The Goldenrod Showboat was a fixture on the St. Louis riverfront for decades.
But today, all that remains of the largest showboat ever to travel the Mississippi River is jammed into a couple of storage lockers in Jerseyville, Illinois.
And Jake Medford, 27, is the keeper of the collection.
“Telling the story about it makes me light up, it’s Americana, it’s history you can’t replicate anyplace else,” Medford said.
Medford was never on the showboat in its heyday, but much of his youth has been spent getting to know the Goldenrod in her dotage.
“When I got involved and started getting onboard more and more, that is when you really fall in love with the place. It was just amazing,” he said.
By day, Medford runs his family’s gas stations and serves as the minister at the Jerseyville Church of Christ, but much if his free time is spent trying to save the Goldenrod’s soul.
“These showboats were built to last maybe 10 to 15 years but (the Goldenrod) lasted much longer,” Medford said.
She endured crashes, fire and foreclosure and yet the Goldenrod continued cruising through 15 states from 1909 to 1937, when she docked in St. Louis for repairs and stayed for more than 50 years.
Then in 1989, the City of St. Charles bought the Goldenrod and moved the showboat to its riverfront on the Missouri River. But within a few years, the need for expensive repairs brought down the curtain.
But that wasn’t the end of the Goldenrod. In 2008, the showboat was donated to the Historic Riverboat Preservation Association, which moved it to a private mooring in Kampsville, Illinois, hoping to raise enough money to bring the Goldenrod back to life.
And Kampsville is where Medford first discovered the Goldenrod, when he was 19, after he and a fellow amateur photographer decided to climb aboard the boat to take pictures.
“Once we took the photos, we started taking time to look up the history and the more that we did research on it, we were attracted to it more and more,” he said.
Medford got in touch with the riverboat preservation group to see if it might want some of the pictures. But it turned out, what they really needed was someone who lived near the boat to be its caretaker.
Medford got the job.
The idea was to try to keep the boat intact while raising money to restore it. But in 2014, the hull was severely damaged, so the decision was made to remove as many of the decorative and historic items that they could to keep them safe.
Then the plan was to dismantle the rest of the boat until it could be rebuilt on a new hull.
But on October 26, 2017, that plan was dashed when the Goldenrod mysteriously caught fire.
“I was lost, I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. That was just horrible,” Medford said.
A few spent fireworks were found around the boat, but no one has ever really figured out what caused it to burn.
Now, with two large storage lockers filled with things like the showboat’s old light fixtures, tin ceiling, menus, costumes, decorative woodwork, and steering wheel, the hope is to find a museum interested in housing and displaying the items.
“Keeping its story alive is important, or it will be lost forever,” Medford said.