The Search for the Kee-O-Mee

The Museum at Central School teams up with divers to preserve a piece of Montana’s maritime history

By Justin Franz

On May 9, 1937, John Sherman was late for Sunday dinner. Sherman’s 11-year-old daughter, Dorothy, said it was rare for anyone to be late for Sunday dinner.

“It wasn’t exactly Downton Abbey, but Sunday dinner was important,” she recalled recently in an interview. “We even dressed up for it.”

As the hours passed, the family grew increasingly worried. Then, three hours later, Sherman stumbled through the front door of the family’s Kalispell home. After nearly 80 years, Dorothy still remembers his face.

“When my dad came home, I didn’t even recognize him because he was covered in soot,” she said. “He told us the boat was gone, and it was like a death in the family. We were all devastated.”

The boat in question was the Kee-O-Mee, a 54-foot-long pleasure boat that from 1928 until its demise in 1937 was one of the most recognizable vessels on Flathead Lake. Now, eight decades after it sank in Somers Bay, pieces of the Kee-O-Mee are being salvaged and will soon be on public display at Kalispell’s Museum at Central School.

“For eight years, this boat was a big deal,” said Museum at Central School Executive Director Gil Jordan. “This boat was a big part of the Flathead Valley’s history.”

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The Kee-O-Mee in Flathead Lake in the late 1920s or early 1930s. Photo courtesy of The Museum at Central School.

Sherman and Bert Saling, co-owners of the Flathead Motor Sales Co., ordered the boat in the late-1920s so they could entertain their families and business associates. Launched in May 1928, the boat was one of the finest on Flathead and featured four staterooms, a kitchen and a bathroom with a porcelain sink and tub. It even had hot and cold running water, quite the luxury in that era. The boat cost $12,000 to build (or about $164,000 in today’s dollars) and was named for the Blackfeet word for “far away.”

The boat was white with forest-green trim, and Dorothy McGlenn, now 90, said people would often run down to the water’s edge when the boat went by.

“Our family would have lavish weekend parties on the boat,” she said. “My father and Bert would invite all of the local bankers, lawyers and of course the Kalispell City Council for a day on the water. Everyone was dressed in their finest with white shirts, ties and hats.”

McGlenn, the youngest of Sherman’s five children, said during parties her job was to sit on top of the pilot house and keep turning the wind-up phonograph so the adults could dance the night away.

Every Fourth of July, the Sherman family would load up the boat with food and drinks and cruise around the Flathead for an extended tour. McGlenn said she can still vividly remember the joy she felt hearing the anchor rattle down the side of the boat because she knew it meant they would be stopping long enough to jump in the water and cool down. Visitors aboard the Kee-O-Mee also loved the boat, as seen in notes left for the Shermans in the guest book.

“Here’s to Shermans and to sailing on the houseboat Kee-O-Mee,” one visitor wrote in 1929. “We’re indebted for a thousand years for the glorious scenery. We’d like to stay a month, through every phase of the moon. But if we stayed ten times as long, we’d still go home too soon.”

Alas, the Kee-O-Mee’s time on Flathead Lake abruptly ended in 1937. That spring, Sherman and Saling decided to upgrade the boat and install more powerful diesel engines. On May 9, 1937, the two men decided to take their souped-up ship for a spin on Somers Bay when disaster struck. Soon after departing Somers, smoke began to waft from the boat’s underbelly. When Sherman opened up the door down to the engine room, he found it engulfed in flames. The two men tried to put the blaze out but soon realized it was a lost cause, so they grabbed the logbook, jumped in a lifeboat and rowed away to safety.

As the boat burned, it slowly drifted back toward Somers, so a nearby tugboat captain lassoed the Kee-O-Mee and dragged it back out to the middle of the lake, preventing a fiery disaster at the docks. The boat burned all the way down to the waterline before sinking an hour after the fire started. That was the last time anyone would see the Kee-O-Mee for 80 years.

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Gil Jordan, executive director of The Museum at Central School, inspects some of the items that have been recovered from the Kee-O-Mee. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon.

As the decades passed, most people forgot about the boat. But Sherman’s youngest daughter always wondered what was left of the vessel sitting at the bottom of Somers Bay. A few years ago, after reading about a group of divers salvaging logs in Flathead Lake, McGlenn realized that someone could help solve the decades-old mystery. McGlenn reached out to Northwest Dive and Recovery Service and told them about the boat wreck. The divers were so interested in the story that they decided to donate their time to looking for the boat when they weren’t trying to bring up logs.

After a few failed attempts, divers Jody Bakker, Jay Barth, James Murphy and Kyren Zimmerman finally found what was left of the Kee-O-Mee. According to Bakker, the hull is upside down on the bottom of the lake, and dozens of artifacts are scattered around the site. Last summer, the divers began to recover various pieces, including a teapot, the flagpole, pieces of porcelain and plates, and even the 225-pound iron anchor.

“What’s left of the ship is very well preserved,” Zimmerman said. “It’s really like stepping back in time down there.”

All of the items recovered have been donated to the Museum at Central School, and Jordan said they would eventually be part of an exhibit on the boat, with the anchor playing a staring role.

McGlenn said she is overjoyed that pieces of the boat will be preserved and displayed at the museum. Her days aboard the Kee-O-Mee are among her happiest.

“This boat isn’t history to me; it’s my life,” she said. “It was such a happy time in my life.”

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