A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: Robert and Rollie Mae Lollar, a Steamboat family love story; remembering a special friendship

The riverboat captain is a storyteller, and Captain Don Sanders will be sharing the stories of his long association with the river — from discovery to a way of love and life. The is the 15th of a long and continuing story.

By Captain Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

The Mississippi River has brought a host of visitors to the front door of the City of Natchez, Mississippi. Great men and women with names like John Jay Audubon, Jenny Lynn, and Mark Twain have climbed the steep incline to the top of the bluff as have hordes of the humble. But none of the countless wanderers washed ashore have been more unusual than the steamboat load of 485 Girl Scouts who landed there on the excursion steamer AVALON on a sultry summer day in 1961.

The story behind the landing was recounted in a first-hand account written by Jim Swartzwelder of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and printed in the June 1990 edition of the S&D REFLECTOR, a quarterly selection of river recollections edited by Captain Frederick Way, Jr., who, years ago, bought the steamboat BETSY ANN, then owned by the Rufus Learned family of Natchez.

Natchez, 1850’s –  The Mississippi River has brought a host of visitors to the front door of the City of Natchez, Mississippi. (Photo provided)

The young ladies in green had boarded the AVALON in Memphis for the beginning of a dream steamboat adventure to the Crescent City of New Orleans. After stops in Greenville and Vicksburg, the paddlewheel boat rounded-to above the Natchez Highway Bridge and shoved her nose into the sand at the foot of Silver Street. The girls, accompanied by 15 adult staff and two registered nurses, paraded up the hill to begin the day that included a luncheon at the City Auditorium and tours of Stanton Hall, Rosalie, and Bontura historic houses. An evening meal at Tops Grill and prearranged church services completed a day they would never forget.

The AVALON, which still operates today, 57 years later on the Ohio River and in its one-hundred fourth year, but renamed the BELLE of LOUISVILLE, laid dozing below the towering loess bluffs. The last of the authentic Mississippi River steamboats must have looked like a floating wedding cake. Mister Swartzwelder recalls this moment: “During this respite, a number of local negro youngsters, attracted by the novelty of a steamboat, got the attention of the boat’s amiable black cook, Mrs. Rollie Lollar, who loaded up a tray of sandwiches and sweets, and toted the banquet ashore to the willing guests. Doubtlessly, today, there are African American ladies and gentlemen residing in Natchez who recall this delightful party of steamboat food served by an authentic steamboat cook by the riverside.”

At that moment, I was 800 miles away, miserable, and languishing at a summer job I had taken and regretted. During the two previous summers, I was “decking” on the AVALON, but that summer, the last year the AVALON ran as a tramp excursion boat, I caved in to parental pressure and found a “respectable” job, ashore, making more money riding herd on a lawless pack of eight-year-olds on the city-run playground.

Mrs. Lollar’s husband, Robert, was my friend and shipmate. We worked together during the summer of 1959 and the last half of 1960 when I stayed on the boat instead of returning to college at the end of the summer. We finish the excursion boat season, together, on the upper Ohio River, as already, word was going ‘round the fo’c’sle that the AVALON was chartered to a thousand Senior Girl Scouts, next season.

AVALON 1949 – The AVALON, which still operates today, 57 years later on the Ohio River and in its one-hundred fourth year, but renamed the BELLE of LOUISVILLE, laid dozing below the towering loess bluffs. The last of the authentic Mississippi River steamboats must have looked like a floating wedding cake.

Robert Lollar was better known on the river as “Preacher.” When I met him that first year, I was 17, and he was 82, perhaps more, though probably not less. He was short but hard-muscled from a lifetime of steamboat chores. His skin, like dark Spanish leather, complimented a pair of bright shining eyes, and his hair was tight, tiny ringlets of cotton. His thick, white mustache sparkled with an amber jewel, or two, from the generous quid of Kentucky Plug chewing tobacco always present within his jaw.

