On a cold, cold day in February 1989 Ben Allen looked out of a window of a dilapidated building on Grafton’s riverfront and saw the future.
“I came to Grafton and visited the old Boatworks building which had been converted to a mechanical shop. It was run down and in disrepair. I looked out one of the windows and saw the bluffs and the river and knew that people had to see that view too,” Allen remembers.
That visit heralded the birth of The Loading Dock, a premier regional restaurant/bar and entertainment center perched on the edge of the Mississippi River in Grafton.
“I wanted to create a place where people could come and see the view,” Allen said. “Everyone thought I was crazy but with the financial help of many old friends we were able to undertake the project.”
It took three years of working with city officials and contractors to rehab the historic site. Ben and his wife Trudi wanted to retain the atmosphere of the historic Boatworks building which had once built ships used in the Viet Nam War. They redecorated the building and created a riverside bar and opened for business in late 1992. In the summer of 1993, the historic flood of the Mississippi River wiped out the fledgling business. It wasn’t all bad news for the Allens, however. Because they owned an adjoining parcel of land which sat higher on the river’s edge, they were able to put FEMA trailers on that site to house flooded residents. The government installed utilities to the site, which made the area ripe for future development.
The Loading Dock was rebuilt after the flood. A fire in 2000 destroyed the building again. And the Allens went back to work re-creating the riverfront dining icon. At the same time, Trudi Allen along with JoAnn Harmon and Sue Weber developed The Riverside Flea Market. That venture helped support The Loading Dock in its early years.
“The idea for the flea market was to bring people up to see the view and sell them a hamburger and beer,” Ben Allen said. “We’ve had the flea market every year since.” The market is held once a month and draws thousands of visitors.
But the Allens didn’t stop there with their efforts to help develop the small, historic river community. They built two phases of condominiums on the property used by FEMA. They also helped the city re-open the Grafton Ferry. In addition, they four different guest houses to their Loading Dock property which became very popular.
“I knew the views would attract people. And people want to go to the water,” Ben said. “Each weekend, 85 percent of our parking lot is filled with out of state visitors.”
The Loading Dock has evolved into an iconic attraction for Grafton and the region. With its round white tables and bright yellow café umbrellas lining the riverfront, it has become the go-to location for anyone who wants to sip a drink and munch on dock salsa while watching the river flow by.
Many events are held in the adjacent Boatworks building -- weddings, swap meets, charitable functions. The building can hold up to 2,000 people. Trudi pointed out the venue is family friendly and has hosted bikes, babies and pets.
"Where else can families to where adults can have a beer while watching their kids play in the play area," she asked.
And the Allens aren’t done yet.
A new generation of family members has moved into management positions. With the help of their son, Peter Allen, and daughter, Betsy Allen, they have added an indoor ice skating rink to the property which is open November through March.
“This has been a fun project from the beginning,” Trudi says. “Our kids, family and friends have all contributed.”
Ben Allen’s newest business venture, undertaken with the help of Peter and Betsy, is the refurbishment of a 100-year-old tavern on Main Street in Grafton which he plans to turn into a cowboy saloon and gaming emporium. Allen plans to highlight the colorful past of Grafton with historic markers outside the tavern. It will be known as The Bloody Bucket, named from a bawdy establishment once located in a Grafton hollow during the Civil War years.
The Allen family also saved 15 Main Street, a 7,000-square-foot building scheduled for demolition, in Grafton's downtown district. The building now houses Knotty by Nature, a popular store featuring exotic woods and furniture.
Both Peter and Betsy are heavily involved in the day-to-day operations of the family business now, Trudi says. Their dream is to develop a boutique hotel on the river next to The Loading Dock. The location has a natural harbor area and sits above the flood plain, making it ideal for the hotel concept.
Developing businesses in the region that are attractive to visitors and, as a result, support the local economies has been a goal over the decades.
“When we started we had five employees. Now we have 106 employees,” Ben notes. “And you must also give credit to others in Grafton who have worked to create places people want to go: the DeSherlia family, the Roths, the Lortons and the Wright family and many others. They all make for a Grafton destination unique to the area.”
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