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Before the Bridges: Down on the farm and racing on the river

•Taken from the March 13 Island Dispatch

Fri, Mar 20th 2015 08:50 pm
Bob and Karen DeGlopper in their Grand Island home. (Photo by Karen Carr Keefe; click for a larger image)
Bob and Karen DeGlopper in their Grand Island home. (Photo by Karen Carr Keefe; click for a larger image)

Commodore Bob DeGlopper steers a steady course

By Karen Carr Keefe

Bob DeGlopper was born in 1936, a year after the first set of Grand Island bridges were built. But his family's roots go way back to the Island's early days. Currently serving as commodore of the Buffalo Launch Club, Bob loves the Niagara River and has pride in his hometown and the role his family has played in its history. His late father, Walter, was a 53-year-member of the Launch Club and served as a director.

Bob is retired now from a career in refrigeration and mechanical engineering that had him building ice rinks and cold storage units all over the country for 43 years. He's also the last living crew member of the famed Wildroot Charlie/Miss Buffalo hydroplane racing boat that thrilled crowds and tore up the Niagara River with breathtaking speed in the 1950s and '60s. The Buffalo Launch Club Regatta hosted the National Sweepstakes and Eastern Division contests during the golden age of hydroplane racing.

Bob chimed in from time to time during the "Before the Bridges" forum hosted last year by the Island Dispatch and he enjoyed the discussion. "There was so much history there. I wish my mother had been there." He said people used to gather around at the Buffalo Launch Club or Lippens Grill on Ferry Road to listen to the stories his mother, Hazel Kaegebein DeGlopper, would tell about the Island as it was when she was growing up on the Kaegebein farm. The homestead was on the site where the maintenance buildings for River Oaks now stand.


A proclamation commemorating the groundbreaking for the South Grand Island Bridge on Oct. 28, 1933, from the collection of lifelong Islander Bob DeGlopper. (Photo courtesy of Bob DeGlopper)

Stories of wild times during Prohibition are just two generations away for Bob DeGlopper. "My grandfather was the first constable on the Island, back in horse-and-buggy days." He would get word "the rumrunners are coming across the river," but by the time he got there, they were gone. Bob said the rumrunners also tried to smuggle their goods on the ferry.

His mother had to walk to school from the farm to the ferry landing near the site of the current Byblos Niagara Resort & Spa. Later, she took the ferry to Kibler High School in Tonawanda.

When Bob was ready for high school, there were bridges, of course - but still no Grand Island High School. He decided on McKinley High in Buffalo, just like his dad and uncle. "You had to get your own transportation there. I had to take the Grand Island Transit bus to Niagara and Amherst Street, then the NFT bus to Elmwood Avenue."

Kaegebein Elementary School was named after Bob DeGlopper's maternal grandfather, William M. Kaegebein, who was on the school board for more than 40 years and was its leader for more than a decade.

William and Dora Kaegebein celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. (Photo courtesy Bob DeGlopper) 

William and Dora Kaegebein celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. (Photo courtesy Bob DeGlopper)

Bob was very close to his grandparents and has some precious, rare artifacts that document milestones in their lives. They include:

•A beautifully inscribed and illustrated marriage certificate for Dora Kraatz and William Kaegebein, written in German and dated Feb. 27, 1907.

•A proclamation of the groundbreaking for the South Grand Island Bridge on Oct. 28, 1933.

Bob spent much of his childhood at the Kaegebein farm, working alongside his grandparents and cousins. At age 10 or 12, he was delivering eggs and chickens on a route that included East Park and Love roads. As a 7-year-old boy, a photograph of Bob graced the pages of Life Magazine in January for a rather unusual accomplishment. He earned a bounty of $2.49 for presenting 83 rat-tails, at 3 cents each, to then-Town Clerk Elsie Stamler as part of a county rat-control project that was underway at the family farm. The caption under a related photo explained that a hollowed sill beam was removed from a barn after rats gnawed into it for a nesting place. "Such damage is responsible for many tumble-down farm buildings," the caption read.

Bob's third cousin was Grand Island's Medal of Honor recipient Charles N. DeGlopper. The Island's Veterans of Foreign Wars Post is named after the Grand Island native whose heroic actions in World War II cost him his life, but saved the lives of his fellow soldiers during the Battle of Normandy. Former Town Clerk Rita DeGlopper is Bob's aunt.

Although much time was spent on the Kaegebein farm, Bob's childhood home was on Ferry Road, three doors from the current Village Inn. The sun porch of his family's house used to be the post office, right next to Tucker's Store. They had moved there from a home at Alt Boulevard and Fix Road.

Bob's family has maintained Whitehaven Cemetery on East River for many years. His grandfather was president of the cemetery, followed by Geraldine Schutt. Then Bob's uncle, Elmer, took over, followed by Bob's father. Now Bob is president of the cemetery. His wife, Karen, a teacher and former owner of Karen's Restaurant in North Buffalo, serves as secretary and treasurer. Bob has three grown sons, Mark, Erik and Dan.

Bob DeGlopper is well versed in Island history, and is helping to guide its future through his contributions to the community.

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