Preacher never learned to read or write, yet he would sign his name “Robert Lollar” with a bold flourish. He memorized a litany of Bible verses taught to him by Captain Thomas G. Ryman, the celebrated Nashville steamboat tycoon noted for his evangelistic zeal and as the builder of the Union Gospel Tabernacle, later renamed the Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the country music variety show, “The Grand Ole Opry.” Captain Ryman recognized the worth in a young Robert Lollar and elevated him to positions of trust and responsibility on his steamboats which always tied to shore, nearest the closest church, on Sundays. If a boat found itself “out in the bushes” come a Sunday, then the services were held on the boat. Robert, with his Bible-quoting talents, soon found himself conducting services on the bow for the black members of the crew, and he became their “preacher.” The name stuck and followed him to the end of his
long days.

Preacher was the Striker, or Oiler, in the engine room on the AVALON, a position usually reserved for a younger man apprenticed to become a licensed engineer. In his younger days, he tended the fires under boilers making steam for the boats that roared like dragons on the water. In days long ago, when steamboat fires were fueled by coal, Preacher was a coal fireman of renown. Firing a steamboat with coal was an art that few could master, and a good coal fireman was as valuable to the riverboat as was the engineer, or even the pilot. Years after the last of the coal-fired boats converted to oil, Robert Lollar was still respected as a fireman who had excelled at the art of laying a hotbed of embers that kept the steam lines humming and the safety valve dancing.

Miss Sofronia – A number of local negro youngsters, attracted by the novelty of a steamboat, got the attention of the boat’s amiable black cook, Mrs. Rollie Lollar, who loaded up a tray of sandwiches and sweets and toted the banquet ashore to the willing guests.

In his last years, when Preacher was still working on a steamboat at more than 90 years of age polishing brass on the DELTA QUEEN, he was featured in a story in a Cincinnati newspaper. It was a complimentary story complete with a couple of photographs. The article portrayed Robert Lollar as he was then, a ninety-year-old man keeping the DELTA QUEEN’s bright-work looking better than it had ever looked before, or since. Those of us who personally knew the elder steamboatman were proud of his newspaper publicity, but also we knew that shining brass was his retirement job and a way he could keep himself on the river aboard a steamboat where he belonged. We saw Robert Lollar as the best coal fireman still alive on the river. He knew we understood, and he wore that understanding with great satisfaction.

Now and then, a younger member of the AVALON’s crew subjected Preacher to some light teasing and horseplay. Typically, they were newcomers who felt a need to attract attention to themselves by harassing an old man, but Preacher always got the upper hand and the teasers became the butt of the rest of the crew’s jokes for being so foolish. good steamboat crew is
like a family, often better. When a new prospect does not fit in, the veterans make life so miserable that the greenhorn is usually seen “going up the hill” with his suitcase in hand at the next landing. A replacement soon comes aboard to face his own rite of passage.

One example of steamboat flesh who was especially disliked, resisted all persuasion to quit, and actually seemed to delight in the notoriety that he had acquired. Most of the crew that summer were regulars who had already secured their niche in the steamboat pecking order, and so it was good to have someone around to take the brunt of the jokes and teasing that is always a part of crew life on any vessel. With so many people living so closely together, combined with the stress of working seven days a week with no time off, teasing and practical jokes became a safety valve for the emotional steam generated by the human fires on board.

This fellow constantly carried a fancy harmonica he was attempting to learn to play, but he had yet to exercise the gremlins that resided deep within the instrument. He soon discovered that he could return, in spades, the harassment his shipmates directed his way by blowing on his devilish device within earshot of his crewmates he targeted for revenge.

Once, he actually careened far out a window behind the hot dog stand, his duty station on the boiler deck, and began blowing notes nearly as loud and shrill as those emanating from the steam calliope on the roof. Directly below, on the bow, in the path of the auditory assault, a knot of deckhands clustered about the capstan discussing the critical subject that young deckhands always talk about when they are on the river: girls – girls that they have met and girls they are yet to meet. This intrusion upon such a meaningful discussion was encountered with rage, but the victims could not wage a frontal assault upon the offender who was safely at his place of business behind the snack bar on the deck above. Besides, the excursion boat was underway filled with a load of paying passengers, so a disturbance among crew members was unlikely.

