Even as the future is starting to take shape on the site of the old Johnson Boat Works on the west shore of White Bear Lake, a small group of volunteers digging through dirt and rubble under a glaring sun Thursday were toiling to form a picture of its past.
A fast-track archaeological dig that will run through the weekend is scrambling to collect as many fragments of history — even far beyond that of the century-old business — before the site is cleared for good and construction begins on a retail/residential development that will be called BoatWorks Commons.
As cars on Hwy. 61 whizzed by on one side, construction machinery droned on the other and as each shovel-load of dirt was steadily dumped by the volunteer teams into screening boxes to be shaken out to reveal the newest find, the grunt labor was lightened with the anticipation of a treasure hunt.
“I had one lady say it was more fun than playing pulltabs,” said Sara Hanson, executive director of the White Bear Lake Area Historical Society, which is supervising the dig run by three archaeologists and teams of volunteers. The organization plans to curate and display the items that are found.
Prizes yielded on the first day included a piece of prehistoric pottery — testament, Hanson said, to the presence of woodland Indians in the area about 1,000 years before the time of Christ. A carbide lamp with its base still intact was found, along with a dainty glass with a small brush still inside. Numerous shards of dishware and glass were also revealed, along with lumps of coal and a few unbroken bottles — like the bourbon bottle from Kentucky likely from the 1940s, Hanson said.
Items of leather and metal, including a rusting plane blade that probably shaped the timbers on the historically significant sailing boats that were crafted at the works, were also discovered.
The Boat Works was a mainstay business of White Bear Lake since its founding in 1896, closing 102 years later. Founder John O. Johnson transformed the sailing world with his innovative boat designs — two of his boat models are in the Smithsonian Institution.
Hanson said the dig will tell more about the Boat Works’ storied history, which is well-documented and aided by Johnson family members who are still around.
It is also hoped that artifacts will be found from the heyday of White Bear Lake’s resort era that began in 1868 and reached into the early 20th century. That’s when the new railroad ran 25 trains a day to the lake, as sweltering city residents headed there to swim and fish in the days before freeways and air conditioning.
“It was an exciting time for the early resort era in Minnesota,” Hanson said. “When the railroad arrived, White Bear Lake really burst on the scene as a resort community.” Dozens of hotels sprang up around the Boat Works and along the shores to accommodate the crowds.
Abundant game and the lakes also made the area attractive to Indians as migratory hunting and harvesting grounds, Hanson said, and the dig might yield more clues about that more distant era, too. An Indian legend gave the city its name. “There were once 10 Indian mounds along Lake Avenue,” she said, not far from the site. “Now they’re all gone but one.”
Groundbreaking set for June
Ground is to be broken in mid-June on the new development. That gives the historical society a small window of opportunity to complete its work. Volunteers jumped at a chance to work the site.
The rushed dig is not ideal, said Dave Radford, one of three professional archaeologists supervising the volunteers, but given the constraints of the construction schedule, it’s the best that can be hoped for. It also affords a good opportunity for the volunteers.
In a perfect world, he said, the Johnson Boat Works building would have been methodically dismantled instead of demolished last February. Still, getting the community involved with saving whatever the site has left to say is valuable.
“These guys are all excited about this,” he said, pausing occasionally to peer over the new discoveries. “This is really just a last-ditch effort to get any information out of this site that we can. It’s kind of a public archaeological project focusing on salvage.”
And from an archaeological perspective, the site is not in pristine shape. To archaeologists, it isn’t just the artifact that is important, but also the context in which the item is found, which holds valuable clues. Artifacts here have been jumbled from different eras, also making it ideal for public participation.
Chet Kuhn, a bartender, was giving his biceps a good workout shaking the screening box while looking for the next treasured bits.
“I’ve lived in White Bear Lake for 14 years, and I’ve kind of fallen in love with this city. I just like to be involved,” he said. “You never know what you’re going to find.”