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Encyclopedia Dubuque


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Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.

KEHL, Robert

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Photograph of Bob and Ruth Kehl courtesy: TH MEDIA/TELEGRAPH HERALD

KEHL, Robert (Dubuque, IA, Sept. 10, 1934--Dubuque, IA, July 3, 2013). The son of George and Christina (Wild) Kehl, Robert was born in Dubuque. The family moved several times as George looked for work. They settled just north of Ottumwa in March, 1943 and lived in a farmhouse without running water or electricity. It was there that the work ethic developed. His first job was feeding and caring for mink owned by a local dentist. So pleased was the dentist with his employees, all the Kehl children, that he invited them to live in the vacant house on the farm. As he grew older, Robert and his siblings trapped. Robert also milked cows and caddied at the country club. Observing the game and playing when he could resulted in him becoming a repeating letterman on the high school team. (1) He graduated from the Ottumwa High School in 1952. He attended LORAS COLLEGE until 1953 and married Ruth Ann Kurtz on August 6, 1960. (2)

Kehl had twenty-seven different businesses throughout his career. (3) He was listed in city directories as being a salesman and driver for TRAUSCH BAKING COMPANY from 1952 when he returned to Dubuque for nearly three years. He received his first food preparation and customer service experience working from June to August 1952 at the MAINLINER DRIVE-IN (THE), a drive-in restaurant at 35th and Central. (4)

Confident in his abilities, Kehl purchased a truck stop along U.S. 52 north of 32nd Street. (5) The K and B Truck Stop was renamed to Bob's Conoco Service and Bob's Cafe. The business was a family operation of the three Kehl brothers, their mother and Bill's wife, Mary. Kehl was an aggressive businessman. On paydays for the JOHN DEERE DUBUQUE WORKS and the DUBUQUE PACKING COMPANY he carried extra cash on hand to cash payroll checks and encourage customers to buy a chance on a weekly prize. When drafted he had to sell the business, but the Army recognized his cooking talents and gave him additional training and experience feeding large crowds at military bases in Germany. (6)

In October 1960, Kehl and his wife Ruth, purchased TONY'S CAFE from Tony Helling. This was quickly followed by the purchase of a building at 514-516 Loras Boulevard which they converted into Kehl's Village Laundry. (7) The record-setting flood of 1965 led to a massive cleanup effort and remodeling to the restaurant. Taking advantage of the opportunity, the Kehls expanded the place and in 1967 renamed the new 300-seat dining site--Robert's Restaurant. As the "40 Feet of Fine Food" became more known, the restaurant was listed in directories as ROBERT'S SMORGASTABLE AND RESTAURANT.

Some of Kehl's ventures failed. In 1961 he unveiled Street Treats--a summer ice cream business operated off motor scooters by teenage boys who visited neighborhoods and public places. It seemed a good idea for the drivers who worked on a commission, but too often they crashed the carts they carried while racing. In the late 1960s, he planned to establish "Mr. Robert's Food Systems, Inc." Although branch restaurants were opened in Des Moines, Iowa City, Ames, and Sioux City, the venture also quickly failed along with investing in oil-drilling equipment. The experiences taught Kehl that either he or a close family member had to be physically present for such a business to succeed. (8)

With his wife, Kehl began running a catering business around 1964 for an excursion boat, JULIE N. DUBUQUE. When Art Bull, the owner of the boat, lost his docking site in the ICE HARBOR and the passenger rail service and excursion trains between Chicago and Dubuque were terminated, he decided to move his operation to Davenport. (9)

The Kehls, with Loras Boge as a partner, used savings to purchase a 150-passenger paddle-wheeler which was renamed in a contest, the "River Rogue." Kehl's boat used the Hawthorne Street ramp for one year before moving to the Ice Harbor in 1974. This began the era of the Kehls promoting Dubuque's tourism possibilities. "River Rogue" cruises with their steak-fry dinners were booked near capacity on a regular basis. Despite an increasing number of employees, Robert Kehl continued to greet guests from behind a simple table used to sell tickets. With business booming, Kehl knew he wanted a double-deck paddle-wheeler like those which once cruised the MISSISSIPPI RIVER in 19th century. The Kehl's envisioned the lower deck enclosed for climate-controlled comfort. The upper deck was open-air. Such a vessel seating 300-400 passengers cost $350,000 for which the Kehls had to put up their home on Oeth Court as collateral. They sold the "River Rogue" to an excursion operator on Lake Barkley, Kentucky and then attended the Western Rivers Training Center in Greenville, Mississippi. After passing the licensing test, they each became passenger vessel pilots with the title of "Captain" which was featured on advertising materials. (10)

In 1977 the Kehls launched the SPIRIT OF DUBUQUE, a $350,000, 377-passenger paddle-wheeler. Christened on May 14th by Iowa Governor Robert Ray, the boat was built in Morgan City, Louisiana, by the Scully Brothers Boat Builders. (11) Using this boat, the Kehls with their Robert's River Rides, began offering his famous prime-rib dinner cruises once each week. Promotions were also expanded. Motor-coach tours were encouraged along with corporate outings and chartered cruises for class trips or weddings. The Kehls and/or their children were regular attendees at travel and tourism shows. Robert made the "pitch" by telling their story while Ruth was the "closer" with the contracts to confirm business. (12) By 1979 the dinners were served nightly; it was apparent that a larger boat was needed.

