Ever since those initial spindly cedar strips were glued and stapled to the form of my first canoe project in the 1980s, wooden canoes and kayaks have haunted me. Small wonder that a rugged and weathered craft, with cracks of time cutting through the shoulder of wood like a running river slices a native prairie, stopped me in my tracks. June Lynne, executive director of the Chippewa County Historical Society, smiled. “She’s a beauty, isn’t she?”
Indeed, and as my canoe building buddy, Norman Andresen, used to remind me, “Every canoe has a story.”
Resting atop a makeshift standard in the main office of the Historic Chippewa Village in Montevideo, the ancient dugout awaits a more glorious future. While the story of the fire-hollowed cottonwood trunk will never be known, June, bless her huge historic heart, obliged me with what is known. “For years this was sort of an inside joke here at the village,” she began, acknowledging that it has been in storage at the Village since 1985. A small plaque beside it had read: “This Canoe was Owned by Ole Torgerson. He Built It From A Cottonwood Tree.”
That led to many inside jokes centering around both the age and significance of the find. Now, however, the jokes and laughter have been silenced. This is what is known: Torgerson discovered the canoe either in or alongside the Chippewa River on his farm around 1867, which appears to be at or near the current location of the Easy Bean CSA Farm on Highway 40. He initially stored the dugout in a shed on the farm where it remained until 1878 when another rush of high water cut through the valley that spring to leave behind a new oxbow lake. Torgerson then moved the canoe to a new shed he built on his farm across the river, where it remained for four more decades after his death in 1918.
His nephew, Lyle Torgeson (the “r” was apparently dropped from the family name in subsequent years), found the old canoe at the abandoned farmstead of his uncle and moved it to a new shed on his farm where it remained for another 25 years. When Lyle died, the historical society purchased the canoe for a pittance at a farm auction. “We moved it here to this site and have had it in storage ever since,” said Lynne.
Not unlike Ole Torgerson, many “river rats” hit the gravel bars searching for rare items such as bison bones, Indian artifacts and perhaps even a dugout canoe — another was located a few miles away just below the Churchill Dam on the Minnesota River in 1982 — after high waters scourge the river bottom and gravel bars. And, as a paleontologist or an archaeologist will tell you, such artifacts date to this side of the last glaciation of Minnesota. “Of course, Minnesota had dinosaurs,” a University of Minnesota geologist told me years ago on a canoe trip. “Their bones, along with all evidence of the ancient seas, were all crushed to smitherines by the weight of the glaciers.” While 12,000 years may not mean much in geological time, it still allows for some interesting finds thanks to the help of raging flood waters along the original bed of first, the Glacial River Warren, and later, the Minnesota River.
So, was Ole a crafty fellow who hollowed out the huge cottonwood? This is where Maritime Heritage Minnesota came in with a Clean Water Legacy Grant to study seven of the eight dugouts found in the state. In 2013 a minuscule hole was drilled in the hull to extract a 100 mg sample that was then sent to Florida for a radiocarbon dating study. The results shocked Lynne and her board … and brought Ole’s old dugout out of permanent storage and into the main hall, for the study estimated the date of the ancient canoe being burnt and honed with stone tools into a river-worthy vessel between1436 and 1522.
“Ole didn’t do it,” she said.
While members of a primitive culture (officially called the Late Prehistoric Period) along what we know as the Chippewa River painstakingly hollowed out and carefully burnt the innards of a cottonwood tree trunk to craft the canoe, German emperor Sigismund was signing a peace pact with Hussieten, peasants were uprising in Transylvania and Albrecht II von Hapsburg became king of Bohemia.
All of which happened several generations before that second dugout canoe (two of the entire eight that have been unearthed in the state are both stored at Chippewa Village) was similarly built. It dated back to 1626-1679. That both were unearthed literally within miles and over a finger of a prairie ridge from one another is also interesting. Unfortunately the “newer” dugout wasn’t as well preserved having been pulled from the sands and water more than a century later than when Ole found his.
“Initially, we were concerned about how bringing it inside would damage the wood, even though it had been through all those freeze and thaw cycles over the years,” said Lynne. “We’ve been very careful.”
Soon, too, regional artist Malena Handeen, who with her husband, Mike Jacobs, owns the land close to where Ole Torgerson found the dugout, has created a riverine mural she has been commissioned to paint on a bare wall inside the Village office. Lynne said a permanent and more stately display stand will hold the dugout in front of Handeen’s mural. “It should look really nice, and we think it will also look authentic to the time,” Lynne said.
She then smiled. “You know, every one of these little county museums have something unique and special about them.” She looked at the ancient dugout Ole unearthed that somehow luckily survived not just being buried in the sands of time, but even perhaps a possible dozing and burning of an old farmstead to make way for modern farming. “Maybe this is ours.”