Local Legends: Jan & Joe Desherlia
Fifty years ago Grafton city officials dreamed of developing a riverfront marina knowing it would be the key to creating a vacation destination.
It took years of planning and the unsuccessful attempts of a series of developers before Joe and Jan DeSherlia took the lead on the project and made it a reality.
It Started with a Vision
“Way back in the 1960’s when my grandfather was Grafton mayor, they wanted a marina. My father was a city alderman and he wanted a marina. They knew it would be beneficial to the region,” Joe DeSherlia said. In early 2000, then Grafton Mayor Richard Mosby tapped the DeSherlia’s on the shoulder and asked if they were interested in trying to develop a marina. At the time Joe DeSherlia was working as an engineer for Boeing and also developing property in Jersey County.
The couple passionately believed that if they were able to create the marina, it would infuse Grafton and the Meeting of the Great Rivers region with new life. With the support of the city, they applied for grants and permits.
“We knew Grafton Harbor could help tie the region together,” Joe DeSherlia said.
Five years after that initial conversation, the DeSherlia’s broke ground on what is now Grafton Harbor and built what they call the “Key West of the Midwest”.
“The harbor really became a bigger project than we originally planned,” Joe DeSherlia noted. “It started out as just a day harbor. But then we did some research and realized the economic impact a full-fledged marina would have on the region. We knew it would spur growth.”
Floating on the waters at the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, Grafton Harbor opened for business in March 2006. While the harbor was dredged and built on the Illinois side of the river, the marina was constructed on the Missouri side of the river and floated into place. The first slipholders rode the final floating dock to the new harbor. The opening of the marina was followed closely by a convenience store and then a restaurant. The convenience store evolved into a general store selling gifts and apparel. The DeSherlia’s expanded the gift shop to a mini wine bar in 2009 which features their own wine label for sale.
Almost immediately after the opening of Grafton Harbor, the DeSherlia’s noted an uptick in development in the riverfront community of Grafton.
“Grafton is a tourist destination,” Jan DeSherlia pointed out. “When we opened the marina, there weren’t condos in the city and there were a lot of buildings for sale or in foreclosure along the riverfront.
The Evolution of Grafton Harbor
Since 2006, the face of Grafton has evolved and now has a long list of guest houses, pubs and restaurants available for visitors.
“A lot of overnight stays popped up once the marina opened,” Joe DeSherlia said. And, they noted a spike in transient boat traffic on the two rivers when the marina opened as well as an increase in the number of “Loopers” who travel the inland and coastal waterways of the United States.
“A lot of times, boaters coming down the Illinois River were nearly out of gas by the time they reached Grafton. Having the Grafton Harbor here enabled them to refuel and continue their journey. Our presence here made “Looping” a reality for many boaters,” Joe said.
The marina became a labor of love for the couple who have spent most of their lives living and playing on the Illinois and Mississippi rivers.
“I grew up on the river,” Joe DeSherlia said. “My father was a game warden so my brothers and I were always playing in the little harbors at Pere Marquette State Park from an early age. We were on the river all the time.”
The creation of the Grafton Harbor has also opened up the way people view boating on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, the couple pointed out.
“The rivers are great for local pleasure craft,” Jan said. “They can have the nice calm waters of the Illinois River and the sandy beaches of the Mississippi River. A lot of people had no idea you could boat like this on the river.”
In 2013 they added the 49-passenger excursion boat, the Hakuna Matata to their harbor experience as well as pontoon boat rentals.
“That was a great experience for us,” Jan DeSherlia said. “The boat has drawn people to Grafton and 95 percent of our cruises are 100 percent booked.” The Hakuna Matata offers a series of themed cruises as well as weekend cruises
Since Grafton Harbor has opened, it has achieved the coveted “5 Anchor Marina” rating from Quimby’s Cruising Guide, a staple navigation and rating guide for all boaters.
The DeSherlia’s are involved in the day-to-day operations of the harbor. Jan can be found working in the marina’s store or serving as first mate on the Hakuna Matata. Joe received his captain certification in 2012 and pilots the excursion boat most weekends. Both are readily available to slip holders and visitors.
“We never dreamed we would own a 5 Anchor Marina,” Jan DeSherlia said. “We just enjoy what we are doing here so much. There’s the excitement of the river-- it’s an adventure every day.”
Although Grafton Harbor can house 300 permanent and transient boats, the DeSherlia’s have more plans for the facility. They are looking at a final dock expansion which will open up more slips for boats. They also would like to start a boat brokerage firm which helps sell used boats. They have added jet ski rentals seasonally and just built an outdoor “Arrr Bar” alongside the marina
“The future is bright for Grafton Harbor and the entire region,” according to Joe DeSherlia . “Times have changed and now everyone in the area relies on tourism. Tourism is important to the region as a whole.”