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Obexer's Boat Company

Historic Site or District
This photo of of J.P. Obexer is from the Obexer Family Collection at the Tahoe Maritime Museum in Homewood. – Tahoe Maritime Museum

It was a long and improbable route that led Obexer to the shores of Lake Tahoe. Born May 9, 1886 in the Austrian-Italian border town of Pozen, "Jake" was an ambitious and restless young man who early abandoned his family's baking business for the more lucrative profession of waiter.

By the age of 20, Jake had sewn his culinary apprenticeship by working in the restaurants of the finest hotels of Austria, France and Switzerland. But America was calling and by 1908 he had crossed the pond and landed in Boston where he found work on the staff of the Parker House, a grand establishment of the day. From there, he gravitated to New York where he worked in such distinguished hostelries as the Ritz-Carlton, Waldorf-Astoria and Plaza Hotel. By 1909, he had arrived in San Francisco where he renewed his employ as a waiter and worked in such elegant restaurants as the Palace, the St. Francis and the Fairmont. There the fine cuisine included mountain trout, the primary source of which was a lake called Tahoe located high in the Sierra 250 miles to the east.

Endowed with an adventurous spirit, Obexer took advantage of an opportunity two years later to visit this pictorial paradise and his future was decided. "When I first saw the mountains, the sky and the waters of Tahoe," he recalled in an interview for the Tahoe Tattler in 1935, "I knew I was on my way to anchor here for a lifetime."

Obexer's chief obstacle to permanent relocation was employment, for at that time commercial enterprise at Tahoe was definitely a summer-only proposition. The resourceful newcomer soon found work as a commercial fisherman. However, decades of unregulated angling had seriously depleted the finny tribes, and in 1917 the industry was outlawed altogether.

But Jake was determined to stay, and with the energy and exuberance typical of a true pioneer, he had soon hit upon a means of doing just that. By 1920, a postwar proliferation of privately owned automobiles and boats was creating a booming demand for petroleum products, and several oil companies were eager to establish themselves in the new market. Jake initially allied himself with Union Oil Company, but the partnership proved to be a brief one. The seasonal nature of Tahoe commerce meant that local fuel customers transacted their winter business on an I.O.U. basis, making up their debts with the proceeds of the following summer. This type of credit was a bit too casual for Union Oil, and so the following year found Obexer in a new partnership this time with Standard Oil of California. It was to be a long and fruitful association for both parties.

Though the early 1920s saw more and more autos braving the challenging highways into and around Tahoe, the fastest means of transportation within the basin was still water. Thus Obexer logically chose to deliver his petroleum products by boat. An open launch that he named PICKLE was adequate to care the few barrels necessary to supply his initial sling of customers. But as his clientele increased, the acquisition of a larger boat with an enclosed cabin enabled him to tow a barge loaded with barrels of fuel.

The legendary unpredictability of Tahoe's weather proved nearly disastrous for the doughty Obexer on many occasions, but like the postman of fable, he went his rounds without regard to the elements and soon gained fame as a courageous adventurer in all weather. Eventually, the barrel-laden barge was replaced by a large boating pressurized tank unit, out of which fuel could be pumped at each stop. But even this relatively stable rig could become a dangerous companion in rough seas.

The 1920s brought terrific growth and change to Obexer's personal and business life. Norma Williamson, whose family had been summer residents of Homewood for many years, became his bride, and on June 8, 1921, their son, Herbert, was born.

In his early years of association with Standard Oil, Obexer had leased property at the Lake Outlet in Tahoe City, conveniently down a gentle slope from the Lake Tahoe Railway & Transportation Company spur track that ran across the Tahoe Commons and terminated at the company's maintenance barns on the present site of the Tahoe Marina Mall. Obexer had constructed a wooden ramp from the track to the door of his warehouse at the water's edge and would roll his barrels of product down the hill and load them directly into his waiting boat. From there he would deliver them to his customers around the Lake.

Obexer's Tahoe City rental property included a residence, where Herb recalled the family had lived during the summers of his infancy. However, by the mid 1920s, Obexer had relocated his new family to Homewood, where he had arranged to purchase from the estate of Walter Scott Hobart, Jr. a broad, flat waterfront parcel that held promise as a site for more extensive and independent marine operations.

Jake saw a bright future in the growing pleasure boat industry and had grand plans that would require a safe harbor for boats. During the late 1920s, he had used his persuasive talents to convince Standard Oil of the feasibility of such a venture and enlisted the company as a full partner in the construction of a large crib breakwater and pier, behind which a marina would soon take shape. By 1928, he had become the Tahoe agent for Gar Wood speedboats, and by the mid-30s had convinced nearly two dozen summer residents to become Gar Wood owners.

As the 1930s drew to a close, Jake relied increasingly on the assistance of son Herb, who brought his own special background to the operation. Growing up in Tahoe, Herb's early education was at Tahoe Lake School in Tahoe City. Through his high school years, the boy spent winters with his mother's family in Lincoln, where he graduated from high school. From there, Herb went on to Stanford, where as a member of the University's ski team, he competed in boy downhill and cross-country events.

World War II was looming as Herb graduated from Stanford, and shortly thereafter he joined the Navy and spent several years overseas. It was during this period that young Obexer met his future wife, Edna, who was also serving her country far from home.

Following the war, Herb and his new bride settled in Homewood, where Edna soon received an appointment as Postmaster. Herb's involvement with the family marine operation continued to grow, as did the company.

In September of 1948, Herb and Edna's son, Jacob P. Obexer II, was born. "Jakey," as he was known, eagerly involved himself in the activities of the waterfront, becoming accomplished at water skiing and other aquatic pursuits at an early age, and taking an enthusiastic part in the family business. But fate struck a cruel blow when a tragic boatyard accident took the young man's life in June of 1975, leaving the family and community stunned. The 26-year-old with so much to live for was survived by both parents and grandparents, his young wife, Penne, and the couple's infant daughter, Sarah.

This devastating event might have spelled the end of many businesses, but the unquenchable spirit of the family prevailed. After college, Sarah Obexer returned to Lake Tahoe and began aiding Edna in the day-to-day operation of the marina. In June 2004 she and her husband, Keith, happily welcomed Jacob Arthur Fields, followed his brother Kaleb Ashton four years later.

Amidst the expansion of the family, the Obexer-Fields family suffered a painful loss when Edna Obexer passed away peacefully in her home. The family and entire West Shore will remember March 2007 as the month that marked the departure of a true community matriarch with the unforgettable fiery spirit.

Nearly a century later, the Obexer legacy continues into its fifth generation with Sarah at the helm of the enterprise backed by a wonderful team of experienced, hard-working employees who aid her in the daily operation of the marina. Obexer's Boat Company endures into the 21st Century as one of the oldest continuously operated family businesses anywhere on Lake Tahoe, celebrating the indomitable vision and tendril of its forbearers.

Obexer's Boat Company has been a fixture of the Homewood landscape, tracing its beginnings to 1911 when its progenitor, Jacob P. Obexer, first laid his eyes on Lake Tahoe. Since then, Obexer's has been a family-owned and operated full service marina and general store located across from the Tahoe Maritime Museum. Together, the Museum and Obexer's embody Lake Tahoe's love affair with the past and present nautical culture, and how it has shaped our lives to this day.

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