In the late 1960s, Peter Wiles Sr. was approached with a proposition: to purchase a mail boat and deliver the mail along Skaneateles Lake.
At the time, Capt. Robert Stinson operated the Pat II, a 26-passenger Thousand Islands-style tour boat he used to deliver mail to the cottages around the lake. But Stinson was looking to retire, and he turned to Peter to pick up the task.
The owner of Mid-Lakes Country Club, Peter operated a restaurant and golf course on the east side of the lake in Borodino, and in 1968, he agreed to take on the mail boat contract as well.
Now, 50 years later, Peter's mail boat service still navigates Skaneateles Lake.
In July 1968, Peter purchased the Pat II and founded Mid-Lakes Navigation Co., and he began delivering mail to residents along the lake. Then, a year later, the restaurant owner had an idea: He would start serving meals on the mail boat.
Peter's eldest child, Sarah Wiles, was 14 when her father cooked up the dinner cruise, and she recalled her summers waiting tables with her siblings, Peter Jr., Hattie, Libby and Dan. And by the 1980s, she said, the company had acquired two more tour boats in Skaneateles — the 36-passenger Barbara S. Wiles and the 100-passenger Judge Ben Wiles, named after Peter's parents — and 11 canal boats near Rochester, which could be chartered for several days.
"Over 50 years, you can go pretty far in this business," Sarah said, smiling. "For a number of years, we did two- and three-day cruises all across New York state on a tour boat."
Today, Sarah and her siblings own and operate the company. Her oldest brother, Peter Wiles Jr., is the president and CEO, in charge of everything from finances to diesel repair, while Sarah works as the director of marketing and public relations. Hattie Beck-Andersen is the director of operations and captain for the Skaneateles Lake cruises and Dan Wiles is the project director and captain along the Erie Canal. Their sister, Libby Chetwin, has retired.
For the past 38 years, Hattie said she has captained the Judge and the Barbara, offering sightseeing tours, mail boat tours and lunch and dinner cruises on Skaneateles Lake. Since her start, she said her favorite part has been seeing her crew and passengers grow.
"We've seen two and three generations board these boats," she said. "It's been quite the family tradition for so long."
Sarah said the company has come a long way since its start in the 1960s, carrying roughly 26,000 passengers on Skaneateles Lake last year alone. This year, she said, Mid-Lakes Navigation has seen a 3-percent increase in passengers, and she credits some of that to their special events, as the company has partnered with local businesses to host beer pairings and meditation cruises.
"People are all about experiencing something," she said. "Having an educational experience or an immersive experience is what people are looking for now. ... Something different. They don't just want to sit on a boat and have somebody tell them what rich person lives here or there anymore."
But Sarah also believes some of their success has been due to the destination.
"Part of it is that Skaneateles has become such a destination and there's just so much to do," she said. "Being out on this beautiful lake is a natural thing to want to do, and being around for 50 years, a lot of people know about us and come back every year."