Rollie and Robert Lollar were apparently in love with one another, and as the photograph I took of them together on the bow of the DELTA QUEEN, sometime around 1967 shows, they had a great deal of affection toward each other that they were not afraid to display in public.

A few loose items, however, were found lying about that were thrown with such a vengeance they caused the “harmonica man” to duck back inside the protective wall of the AVALON’s forward bulkhead. As a final gesture of defiance, the plutonian musician thrust his arm back out the opening and held up his offensive instrument in a victorious salute. That “harmonica from hell” became an implement slated for destruction, but the demise of the hated appliance came by chance from an unexpected source.

The open deck space forward the engine room was known as the Deck Room. In this expanse were five wooden picnic tables around which were seated members of the crew eating lunch. I had just stepped out the door of my tiny room, the last one aft on the larboard side, and there Preacher and I met. He stopped a moment to talk but seemed somewhat hard to understand, and I saw that his mouth was stuffed with an extra-generous, juicy wad of his beloved Kentucky Plug chewing tobacco.

Preacher was padding along the main deck in his “little old man shuffle,” early one afternoon, headed to the firebox located forward towards the bow. He had just come on watch at noon, only a few minutes before, and his first assignment was to obtain samples of a boiler feed-water for the Chief Engineer who analyzed the specimens at his cubby-hole laboratory alongside the high-pressure steam engine on the port side.

As we engaged in a mutual conversation, Harmonica Man strode up and joined our circle. He tried a note, or two, on his infamous musical device and failed, but then proceeded to begin beating the thing wildly against the palm of his open hand as though the blows would somehow rearrange the euphonious generating capacity of the maddening mouth organ. Both Preacher and I were intently watching this display, and the sound of the harmonica beating against the fellow’s hand created a flesh-against-wood-and-metal sound that caused most of our boatmates to look up from their plates, and they, too, stared at the least-liked crew member on board. None of us, especially Harmonica Man, himself, could have imagined in the wildest, most far-fetching realms of our imagination, the spectacle about to explode before us within the next instant.

Hohner -1896 marine band harmonica – This fellow constantly carried a fancy harmonica he was attempting to learn to play, but he had yet to exercise the gremlins that resided deep within the instrument.

“Here, gimme dat harp!” a deep basso voice demanded. A dark, calloused hand shot out and snatched the musical instrument from the startled youth. The lightning speed of the abduction left the boy dazed and confused as he stood there watching in amazement as his beloved Marine Band harmonica departed from his possession for the first time since he was on the boat. Now it was in the powerful hands of the old man whose yellowed fingernails looked like ancient, mellowed ivory piano keys.

Everyone in the deck room watched transfixed as Preacher brought the harp to his lips. They opened, and the harmonica went entirely inside his mouth alongside the tight plug of juicy Kentucky burley. A pause of only a moment passed, but it seemed as though it lasted forever.

During that brief respite, none of us watching knew what he intended to do with the boy’s harmonica. While we waited in stunned silence, the old boatman was positioning the instrument deep within his mouth for the most significant moment of the harp’s existence. Robert’s mouth opened only a slit, just enough for the holes in the contraption to find air. And as the first blast of air passed over the tiny reeds, a sound, the likes of which had never been heard before on that old steamboat, began to fill the deck room with the most incredible music.

An old English piece called “The Fox and Hounds,” a tune familiar long-ago in the hills and mountains, and along the rivers and valleys of this land, came to life again and was played by a musical master none of us knew had possessed such an extraordinary talent. From deep within the old man’s jaws came the cry of the hounds as they chased the sly, red fox from his hiding place in a hole among the stones of an ancient hand-laid wall in a gently rolling Bluegrass meadow. Over the hills and through thickets and briars the crafty fox led the pack. A horn! A hunting horn sounded, as more hunters on horseback join in the melee. Back and forth the fox led the howling and baying hounds. The trumpet sounded louder and louder! The whole affair reached a marvelous crescendo, and then the excitement of the chase slowly faded as the hunting party pursued the wily rascal further and further. Soon the sounds of the pursuit died away and were gone.

