Fishing boats that once braved Lake Superior storms now sit idle and deteriorating on the shore of a small village. Some of the local folks believe the remnants of the village’s fishing past should be preserved. Others wonder if some relics of our past should simply be allowed to slowly fade away. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mike Simonson has more:
Fishing boats that once braved Lake Superior storms now sit idle and
deteriorating on the shore of a small village. Some of the local folks
believe the remnants of the village’s fishing past should be preserved.
Others wonder if some relics of our past shouldn’t simply be allowed to
slowly fade away? The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mike Simonson
(soft sounds of waves)
This quiet, sandy beach in Wisconsin’s northernmost village of Cornucopia is
left with a few hints of its past. Three gray wooden fishing boats sit in
disrepair on the sand dunes…boats that were part of this harbor’s fleet of
25 vessels when the Lake Superior fishing industry was at its peak. These
days, the cool mornings are disturbed only by a town meeting of seagulls…
They’re waiting for the lone fishing boat to return for a late
(fishing boat engine)
The 44-foot steel hulled Courtney Sue is the last of the fishing boats in
Cornucopia. Brothers Mark and Cliff Halverson continue a family
tradition…bringing in the day’s catch.
“How was the catch?”
“Good enough for what we needed today.”
(sound of boxes sliding onto dock)
“These are lawyers, this is a trout, and the rest are whitefish. Been kind of slow
this year. Gonna pick up, but the water’s real cold yet. The fish are still out deep.”
(sound of sharpening knives)
With sharpened knives, the Halversons gut the fish so fast that the catch
continue to flop about even after filleting.
(sound of slitting fish)
“Been doing it for quite a few years. (slop, slop) Takes awhile
to get used to handling ’em (slop).”
These men are the last of their kind in town. The rest of the fishermen who
sailed on boats like the three beached relics have either left Cornucopia,
retired or died.
Fishing peaked in 1955. Then, it became a casualty of over-fishing and the
invasion of the sea lamprey…a life-sucking eel with no natural enemy in the Great
Lakes. It devastated the fishing.
(fishermen playing cribbage)
Most days you can find 64-year-old “Snooks” Johnson and 74-year-old Harold
Ehlers among a friendly game of cribbage at Corny’s Village Inn.
“Well, you’re gonna get better, I know.”
“Well, I can’t get any worse (laughs).”
Ehler’s family has owned the town general store since 1915. He remembers
the men and women who made fishing their livelihood from the 1920’s till
“I have to say they were very independent people. They just depended on their skill to make a living.”
Harold Ehler’s store played a critical role…making sure fish got to the
market fresh, and for good prices.
“So their market was mainly in Chicago… my dad spent most of his noon hour
on the phone, which wasn’t that great in those days. Selling the fish. Then we’d go down and tag ’em, put them on a truck and take them to the railroad station in Ashland and so they’d get there the next morning.”
(sound of waves)
The old wooden boats now weathering on the beach are just about all that’s
left of that heritage. Battered letters spell out “The Eagle,” “Ruby,” and
“Twin Sisters.” Some people in Cornucopia hope to save the old boats from
the ravages of Lake Superior. “Snooks” Johnson’s family operated “Twin
Sisters”…and he joined the crew as a teenager in 1955…the last good year.
“Yeah it looks kinda sad, doesn’t it? How it got its name, my Dad’s brother had
twin daughters so that’s what the “Twin Sisters” came from. It was a pretty good boat.”
Johnson says these homemade wooden boats were plenty seaworthy…with lots
of room for fish and a crew of four or five.
“But they all rolled and I’d always get seasick when I was on the thing. Because
when it was rough weather and you took the fish in and piled them up on the
bow so they wouldn’t roll too much, because the bow would keep them confined.
And you had a stove that burned coal just for heat. Someone would start cookin’.
So you would have the engine smells, the coal smells and the half-cooked fish
smells. I spent quite a bit of my time sticking my head out that gangway right
there to chum the fish.”
Johnson says remembers Tom Jones, the builder of these boats. The oldest
dates back to 1927. The others were built in 1935 and 1940.
“What he would do is make half a boat, a model. He’d say well
this is the way you guys want it or whoever one like this, or one like
that. They’d agree on it and that’s how it would turn out. I think he had
about a third or fourth grade education, but he was brilliant. Nobody really
knows how to work on them anymore.”
When Tom Jones passed away, so did the know-how of restoring these boats.
Now, protected only by a rope to keep people from climbing onboard, these
remnants of a more prosperous day slowly decay.
A “Save the Boats” committee was formed, but recently dissolved. This
village of 50 people just doesn’t have enough resources, says the former
co-chair of “Save the Boats,” Phyllis Johnson. She hopes somebody someday
does something for the boats…
“It’ll be as a result of someone saying, “Hey, those boats are lookin’ pretty shabby, aren’t you gonna get the young people around, have them work on them or something.”
But nothing has happened yet. Not even so much as a coat of paint protects
the boats. The sterns and hulls are cracked open. Only one boat has a
propeller. Johnson would like to do something, but she’s realistic.
“In the end they’re going to go back to nature. They’re not going to float again, never. But as a part of heritage, it’s probably better to keep them in as good as shape as we can keep them as long as we can.”
Snooks Johnson says as each season takes its toll on the old boats, it’s
likely preservation isn’t in the cards.
“I don’t know, I kind of like to see it just the way it is.
fishing went to hell, and so do the boats. So they’re kind of following
suit and they’ll still last a long time I guess. I don’t know, a lot of
But there are fewer and fewer people to share those memories remaining in
Cornucopia. And fewer people to worry about the fate of the old fishing
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mike Simonson.
(sound of seagulls)