In The Limelight
Kimball & Ozburn Adventure
Janesville’s Own Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn
Story and Interviews by Teresa Nguyen
Todd Kimball and Chris Ozburn on the Bobs & Sons raft
My dad’s example was that if you have a dream, it really can come true. It may take a lot of work, patience and time but, boy, to see that come to fruition is a striking thing to watch! ~ Chris Ozburn
Author’s note: I owe big thanks to Catherine (Ozburn) Barton. She and her husband, Jeff, ignited this quest to share this amazing story, she invited me to view hundreds of organized photos and articles, provided extra details and helped arrange the interviews. It has truly been my honor to research and write this piece for these two families. I hope you enjoy the story as much as I have!
A Unique and Lasting Friendship
The two, old Janesville friends sat side-by-side at a patio table on a warm, autumn day in Wisconsin. As they turned the pages, they smiled and pointed at the photos, sharing memories of an amazing adventure achieved 40 years ago with their sons. It was a daring expedition; unlike anything the average person would have the courage to accomplish. Yet, they did it. And, boy, they did it with style!
This is not only the story of that special journey, but one of a rare and enduring friendship. It is a friendship between families, between two community pillars and their enthusiastic, teenaged sons. It is a story of this special bond spanning nearly six decades, filled with memories to last a lifetime.
These community-minded men, both called Bob, (we will refer to Bob Ozburn as Robert) are now up there in age, a little slower in mobility and in memory. Each has seen and done wonderful things over the years, inspiring many along the way.
Robert Ozburn and Bob Kimball reminisce over photo albums
Photo by Jeff Barton
One can easily tell their hearts are filled with pride for their beautiful families and our community can be filled with gratitude for their wonderful contributions and accomplishments.
President and Founder of Bob Kimball Properties
Former President and Founder of Bob Kimball Incorporated
Former President of Wisconsin Builders Association
Former President of Rock County Historical Society Board of Directors
Former President of Janesville Noon Rotary
Donated Kimball Education Center
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Veteran
In 1958, Bob Kimball Incorporated began with the purchase an old, farm pickup truck for $500, some 2 x 4’s and a few hand tools. Bob hired a couple of guys and went to work. One of the earliest buildings they constructed was an apartment complex, Todd Terrace. Then they built another, Robin Terrace Apartments. Both were named after Bob's children. Bob’s wife, Nancy, took care of the rentals.
The company grew over the years and Bob continued to build some of our great Janesville businesses, such as the buildings of Lab Safety Supply (now Grainger), the Holiday Inn Express, and Robert Ozburn’s place of business at 1309 Plainfield Ave, which is now occupied by SSI.
"Captain" Bob Kimball
Bob also bought and refurbished several well-known downtown buildings.
In one of his many acts of kindness, Bob generously donated a downtown building to the Rock River Charter School. They renamed it the Kimball Education Center. Recognizing the value of education, Bob attends the graduation every year. In that same vein, Bob relocated the Frances Willard Schoolhouse to the Rock County Historical Society campus.
Former President and Founder of Ozburn-Janesville Corporation (which grew into Janesville Group, Ltd.)
Former President of Ignatius Press (San Francisco)
Former member of the Board of Directors of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe (La Crosse)
Former President of St. Mary’s Parish Council, Janesville
Former member of the Serra Club, Janesville
After Robert’s marriage to Barbara, he wanted to settle down with his young family, shifting from traveling in sales with Rayovac, to taking a job in Janesville with Parker Pen. Robert had managed a product line at Parker Pen. Later, he bought that product line from Parker Pen and started his own business, Ozburn-Janesville Corporation, selling promotional products.
"Navigator" Robert Ozburn
Robert grew the company, both organically and via a number of acquisitions, into what became Janesville Group, Ltd., a group of five companies and three subsidiaries, manufacturing and selling a wide range of printed, screened, etched, and engraved promotional products to companies and schools/universities throughout the Americas.
For years, he worked at home in the basement until he joined his office with the manufacturing arm of the companies in a new building on Plainfield. Over the decades, Janesville Group employed hundreds of people in Janesville. Throughout Robert’s working years, he was highly ambitious, a super smart guy and one who truly cared about his community.
Both Bob and Robert and their wives believe in giving back. Over the years, these two men have been beautifully generous in their philanthropy, continuing to make a difference in our Janesville area. The idea that helping others realize their dreams and goals has a positive, ripple effect in our community, is part of the fiber of their character. It is who they are.
A notice Robert put in The Gazette
A Chance Meeting
It was the early 1960’s when Robert started working at Parker Pen in Janesville. He and Barbara were searching for a new place to live and, for two weeks, the young family stayed at the beautiful Monterey Hotel in the Parker Penthouse.