Everyone in the deck room stood transfixed. Even the mighty Captain Wagner, the skipper of the AVALON, was at a lost for words. Then, with his thumb and forefinger, Preacher slowly extracted the glowing harp from beneath his amber stained lips. The instrument ran with a golden fluid from the plant that grows among the same rolling hills where the fox and hounds had just led the red-coated riders to the call of the brass hunting horn.

Cincinnati Public Landing – The Cincinnati waterfront still looked much like it did when hundreds of tall-stacked steamboats nosed in and out, loading and unloading passengers and freight.

With a quick flick of his wrist, Preacher slung the worst of the amber off the harp and offered it back to its dumbfounded owner who stood wide-eyed and limp before him. The younger man opened his right hand and held it up to the old man. Without looking, Preacher placed the instrument onto the dazed fellow’s palm no differently than he would have laid it on a table. At that instant, the deckroom erupted into an uproarious approval for the preacher-man’s musical performance, but the old boatman’s only reaction was a slight smile.

Though Preacher was aware that the entire crew in the deckroom had been thoroughly entertained, he had only intended a demonstration for the Harmonica Man, himself, proving to him that his harp was capable of producing musical manifestations in the hands of a talented performer. The main deck was in an uproar, but Preacher merely gave a shrug of his powerful shoulders. He seemed to be unconcerned that pandemonium reigned, and he said quietly to me, “Gotta get ma water samples… Will ’ya write a letter to Rollie Mae fo’ me, later?” Then Robert Lollar turned and resumed his journey down the guard toward the Boiler Room as though he had never stopped.

Lost in a stupor, Harmonica Man began a slow trek across the deckroom toward his own room on the starboard side. The harmonica still rested on his upturned palm where Preacher had placed it. As he trudged past the crew with his shoulders slumped, he was oblivious to the taunts and laughter hurled his way. The harmonica was never seen again and the poor fellow remained silent and in a mild state of shock for the next few days he was on the boat. The former harmonica owner left the AVALON so quietly that no one knew he was gone until Jackie-the-deckhand looked up and saw the forlorn fellow as he crested the top of the hill with his suitcase in tow.

Rollie Mae Lollar did not cook on the AVALON the two seasons that I was a crewmate with her husband. She was at home in Cincinnati as the matriarch of a large family. One day, a month or so after Preacher and I first met, he asked me if I would write a letter to his wife for him. The past month had, apparently, given him sufficient time to decide whether I was trustworthy enough to shoulder the responsibility of such an intrusion into the personal lives of the Lollar family. Apparently, I had passed whatever test the old gentleman had given me, and I understood that by becoming his scribe, I was accorded an honor few were given.

His words to his wife were simple and straightforward. He always began by asking, “How are the kids?” I imagined that their children must be grown, or perhaps Preacher was referring to his grandchildren or great-grandchildren. I never found out. They were simply “the kids” in each letter which read about the same as every other letter. In my immature 17-year-old mind, I felt his letters needed spicing up a bit, so I threw in a few “I love you’s,” or a “my heart yearns for you,” now and then. But after several letters with too many syrupy embellishments, I became fearful that Mrs. Lollar would realize someone was tampering with her husband’s transcriptions. So I returned to writing his letters as he dictated; especially in the light of the fact that we were heading toward our home port, Cincinnati, where I faced the reality of meeting Mrs. Lollar in the flesh.

Preacher on Deck – In his last years, when Preacher was still working on a steamboat at more than 90 years of age polishing brass on the DELTA QUEEN.

