In the summer of 1937 the Chesaning Chamber of Commerce went into show business. With the nation still gripped in the throes of the Great Depression, organizers of the first Chesaning Showboat were taking a huge gamble. Undaunted, Chamber members forged ahead with plans to debut a vaudeville-style show along the banks of the Shiawassee River in the village park complete with a replica Mississippi riverboat.
The idea originated with Chester M. Howell, owner/publisher of the Chesaning Argus newspaper, who spent several years convincing Chamber members to try what he frequently described as "a summer river spectacular" patterned after the then five-year-old Lowell Showboat.
The plan was for Showboat to attract people from neighboring towns to Chesaning to patronize local stores and buy tickets to the evening show. The town, it was hoped, would benefit from the publicity, the local economy would prosper and profits from the show would be plowed back into the community. In many ways the 1937 Showboat was quite different from today's sleek, 90-foot craft, but every version of the boat has remained a stern-wheeler.
The task of constructing the first Shiawassee River Queen fell to Joe Swartzmiller of Swartzmiller Lumber Company, who had never before built a boat. He would say later that the first thing they did was to measure the river to see how much room there was to turn the boat around. Then they designed the boat to fit the river. Start-up funds for the first Showboat included $100 from the Chamber treasury and a $500 loan from Harley D. Peet, owner of Peet Packing Company. Admission to the first Showboat was 25 cents for adults. An extra 25 cents got you reserved seating.
There were 18 men and 18 women in the first Showboat Chorus, joined by five Endmen and Captain Ollie Richards. Soloists were local residents Gertrude Richards, Helen (Rehmann) Petrulis and Sally Ann Howell.
After dark on Thursday, July 15, 1937, "Here Comes the Showboat" rang out as the spectacular boat made its way down the river for the very first time. Despite the cold, wet weather and a boisterous bullfrog in the weeds near the stage each night, the show was a hit.
That year the profit was a grand total of $87.10. In the six decades since the riverboat spectacle has pumped nearly a million dollars into the community. It has funded park facilities, fire trucks, ambulances, historic preservation and a host of other worthwhile projects.