They searched and searched for an apartment. They searched and searched for a house. Robert spent a lot of evenings working at Parker Pen. Finally, they found a place!
Robert put a notice in the ‘want ads’ for an apartment to stay in until they could move into their house.
A 1960s drawing of the Monterey Hotel
That led them to the Robin Terrace Apartments, on Milwaukee Street, near Garfield, which was owned by Bob Kimball. As fate would have it, Robert and Bob struck up an instant and long-lasting friendship.
A Spring Break Raft Trip
We can’t begin the story about their two-family adventure until we go farther back in time, to 1955, when Robert was a senior at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. When most of their friends took a spring break trip to Florida, Robert and three of his college friends took an ambitious trip, spending a weekend floating on a homemade raft down the Mississippi! They began in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, ending in Rock Island, Illinois.
They built their own 10 X 18-foot raft, which cost them about $20 worth of supplies (a decent sum back in 1955). They took with them some canned goods and basic foods, took turns watching for barges and snags and were kindly given gifts of food along the way.
When they finally reached their Illinois destination, the four boys were wined and dined at the Rock Island Boat Club! What an exciting trip for these young college students, who experienced extreme kindness along the route. The excursion gave them memories to last for years to come.
Those same great memories came up in conversations between Robert and Bob Kimball. Over time, the two Bobs discussed it often, “What if we did this again…just us and the boys?”
2020 marks the 40th anniversary of an incredible, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn-like rafting adventure. Bob and Robert took their two sons, Todd Kimball and Christopher Ozburn, on a journey nearly the entire length of the Mississippi.
Robert (3rd from left) and his classmates on his first raft trip in 1955
The north to south, cross-country, 1,500 mile trip started in 1980 at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin and ended in 1985 in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana.
The Bobs and sons, sometimes with other friends, took a couple of trips every year. Each trip lasted about a week long. Sometimes the boys couldn’t go due to work or college, but they were on the raft at least once a year. The foursome traveled a total of eight trips in five years down the Mississippi.
The get-away was a fun chance for two, busy businessmen to truly disconnect and relax. Neither of them ever called the office to check in, nor did they check in with their wives, Nancy and Barbara. There were no cell phones then…just the guys under the blue sky, the breeze and a strong, steady current. There’s something therapeutic about an old fashioned, back-to-basics experience. It was a time of bonding between father and son for both Bobs, an opportunity for all to simply have fun together.
With every trip, the wives would see them off. Mrs. Ozburn would send fresh flowers, which would often last several days in a vase on the raft. The other children would draw cute pictures or make special cards for the guys. The wives would sometimes travel to meet the crew for Bob’s birthday celebration, during their autumn trips. The thoughtful, patient support of Barbara, Nancy and the children is also a beautiful piece of this friendship.
Though both Bobs pretty much guided the raft as co-captains, and considered each other as such, Robert always called Bob Kimball, “Captain”.
l-R: Chris and Robert Ozburn, Bob and Todd Kimball
Robert always wore his pith helmet and the yellow corduroys that Bob hated. And Bob always wore his cowboy boots that Robert hated. The teasing was as much a natural part of their friendship as anything.
In September of 1980, with the Mississippi navigation maps in Robert’s hands, Bob at the helm and the teenaged boys ready with paddles, the four brave souls took off on the first leg of their exciting adventure!
The following interviews with Todd Kimball and Chris Ozburn tell the story of this amazing voyage, spanning five years and eight trips down the Mississippi River. They share the tales of diverse river scenery, interesting people and fascinating sites along the way.
The crew also endured some crazy challenges and a few scary episodes!
A birthday celebration with the wives for Bob on the raft at Dubuque
Nancy Kimball (standing) and Barbara Ozburn seated (right) on the bench
But the entire experience positively changed the travelers’ outlook and renewed their appreciation for the daily comforts we take for granted. For the teens, it matured them in a unique way, giving them a totally fresh perspective on life.
Manager of Bob Kimball Properties, Inc.
Decorating Committee/Volunteer for Downtown Janesville, Inc.
Former member of the Board of Directors of the Rock County Historical Society
Former member of the Janesville Alcohol Licensing Advisory Committee
The Idea of Another Trip
Todd: We started talking about it probably 10 years before we actually did it! Robert wanted to recreate the trip he had done, except to go all the way to New Orleans. I thought it sounded like a great idea.
I was just 15 and Chris was 16 at the time.
Chris: I grew up knowing about my dad’s first trip. There’s a photo of him from the paper back in the 50’s, when he did that trip with his college buddies. Ever since I was a kid, it had been hanging in the hallway. It was interesting and all but then, one day, I stopped to read it thinking, “Hmm…this is cool.”
