Rusty Fleming

If I’ve done my math right, and the claims made by the Tulsa Boat, Sport & Travel Show are true, this big mid-winter event got its start in 1956. That makes this year’s show the 56th annual for something concocted by a handful of northeastern Oklahoma boat dealers. The identity and how it all came about have become sketchy over the years, but throughout the month of January we’ll be attempting to exhume some of that history as well as share some personal memories regarding the event.

I had already sent out some inquires to some of the key players and their families, attempting to extract some history surrounding the event, when a friend e-mailed me a posting from regarding Grand Laker Phil Keeter’s retirement as the president of the Marine Retailers Association of America. Keeter has held the position since 1988 when he sold his marine dealership, Roamer Marine, located on east 11th street in Tulsa. The entire announcement is included in this week’s e-edition of Grand Lake News Online.

But in addition to his MRAA duties, Phil has served as the president of the Tulsa, Boat, Sport and Travel Show for well over twenty years and also provided me one of my earliest memories related to the show. It was the early nineties, perhaps 1990, when this new publisher of sorts, wrote an editorial in a small recreational publication criticizing the amount of dollars the show’s ownership spent advertising and promoting the event. Now, I certainly wasn’t oblivious to my surroundings in those days and I was certainly aware that Margaret and Merle Carter lived next door. But I wasn’t aware this Keeter dude was their son-in-law until he knocked on my deck door on a cold January morning on an educational mission by his definition. Mr. Keeter was there to specifically explain some of the interworking of the boat show management team……as in who was in charge of the advertising budget and that it wasn’t me!

I learned a lot that day, including that Phil was rather direct when it came to communication skills and that perhaps we’d be better off pulling on the same rope as opposed to casting stones at an event which means so much to the economy of Grand Lake. That was just tip of the iceberg in the development of an appreciation for the impact show has on all of northeastern Oklahoma.

The dealers involved in the launching of that first show, including Grand Lake’s Carlos Langston, most likely had no earthly idea about the change they were about to introduce on Oklahoma’s premiere lake. I think it’s safe to say the evolution of Grand Lake from a summer get-a-way between Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day and the start of school, to a year-round playground and retirement destination, has the boat show’s finger prints all over it. Maybe not in the beginning, but the show eventually changed the entire economic mentality of the commercial operators calling Grand Lake home.

In the early years, the last one leaving the lake following the Labor Day holiday might as well have turned off the lights. A survival mode kicked in and the days were ticked off the calendar until the sunny days of the following May brought a fresh infusion of customers and cash. But the show introduced a different calendar….days were still ticked off in anticipation of a new infusion of business, but it was the last week of January instead of late May the operators were looking forward to. And the spinoff result changed the entire lake economy.

In recent years, as soon as the dust settled from the last major holiday weekend, and we’ve endured another forty-five days of moaning about the low lake level and how the water fowl take precedence over the human elements, the planning for the boat show is well underway. And it impacts virtually every element of the Grand Lake economy. Whether you haul boats for a living, provide janitorial services, set up and decorate booths or countless other endeavors, winter just isn’t as long as it used to be. Those thousands of people attending the boat show are but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the tentacles of impact welded by the Tulsa Boat Sport & Travel Show.

We’ll try to find more historical background for next week, like how did a shop building on Logan Waite’s property launch an economic changing event in northeastern Oklahoma.

See Ya’ Around

the Pond!!