidelines for the jumpers and turning the mail delivery service into a tourist attraction all its own.
“You get a great experience every time,” Lothian said, “because of his consistency throughout the years.”
Mailboat jumper Molly McEneany, a recent graduate from Big Foot High School, worked her third summer with Frame this season before heading off to college in the fall.
McEneany said she has grown close to the captain over the years.
“He’s definitely a stickler for rules, but he’s a sweetheart, for sure,” she said. “He came to my graduation party, so he’s like a grandpa to me.”
Frame lives in Lake Geneva with his wife, Pam, who is a retired Lake Geneva school teacher.
Over the past five decades, Frame has witnessed some significant changes on Geneva Lake, including more boat congestion on the water.
At times, he said, heavy boat traffic on the lake can become dangerous. Even though the 75-foot-long mailboat weighs 80 tons and is much less maneuverable than other crafts, Frame says he is always prepared to take evasive action. A boat pulling a water skier once drove close enough to spray water into the windows of the mailboat. The skier dropped the rope and fell into the water right in front of the mailboat, causing Frame to quickly throw his vessel into reverse to avoid a serious accident.
“It’s amateur time out there, especially on the weekends,” he said. “So I’m always ready.”
Mail delivery itself has changed, too.
More customers nowadays are going paperless, so there is less need for mail delivery.
Still, Frame keeps up the route six days a week during the delivery season, which runs from June 15 to Sept. 15. He credits his longevity on the job to the connections he has made over the years and to his passion for local history.
“It’s a challenge, and it’s fun,” he said. “I’ve met thousands of really nice customers and passengers. I love the history of the area — and enjoy relating the story and sharing it.”
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