The Man Who (Maybe) Invented River Tubing

On the Fourth of July weekend, all over the U.S., Americans will celebrate Independence Day with parades, barbecues and pool parties. But, for those looking for a more unusual way to do something festive on a summer weekend, perhaps inspiration can be found in this photo essay by Alfred Eisenstaedt, which ran in the July 21, 1941, issue of LIFE Magazine.

That summer, on a Sunday right around Independence Day, the photographer traveled to Somerset, Wis., where a man named David Breault, owner of the Terrance Nite Club, had turned the nearby Apple River into a goldmine.

On that day, about 200 people had been supplied with inner tubes, on which they floated down the river, drinking beer and—when the current allowed—finding time to steal a kiss. After about 45 minutes, they came to a stopping point, where a Terrance Night Club truck would pick them up and bring them back to the starting point. If they wanted to go again, they could. The club provided the tubes for free, but it was worth the expense: Breault reported to LIFE that his business had multiplied by three since they began doing so.

Though the activity might not seem so unusual to today’s summer celebrants—the “floating party” was essentially a lazy-river amusement park ride created by nature—it’s noteworthy that LIFE’s write-up of the activity expressed surprise and delight at the idea that Breault had “innovated the unique pastime of mass inner-tube floating.”

It wasn’t until 1966 that TIME credited Thailand’s Princess Chumbhot of Nagar Svarga as “inventor of the sport of tubing.” Sports Illustrated, the year before, had provided a little more detail on how it had happened: the princess had brought about 100 tubes to her country estate and invited her friends to join her in riding them down a river, but “when news of the fun got out in a Siamese TV show, people began flocking to southern Nakhon Nayok province by the hundreds, hoping to join in.”

Though the princess may well have given inner-tubing international renown as a sport, she must apparently share some credit with David Breault of Wisconsin—and, surely, with all the people around the world who surely had the same idea since the invention of the rubber inner tube in the 19th century, but who enjoyed their fun in anonymity. But if there’s anything these photos make clear, it’s that there’s room enough at the party for everyone.