The growth of business led the Kehls to spruce up the Ice Harbor and convert it from a railroad and industrial center into a tourist attraction. Gravel for a parking lot was laid and the appearance of the area was improved with the planting of trees and a general cleanup. The Kehls also purchased the abandoned Burlington Northern freight house in 1978 and donated it to the DUBUQUE COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY. This building became the FRED W. WOODWARD RIVERBOAT MUSEUM in 1982 and the keystone for the development of the Ice Harbor into a center of tourism. The same year the Kehls opened "The Barge," a two-story combination office, gift shop, and lounge.

The Kehls continued to expand their food service business. In early 1977 residents of Dubuque realized the city would be hosting the production of a major motion picture. When the mob of actors, extras, and production crew members descended on the city for the filming of "F.I.S.T., Robert Kehl was prepared. The Des Moines Register reported that by his own account, he earned $90,000. (13) In 1979 the Kehls won the contract for food concession and catering for all the events at the FIVE FLAGS CIVIC CENTER. This was followed in 1980 by Kehl winning the contract to serve food for the cast and crew of "Take This Job and Shove It."

The contract meant providing 3,000 meals for the cast and crew during the seven week filming schedule. Kehl's staff showed up with the crew at around 6:00 a.m. six days a week with fresh fruit, doughnuts, and coffee. Full meals were served for lunch and dinner with double entrees and gallons of juice, milk, lemonade and coffee. Among the many challenges facing the caterer were weather, light and changing locations. (14)

Promotion led to an old-fashioned boat race right out of the 1800s. In April 1978 the "Spirit of Dubuque" raced the "Julie N. Dubuque II." The 1.5 mile race, a fundraiser for the DUBUQUE AREA CHAMBER OF COMMERCE, began south of the JULIEN DUBUQUE MONUMENT and ended at the JULIEN DUBUQUE BRIDGE with Kehl's boat winning by a few feet. (15) At one time, Robert's River Rides had a larger advertising budget than the tourism division of the State of Iowa. (16)

Prime Rib Night became a tremendous success and the basis for more business expansion. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Salt and pepper shaker
Brewed for Roberts River Rides by Jos. S. Pickett & Son's Inc.
Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Photo courtesy: Bob Reding

In 1984 Kehl unveiled the "Mississippi Belle", a $2 million, 800-passenger paddle-wheeler built for daylong cruises based in Bettendorf, Iowa. To provide more time for the prosperous river business, Robert's Smorgastable was closed. As reasons for moving out of Dubuque, Kehl claimed Dubuque lacked sufficient parking and hotel and motel rooms for his customers. He also doubted the new boat could enter the Ice Harbor through the flood gates. (17) On its maiden voyage in October 1984, the Iowa Development Commission honored the vessel at the state's tourism attraction of the year.

In 1986 with increasing numbers of passengers, Kehl bought a second 800-passenger boat, the "Mississippi Belle II." Its first commercial cruise, a day-long trip to Bettendorf, was held on June 1st. Roberts River Rides then offered several cruise options including all-day trips between Dubuque and the Quad Cities (with a return trip by bus), all-day round trips between Dubuque and McGregor, half-day trips between Clinton and the Quad Cities, and 1.5 to 3.5 hour sightseeing trips around the Quad Cities and Dubuque areas. The original "Mississippi Belle" was renamed the "Quad City Queen" and was permanently docked in Bettendorf.

In 1988 Kehl began operating the "West Virginia Belle" between Huntington and South Charleston on the Ohio and Kanawha rivers. During the same year, the "Quad City Queen," "Mississippi Belle" and the "Spirit of Dubuque" carried an estimated 226,000 riders.

