For many, the history of canoes is about voyageurs and Indians. But these sleek craft also once provided escape from chaperones’ scrutiny on urban lakes.
Once, people canoodled in canoes.
Some still may, but canoeing these days is more about portaging, Boundary Waters, J-strokes and sore shoulders. Wouldn’t have it any other way, of course — Minnesotans are nothing if not rigorously recreational. But in the earnest pursuit of wilderness or walleyes, it’s worth recalling that “spoon” didn’t always mean a fishing lure.
At one time, the number of couples cuddling in canoes grabbed headlines, spawned park police patrols and saw metaphorical lines drawn in the sand about naughty boat names such as Kismekwik, Skwizmtyt (sound it out) or Kumonin Kid.
Local historian David C. Smith unearthed this more salacious part of canoe history while researching the canoe craze of the early 1900s.
“I was initially interested in the staggering number of canoes on the lakes,” he said. In 1910, Minneapolis had 200 canoe permits. By 1912, permits soared to 2,000 on the Chain of Lakes alone.
“It was one of those periodical things that come along, like bicycles or Rollerblades,” Smith said.
One reason: Canoes enabled couples to achieve scarce privacy, especially on darkening summer evenings far from shore.
Enforcing a midnight lake curfew was as impossible as it sounds. Park police took to the waters in boats with spotlights trying to squelch misconduct “so grave and flagrant that it threatens to throw a shadow upon the lakes as recreation resorts and to bring shame upon the city,” according to a newspaper account.
One short-lived civic edict forbade canoeists from sitting side-by-side. They had to face each other, said Smith, noting an insulted response from a Linden Hills neighborhood group that the rule “assumed that every woman was a low moral character.”
Not that women weren’t pushing the envelope. Bathing suits at the time were to stop no more than 4 inches above the knee — a limit that was being challenged, given parks superintendent Theodore Wirth grousing about whether he’d have to go out there with a tape measure.
That rule, however, resulted in the park police hiring its first female officer. Her job? To speak with female beachgoers about inappropriate dress.
Courting canoes, courting trouble
The Twin Cities canoe craze was part of a national enthusiasm for boats that, for centuries up until that time, were more for exploration, trade and transportation. Now there were elegant vessels, wide enough for cushions, parasols and picnic baskets, according to an article last year in Collectors Weekly.
Manufacturers marketed “courting canoes,” with one famous company capitalizing on its name with the sales slogan: “There’ll be a hot time in the Old Town tonight!”
Some canoe names were similarly suggestive, which led the Minneapolis Park Board to put the squeeze on offensive monikers — even as news accounts made clear that the commissioners needed some of the names explained.
Such dissemblance, of course, was part of the namers’ game: Aw-kom-in, Win-kat-us, Ilgetu or Thehelusa may look benign, but say them out loud.
In 1912, the Park Board stopped granting licenses to canoes with naughty names. The puritanism was roundly mocked, but that didn’t stop F.C. Berry, in charge of parks’ recreational features, from declaring in 1914 that skirt fashions were death traps for female paddlers.
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