By RAY BALOGH
One way to preserve half a century of blessed memories is to start a museum — and Harlan Steffen, one of the co-founders of the Lake Wawasee boat-in, is doing just that.
Steffen is commemorating the boat-in’s 50th year by displaying a variety of images and artifacts from its history in his real estate office at 1416 S. Huntington St., Syracuse.
Features will include a framed display of every bulletin from 1981 to 2019, several newspaper articles, hundreds of photos and several letters of appreciation.
Steffen and three other Syracuse pastors, with the help of a college student, began the Sunday morning program in 1969 as a youth ministry on a lakeside coffeehouse patio at Waco Beach.
Upon the suggestion of a nautical passerby, the meetings moved to a pontoon in the water near the pier. The following year, the pontoon and the event relocated to the grounds of the former hotel at Oakwood Park.
Crowds continued to grow. According to a Sept. 13, 2002, article in The Elkhart Truth:
“The main attractions are the natural setting and ‘come as you are’ attitude — worshippers can show up in anything as casual as bathing suits.
“‘You’re out there in God’s creation … It’s very peaceful,’ said Harlan Steffen, pastor of Wawasee Lakeside Chapel and an organizer of the boat-in service since it began. ‘I would get there at 7:30 and there are already people in their folding chairs. They come an hour early and just sit by the lakeside.’”
The boat-in was also feted in a Sunday, Aug. 3, 1997, New York Times front page article titled, “Taking a vacation, but not from worship.” The article stated the boat-in drew visitors from Chicago and Indianapolis and mentioned the weekly offerings were used by the Wawasee-Syracuse Area Ministerial Association for “projects like a children’s Bible school, a food pantry and educational scholarships.”
The article also noted the “casual appearance” of the shoreline attendees, “most in shorts or bathing suits, dangling tanned legs into the lake waters.”
The boat-in captured the attention of the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, which ran a 1982 article describing the earlier days when free coffee was dispensed from Styrofoam containers “distributed from a card table on shore and from a raft on the lake, a precarious situation in choppy water.”
The boat-in has always been a nondenominational event with an extensive outreach. The Journal-Gazette article quoted Steffen as saying, “I would say half or more of our people would not be in any church this Sunday if it weren’t for this.”
The boat-in operated for 12 to 14 weeks from early- to mid-June through Labor Day until 2001, when it started the Sunday before Memorial Day. Seasons now usually go 15 weeks, with an occasional 16th week added as the vagaries of the calendar dictate.
Themed seasons began in 1981 with “Amazing Grace.” Other themes have included “Fishers of Men,” “How Great Thou Art,” “The Earth is the Lord’s,” “Spiritual Health Care,” “Life for a New Century,” “We Can Win the Battle,” “Walking on Water” and “Taste and See That the Lord is Good.”
The museum will be available during the office’s business hours. For the museum’s opening date or for more information, call (574) 457-4446.