Wanna Buy a Famous Tugboat?

Mark Gubin – you probably know him as the “Welcome to Cleveland” painter – is ready to part ways with his old friend the Solomon Juneau.

Photographs of tug boat The Solomon Juneau, and owner Mark Gubin; Photo by K. Synold

Mark Gubin is one of Milwaukee’s most fascinating eccentrics. He’s an artist, a (now retired) globe-trotting freelance photographer, and a collector of artifacts from throughout history. If you don’t recognize his name, you’re probably familiar with his world-famous joke – the roof of his photography studio and home, a former vaudeville theater, has the words “Welcome to Cleveland” painted across it. Visible on descent to Mitchell International, Gubin says the joke came from a “moment of pure madness” that has given passengers 44 years of laughter, head scratching, and brief moments of panic ever since.

Underneath Gubin’s famous roof is a sprawling collection of items spread out room after room—swords, suits of armor, harpoons, model airplanes and antique pistols, just to name a few items in his living room.

“Every time a relative would die or go off to the old people’s home, they would think ‘Who would care about this stuff and has lots of room?’ My name always came up,” Gubin says, adding that “things attract things.”

These halls of treasure even attracted a visit from “American Pickers,” the quintessential show for those into antique and collectible hunting, back in 2018. The show’s stars were wowed by Gubin’s stash and haggled several items from him. And yes, they got to see his roof, too.


 

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Photographs of tug boat The Solomon Juneau, and owner Mark Gubin; Photo by K. Synold

But Gubin, now 80 years old, has recently began to cull his collection. “Some of it is hard to give up, but you can’t keep everything forever,” Gubin says. “I’m getting old, I’m coming in for my final approach.” With the help of a volunteer assistant, Gubin has been slowly listing items from his stash on eBay.

He’s also looking to get rid of the biggest and most cherished piece of his collection, one that won’t fit in his house. It’s time for him to let it go, but only to the right person.

It’s the Solomon Juneau, a 56-foot-long, 50-ton tugboat that dates, in part at least, back to 1903.

Originally named the Centurion, Gubin’s boat, like its owner, has an interesting history. In 1947 it was rebuilt and renamed the Kevinbren and used as a fishing boat. One winter in the 1950s, the boat went missing, lost on the lake for three days, and it’s sunk at least once. Gubin saved the boat and refurbished it in the early 1980s, painting it a fire engine red and renaming it after one of Milwaukee’s founding fathers.

It’s filled him with great memories, and he’s not the only one. For decades, it was docked in the heart of Downtown, on the Milwaukee River near Wisconsin Avenue. It was a tourist attraction – passersby and famous performers in town at the nearby Riverside Theater (he fondly recalls a visit from some of the Rockettes) would stop to have their picture taken.

In summer, Gubin’s friends would pile onto the boat for a voyage out on Lake Michigan to watch fireworks. He’s traveled up to Door County and to Mackinac Island on it, and friends have been married on the boat’s deck. For several years, Gubin and his friends had a tradition of decorating the Solomon Juneau with wreaths and lights for a Christmastime excursion out on the lake. They’d bundle up in layers of clothes, sip mulled wine heated on the ship’s potbelly stove and dock near Pieces of Eight, the lakefront restaurant that closed in 2008 (now Harbor House).

“I felt like we were a bunch of pirates attacking something, crawling over the seawall and coming inside to get in line for their buffet,” Gubin says.

Some of Gubin’s favorite moments onboard were the peaceful ones. He’d often spend the night on his boat, and he has a fond recollection of lying in his hammock, especially on Sunday mornings, when Downtown was quiet. On days like those, Gubin says he felt like “the whole city was mine.” He’d soak up the sun in good weather and fire up the stove to stay warm and watch the snow fall in winter. It was a perfect floating vacation cabin.

Photo courtesy of Mark Gubin

He wouldn’t always be alone, though. For a few years, he had a special friend – a seagull he named Frank.

“He was almost like a dog,” Gubin says, showing a photo of a typically grouchy looking seagull. “One day I was cooking on the grill on top of the boat and Frank lands on the pilot house roof and I threw him a piece of food.” After that, Frank was around every time Gubin was cooking. He’d sit on top of the boat to keep a watchful eye on Gubin’s parties and would chase away other seagulls and occasionally human visitors.

One day Gubin walked across the bridge for lunch at John Hawks Pub, a former restaurant that had a patio on the RiverWalk. “I was sitting outside, getting a hamburger, when who flies onto the railing next to me, but Frank. I said ‘Frank, you can’t be here!’ Then I looked around and saw all these people watching me talk to a seagull,” Gubin laughs. He decided to get his food to go. Seagulls don’t live forever, though, and one day, Frank was just gone.

Photo courtesy of Mark Gubin

When construction encroached on the Solomon Juneau’s dock Downtown, Gubin moved it to the more isolated Captain Jerry’s Marina, located on an industrial stretch of Water Street in Walker’s Point. Now he’s looking to sell the boat. At his age he has mobility issues, exacerbated by an incident that happened a year or two ago. He was walking Downtown with a bag full of art supplies. When he turned a corner, a skateboarder collided with him, slamming him into a wall. Gubin suffered several broken ribs and other injuries.

As such, it’s been hard for Gubin to give the Solomon Juneau the tender loving care and maintenance it needs, so he wants to pass it onto a new owner. He says it needs to go to someone who is creative and handy. The engine needs to be repaired, and one does not simply walk into a hardware store for new parts. He also hopes that the historic boat will remain a Milwaukee landmark. He wants someone who’ll treat it as the floating cabin like he has and notes could be a unique Airbnb.

“I don’t know what it’s worth; it’s the only one in the world,” Gubin notes. He says he’s willing to negotiate, and finding the right person is more important than the sale price. Anyone interested in buying the Solomon Juneau can mail a letter of interest to: Mark Gubin, 2893 S. Delaware St., Milwaukee, WI 53207.

Note, that mailing address is in Milwaukee. Not Cleveland.


More Photos: 

Photo courtesy of Mark Gubin

 

Photo courtesy of Mark Gubin

 

Photo courtesy of Mark Gubin

 

Photo courtesy of Mark Gubin

 

Photo courtesy of Mark Gubin

 

Photo courtesy of Mark Gubin

 

Photo courtesy of Mark Gubin

 

Photo courtesy of Mark Gubin

 

Photographs of tug boat The Solomon Juneau, and owner Mark Gubin; Photo by K. Synold

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