The AVALON tied up at her usual place below the Greene Line Steamers wharfboat on the ancient cobblestone levee after we landed one crisp autumn day near the end of the season. The Cincinnati waterfront still looked much like it did when hundreds of tall-stacked steamboats nosed in and out, loading and unloading passengers and freight. The levee was once the core of life in the Queen City, but now the cobblestone grade was a silent parking lot for the thousands of automobiles belonging to office workers in tall buildings uptown. Where once the grand steam palaces lay shoulder-to-shoulder for a mile or more along the Ohio River shore, our shabby, doddering excursion boat was the only steamboat there.

Two ancient wharfboats, relics of bygone times, remained as skeletal reminders of days filled with the blasts of hundreds of boat whistles, the shouts of sweating roustabouts, and the sizzle of live steam coursing through open cylinder cocks. Where on the cobblestone levee, the phantom crack of the drayman’s whips resounded as they cursed their straining teams to haul overloaded wagons up to the top of the steep incline. The ghostly reverberations of those resonations hung like whispers where the AVALON lay tied to the massive, iron mooring rings fastened into the granite-paved levee. At times those whispers could still be heard when a warm zephyr played through the willow branches that grew at the end of the sleeping landing.

Family members of the crew were waiting on the riverbank when we arrived. Mine had come aboard the day before at Madison, Indiana and spent the day with me, so I did not expect them here until later, but I knew that Rollie Mae and “the kids” would be waiting to see the old man. A deep pang of guilt overcame me for embellishing Preacher’s letters, and I prayed that somehow I could avoid meeting Mrs. Lollar for fear of the resentment that I imagined she harbored for me.

Captain Wagner had sent me on an errand to the boiler room, and as I stepped out of the fire box, I was looking down at the brightly-painted deck when a powerful hand grabbed my shoulder and spun me around. I stood face-to-face with Robert Lollar. His deep voice broadcast my worst fears. “Here,” he said, “ I want you to meet my wife, Rollie.” He spoke with his mouth half-full of fresh chew and told his wife that I was the one who had written his letters for him.

Rollie Mae Lollar was apparently much younger than her husband, but still, she must have been at least 60 years of age. Her eyes were bright, warm, and friendly. She was, as my grandmother would have said, “fleshy,” or a bit “stout.” Mrs. Lollar was a steamboat cook of preeminence who obviously enjoyed sampling the fruits of her labor. She held out her hand to me, and I took it. Her handshake was firm and sincere, and as she pumped my arm up and down, I looked deep into her brown eyes, and I felt right about what I saw. We became friends, then and there, and she never made any comment about the way I had transcribed her husband’s letters.

Rollie and Robert were apparently in love with one another, and as the photograph I took of them together on the bow of the DELTA QUEEN, sometime around 1967 shows, they had a great deal of affection toward each other that they were not afraid to display in public. Thinking back over those many years, now, perhaps I just may have thrown a little bit of pepper into their love life…. but no, the fire was there all along, and it needed no help from a boy like me.

Time has an abysmal condition of becoming slippery like cylinder oil. The interval between the day I first met Rollie Mae Lollar on the deck of the AVALON, and now, has grown to almost 60 years. The Lollars have since departed this life decades ago.

Writing in the S&D REFLECTOR, Jim Swartzwelder believed there were “gentry and ladies residing in Natchez… who recall this delightful party.” Who, now, among the elder citizens of Old Natchez, 28 years after Jim’s story was published, remembers that day in 1961 when the AVALON discharged almost 500 Girl Scouts at their city’s front door? Does anyone still recall when Mrs. Rollie Mae Lollar, according to the Swartzwelder article, “loaded up a tray of sandwiches and sweets” and “toted the banquet ashore” for the children playing on the riverbank? Inevitably, someone must be left who remembers.

Captain Don Sanders is a river man. He has been a riverboat captain with the Delta Queen Steamboat Company and with Rising Star Casino. He learned to fly an airplane before he learned to drive a “machine” and became a captain in the USAF. He is an adventurer, a historian and a storyteller. Now, he is a columnist for the NKyTribune and will share his stories of growing up in Covington and his stories of the river. Hang on for the ride — the river never looked so good.

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One Comment

  1. Alan jordan says:

    Truly liked the story very interesting

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