Robert Kehl initially fought gambling, thinking that it would ruin his riverboat cruise business. (18) Changing his mind in 1990, he was granted the first riverboat gambling license in the nation. (19) On April 1, 1991 with the passage of legislation permitting gambling boats on the Mississippi, Kehl unveiled the DUBUQUE CASINO BELLE, the grandest ship in his fleet. Six months after launching riverboat gambling out of Dubuque, Kehl and the Dubuque Racing Commission had earned the $4 million payment on the bonds sold to make improvements in the Ice Harbor. Remodeling continued on the "Mississippi Belle II" which became a gambling boat based in Clinton in May, 1991. (20)

Kehl announced on August 24, 1992 that he had sold the "Dubuque Casino Belle." (21) Reasons he cited for the sale including gambling restrictions in Iowa, his health, and the attractiveness of the offer which was $5 million more than $12 million he had originally paid for the boat. (22)

In 1993 the Kehls announced their plans to move to Las Vegas. They had, however, recently purchased 14.6 acres of land along U. S. 151/61 in Key West for commercial use. (23) The Dubuque Racing Association and Kehl jointly paid for an appraisal of the Casino Belle Portside building early in the summer of 1993. The initial offer of $1.2 million from the DRA was quickly rejected by Kehl who said he paid $3.7 million for its construction. (24)

Mississippi Belle II

By 2013 Kehl’s family business operated five casinos in Iowa: the Riverside Casino and Golf Resort south of Iowa City; the Grand Falls Casino here in northwest Iowa; the Diamond Jo in Dubuque; the "Mississippi Belle II" in Clinton and the "Catfish Bend" in Burlington. The construction in Davenport of the Rhythm City Casino Resort in Davenport along Interstate Highway 80 began in 2015. Its opening on February 7, 2016 was the first Kehl grand opening since Robert's death. (25)

Kehl was the founder and president of Kehl Riverboats, which built and renovated 13 floating casinos, and a founding board member of Iowa's first land-based casino, the Riverside Casino and Golf Resort. (26) In addition to his business activities, Kehl was a director of DUBUQUE BANK AND TRUST COMPANY from 1986 until 2005 and a director of the Savanna-Thomson State Bank in Savanna, Illinois. An inspiring philanthropist, Kehl lead the drive for improved health care for tri-state residents. The Kehl Diabetes Center of UNITYPOINT HEALTH-FINLEY HOSPITAL was one of his legacies along with a major financial donation to CLARKE UNIVERSITY that led to the construction of the Robert and Ruth Kehl Center, the home of the school's sixteen athletic teams. He was considered one of the three founders of the NATIONAL MISSISSIPPI RIVER MUSEUM AND AQUARIUM along with Wayne Andrew NORMAN, Sr. and William WOODWARD. (27)

Robert Kehl, with his wife Ruth, were designated the 1986 National Small Business Persons of the Year by the Small Business Administration and were received at the White House by President Ronald Reagan. (28)

See: Ruth KEHL

Advertising game
Photo courtesy: Bob Reding



1. Cooper, Brian E. Biggest Gamble on the Mississippi, Dubuque, Iowa: Crestwood Publishing, 2017, p. 8

2. "Robert J. Kehl," (Obituary) Des Moines Register. Online: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/desmoinesregister/obituary.aspx?pid=165670043

3. Ibid.

4. Cooper, p. 12

5. Phone conversation with Bob Kehl, 1972

6. Cooper, p. 15

7. Ibid., 19

8. Ibid. p. 25

9. Ibid. p. 30

10. Ibid. p. 35

11. "Spirit of Dubuque," Steamboats.org. Online: http://steamboats.org/riverboats-casinos-restaurants-pictures/spirit-of-dubuque.html

12. Cooper, p. 42

13. Ibid., p. 53

14. Johnson, Elaine, "Kehl Hopes They Will Take Their Food and Eat It," Telegraph Herald, August 10, 1980, . 28

15. Cooper, p. 57

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid. p. 62

18. "Riverboat Gambling Pioneer Robert Kehl Dies at 78," KIWA RADIO.COM. July 5, 2013, Online: http://kiwaradio.com/local-news/riverboat-gambling-pioneer-robert-kehl-dies-at-78/

19. "Updated: Robert Kehl Dead at 78," Telegraph Herald, July 3, 2013, Online: http://m.thonline.com/mobile_new/news/breaking/article_d5a01c0e-e3fb-11e2-9351-001a4bcf6878.html

20. Webber, Steve. "Kehl Writes Another Chapter," Telegraph Herald, August 24, 1992, p. 1

21. Ibid.

22. Bergstrom, Kathy. "DRA Offer Could Keep Boat Here," Telegraph Herald, August 24, 1992, p. 1

23. Bergstrom, Kathy. "Kehls Thinking About Move to Las Vegas," Telegraph Herald, August 4, 1993, p. 3A

24. "DRA Looks to Buy Kehl's Portside Building," Telegraph Herald, September 4, 1993, p. 3A

25. Cooper, p. 209

26. "Riverboat Gambling Pioneer Dies," Cedar Valley Business Monthly July 4, 2013, Online: http://wcfcourier.com/business/local/riverboat-gambling-pioneer-kehl-dies/article_1eced772-e4fa-11e2-aa13-0019bb2963f4.html

27. "Updated..."

28. "Robert J. Kehl"