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Dugout Canoe

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Each spring along the Mississippi Valley when the thawing frost and ice heave the riverbanks, a fresh supply of prehistoric artifacts surfaces. Arrowheads, stone axes. Several springs ago a man from Trempealeau, Wisconsin, made a most unusual find: a half-sunk dugout boat. He called in the naturalist from nearby Perrot State Park to examine the boat. The park naturalist researched dugout canoes for two months before calling in the anthropologist from the University of Milwaukee, whose specialty was Native American dugout canoes.

At 19 feet long and 22 inches wide, it was larger than any of the three dugout canoes previously uncovered in Wisconsin. And it had a strange, rectangular hole in the bow. Was it some kind of handle, or a place to hold a torch for fishing at night? The stern was unusual, too, formed with some kind of blunt instrument.

The anthropologist estimated that it was Winnebago or Ioway Indian, perhaps a hundred to three hundred years old. The Wisconsin State laboratories and the Smithsonian Institution got involved, trying to figure out if one sat frontwards or backwards in the canoe.

Eventually the newspapers took up the story to publicize a newly formed "Friends of Perrot" fund, seeking donations from the public to preserve the dugout canoe. Tax deductible contributions poured in.

It was those news articles that caught Carl Lacher's attention. He lived along the river near Winona, Minnesota. He also recognized the canoe. Two years before, he had bought an old adze at a farm auction; then, a giant cottonwood on his parents' farm had fallen in a storm. With nothing better to do, he had used the adze to chop out a boat. He had touched the stern up with a chain saw and had tried burning some of the interior the way he had read in stories.

He had no idea of how to make such a boat, but his experiment floated. In fact, in high water, it had floated away and sunk, and he hadn't seen it since.

At first the naturalist and anthropologist did not believe him, but he had photographs. The newspapers got out of it as best they could. "Young man proves ancient skills are still alive," said The La Crosse Tribune.

Except, apparently, among the experts.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.