Anglers and tourists looking to rent a houseboat on northern Minnesota’s Ash River Trail were sure to meet Mary Lou Ebel, the family matriarch who helped grow a fledging business into a luxury fleet for 1980s-era vacationers.
As co-founder of Minnesota Voyageur Houseboats, the mild-mannered taskmaster managed the books, helped scrub the vessels by hand and acted as the master chef for a handful of live-in employees, serving up three hot meals a day. (The business name later became Ebel’s Voyageur Houseboats.)
“She had a hand in every part of that business,” said her daughter Lauri Cutinella. “Mom didn’t sit on her bum. She embraced the world.”
Ebel, a quintessential hostess who greeted guests with a warm smile and a hot dish, died June 28 following complications from a stroke. She was 87.
A native of Anoka, Ebel attended Anoka High School, where she met her future husband, Gordy, a talented football player who worked at the local movie theater. After serving as an Army Ranger, Gordy moved his young family near Orr, Minn., to become a game warden (now called a conservation officer). In 1971, following Gordy’s retirement, the couple began a new chapter renting and selling houseboats on the Ash River, next to Voyageurs National Park, about 35 miles southeast of International Falls, Minn.
Ebel would become a sort of den mother to the seasonal workers, many of whom were teenagers away from home for the first time. She led by example, loved ones said, demanding excellence from herself and others. She took pride in seeing the boats shine.
Relatives recall her potluck-style dinners that transformed wild game into delicious meals. She developed tricks to make the meat more palatable for picky eaters, like soaking venison in baking soda. Her signature recipes for spaghetti and meatballs and wild rice casserole were passed down for generations, said daughter-in-law Katy Ebel, who memorized the dishes.
“She taught me everything that I know about running this business,” said Katy Ebel, who bought the popular rental company with her husband, Joe, in 1996. She runs the business with her son, Justin.
What began with just six basic boats without electricity soon grew into a squadron of 19 — many of which now tout amenities such as hot tubs, microwaves, TVs and swim slides. They’re described today as a form of luxury camping — “the next step up from having a tent,” Katy Ebel said.
The family’s cabin in the woods attracted a host of stray animals, which Mary Lou Ebel adopted as her own. Fawns sometimes trotted through the home, and Ebel once hand-raised an orphaned moose calf called Sweetheart until it was donated to the Como Park Zoo.
In her free time, Ebel became an accomplished artist. Her delicate oil paintings of landscapes and flowers were given as treasured gifts. As an amateur historian, she also devoured historical texts and recently finished a 1,000-page biography of England’s Henry VIII.
In retirement, Ebel and her husband bought a winter home in Honduras and traveled around the world.
Her body was donated to science through the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Anatomy Bequest Program.
“Mary Lou hasn’t stopped teaching,” Katy Ebel said. “She’ll be helping many students learn over the next year.”
Ebel is also survived by another daughter, Noreen Luce, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
In keeping with Ebel’s last wishes, there will be no public memorial service.