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Canoe: Explore the Legacy in Spooner

Mike Johnson
Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum

When Sieur du Lhut, the first European known to have visited the valley of the St. Croix, arrived here in 1679, he would certainly not have been surprised to discover a native culture dominated by the birch bark canoe. After all, he came from the north, traveling all the way from Montreal, through wind and wave, powered by his paddle. The lakes and rivers of the Great Lakes region, rather than being a barrier to travel, had been the thoroughfares of the Anishanabe people for centuries.

White settlers to the region quickly adopted this wonderfully functional watercraft. In 1885, Joe Lucius began building canoes of his own design in the village of White Birch, which is now Solon Springs. By the 1920’s, there were at least three commercial canoe manufactures in the watershed, Muller Boat Company at Stillwater, Shell Lake Boat Works at Shell Lake and Gunderson Canoe Manufacturing at Hayward.

The canoe is still important to the native people in the region. Manoomin (wild rice), which is harvested from a canoe, is a physical and spiritual staple. And now, in the 21st Century, the canoe has become an important symbol of the economy of the St Croix Valley. From April through October, the Namekagon, the St Croix, and almost countless lesser waters see canoeists from all over the country who come to dip their paddles where the land looks much the same as they did when du Lhut first visited. When it rains, villages from the headwaters at Solon Springs to the Mississippi confluence at Prescott, bustle with vehicles carrying inverted canoes and vacationers seeking the warmth and hospitality that the area is famous for.

Recognizing a unique opportunity to celebrate the influence of the canoe on this region, a group of volunteers has built the Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum at Spooner. The museum opened in 2010 and in just two seasons, it has entertained and educated visitors from 31 states and several foreign countries including France, Australia, and many from Canada. The museum is arranged to illustrate the evolution of the canoe both chronologically and by region. Visitors first experience birch bark canoes, and as they proceed through the exhibit hall they see canoes from the Eastern seaboard and Canada, as well as the Middle West. Museum staff have been changing exhibits annually to keep the experience fresh. For the first year of operation, the featured exhibit was “Canoes of Wisconsin”, where a Lucius canoe was displayed alongside a one-of-a-kind “Trapper Canoe”, build by Sami immigrant Fred Saastadt in about 1885. For 2012, the museum features the canoes of J. H. Rushton, of Canton, New York, including a spectacular two-masted sailing canoe, the “Pendennis”.

A popular feature of the Museum is the working canoe shop, where guests can see antique canoes in various stages of restoration and can visit with craftsmen who are keeping the art of canoe building alive for everyone to enjoy.

For more information, visit the Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum website at www.wisconsincanoeheritagemuseum.com.

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