For years there was banter back and forth between the Bobs about doing a raft trip again. I’m not sure what the tipping point was to make it a reality. But, when it was actually proposed, it was pretty exciting. How could we NOT want to do this?
Partner at Streusand, Landon, Ozburn & Lemmon, LLP - Austin, TX
My parents worked a lot and they weren’t super ‘outdoors people’, so it was really thrilling for me. I was always intrigued by the natural world, but had mostly read about outdoor adventures, prior to this trip.
Todd: My sister, Robin, had always wanted to go on the trip, but it was never brought up. She had done a lot of camping, had been a camp leader up at Camp Manito-Wish and loved it. Chris had his own sisters, too, but it just wasn’t a consideration then.
Chris: Catherine says she would have loved to have gone on a trip if we could have pulled a second raft with a portable bathroom on it!
My kids and I have talked about doing this from time to time, and it never even came up that girls wouldn’t be included. I have one daughter and two sons. When we discussed it, it was assumed that, of course, it would be everyone! It’s a different era now, though, than it was back then.
Todd: The two families had been friends for quite a long time. Since Chris was a year older, I knew him at high school, but we only hung out here and there before this raft trip.
Chris: My parents knew Bob and Nancy for ages and we grew up knowing the kids. The Kimballs had a pool and, occasionally, we were invited over to swim in their pool. So, of course, they were the coolest kids we knew!
Preparing the Raft
Todd: We all started building the raft, which was a really a big undertaking! My dad got everything ready to go. We had a list of the needs and who would bring what. Robert brought all the etched “Bobs and Sons” logo glassware for us to use.
Chris: The plates on the Bobs and Sons raft may have been plastic, but you can bet the glassware was etched crystal! My dad owned his glass etching company at the time.
We built the raft in Ken Bienash’s back yard over in Prairie du Chien, right there on the riverbank. It was constructed of steel barrels, telephone poles, 4x4s and plywood.
Todd: My dad’s in construction, so this raft was good and heavy compared to what the college kids had on Robert’s first adventure.
l-R: Chris, Bob and Todd working on building the raft
This one had 8 oil barrels underneath. There were four telephone poles on top of that, then 4x4s and plywood on top of that.
When we returned to start the first trip, the water was pretty high and the raft was already floating, so luckily Ken had tied it up, just in case.
Duties on the Raft
Todd: We naturally fell into our roles. My dad was in charge of building and logistics. Robert kept the daily journal and was our map reader, navigating down the Mississippi.
Chris and I were the crew, setting up the tents, getting dinners ready, going on errands to get gas, etc.
The river is a lot bigger than it looks on a map! There aren’t town signs, just mile markers along the river and you need to locate yourself with those markers. That’s how you know where the locks and dams are, where the shallow waters are and such.
Chris: Dad was the navigator and I think it was very satisfying for him to be able to flip the page on the map. There were about 10 miles on each page. He enjoyed keeping the logs, which was perfect for him, being such an organizer.
Dad called himself the “Chief, Cook and Bottlewasher”. Robert was more the “idea man” and Bob was more the “execution man”. Dad was a wonderful Enthusiast in Chief, but without a lot of practical skills.
Bob had fantastic, practical, mechanical skills. We wouldn’t have made it five feet downriver without Bob Kimball!
Robert took charge of navigating, map reading and daily logs
Todd is good with mechanical things, too. I didn’t have any particular outdoor skills, but learned a lot from watching and doing. I cooked eggs and things like that. I was the crew member designated to jump, swim or crawl ashore with the “painter” (the rope to tie the raft to a tree or a rock), when the shore was especially unpleasant. The most memorable of these landed me hip-deep in sticky, gray-green mud, which Bob dubbed “loon sh*t”.
Danger at the Lock & Dam!
Todd: My dad had borrowed a 1960’s motor, but the current was fast. On that first leg, when the Prairie du Chien lock and dam was coming up, we tried getting the engine started. Well, that wasn’t working, so we were paddling hard to avoid going over!
All along the dam there are gates to control the flow. They keep them about a foot off the high water, which allowed for a fast current. The water was really flowing through there. Between the lock and the dam, there’s a 10-foot-wide piece of concrete dividing the dam and the lock.
Chris: The current was pretty strong and the Evinrude motor particularly uncooperative. We were being swept toward the dam, motor parts strewn all over the deck as Bob worked on it, the sons paddling furiously, to little avail. It was pretty troubling at the time.
As always, Captain Bob came through, fixing the problem and re-assembling the motor just in time to putt-putt over to the lock!
Todd: When we got to the lock, we hit that chunk of concrete sideways. We almost went over the dam on that first day!