McLeod County canoe

This 1,000-year-old Native American canoe can be viewed at the McLeod County Historical Museum, 380 School Road N.W., Hutchinson. It has been part of the museum’s collection since 1957 when it was donated by Hutchinson Parks supervisor Joe Eheim, who had obtained it from a DNR crew seining rough fish from Big Swan Lake, about 4 miles northeast of Dassel.

A little disclaimer: You are about to read a bit of historical fiction, based in truth, of course. But since there was no real backstory involved with the item at hand, I thought perhaps a good story was in order. It should be fairly discernible which parts of the story are fiction and which are not. At any rate, on to the story.

It was a long time ago, nearly 1,000 years to be exact. Summer’s finale was a cool one. The leaves were still green when the first wisps of autumn air settled on the land. To those residing in the North Country, it came as a sign that cold weather would come unexpectedly soon and that it was time to prepare for a journey south, down the big river toward the wintering grounds.

As true autumn rolled in, however, the air began to warm. It was glorious weather, but the blue skies and sunshine lulled people into a false sense of security, one where time became expansive, and where a few more weeks in the north could be afforded before venturing south.

When the cold weather came, it came with gusto. It started with a stretch of cold, grey and rainy days and ended with a day of rain and snow mixed. When the sun finally broke through the clouds, it came with a cold, blue sky and an early morning frost that settled across the land. For those who’d been lingering in the summering grounds, they could no longer ignore nature’s warning signs. It was time to gather their belongings and head south.

On a lake along a tributary of the big river (Mississippi), a stream that would one day be called the Crow River, a man was busy trying to sink a dugout canoe to the bottom of the lake. He did so to preserve it, to keep the wood from drying out over the long winter ahead and to be able to pick it up the following spring when he and his family returned to the summer grounds.

In the weeks prior to the cold snap, the man was north of the summer camp with a small hunting party. It was a success. They had enough meat for the journey south but needed a way to bring it to the summer camp where the meat could be smoked and dried. The easiest way to travel was by the river. For this, however, they needed a watercraft.

Together, the small party fell a tree and set out to digging out its core to make a flotation device. With axes and fire, they cut out the center of the log until they had a crudely shaped canoe. No time was devoted to the outer hull. Knots were visible and stuck out in numerous places, and the hull bore little resemblance to other, sleeker versions. It would serve its purpose, however, and allowed two men to take the meat back to camp by riding the current south while the others went on foot.

At camp, the people were already busying themselves for the journey. They would wait a few days for the meat to dry, but then head south. The makeshift canoe that brought the meat down would need to be sunk. It was done by taking it out past the ice line, in deeper water, and filling the hull with rocks. This way, if the canoe was needed again, it could be brought to the surface in the future.

The canoe would again see the light of day, but it would be nearly 1,000 years before it happened. The builders of the craft would be long gone, as would the era when their culture thrived on the land.

It was late November 1957. Four inches of ice had already formed on Big Swan Lake, likely owing to a cold snap that swept across the land. State workers were dragging nets on the bottom of the lake for carp, an invasive fish unpopular among Minnesota fishermen.

A net was lowered through a hole in the ice, brought down to the bottom and dragged toward another hole cut for bringing the net up. When the nets were pulled, the workers had harvested 175,000 pounds of fish — some carp to be disposed of and some game fish to be thrown back into the lake. With the fish, however, came a 1,000-year-old watercraft sunk deep into the lake centuries ago.

The canoe was brought to the McLeod County Fairgrounds, and a year later it was given to the McLeod County Historical Society where it has since undergone carbon dating and rests under glass, in a climate-controlled environment, for the public to see. It remains, today, the oldest dugout canoe ever found in the state of Minnesota — a gem of history viewable in the heart of McLeod County.

Brian Haines is executive director of the McLeod County Historical Society and Museum, 380 School Road N.W., Hutchinson. Do you have a historical anecdote to share? Haines can be reached at 320-587-2109 or by email at director@mcleodhistory.org.

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