Canoe craze marked by romance, ribaldry

  • Article by: KIM ODE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 1, 2013 - 10:08 AM

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.

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Lake Calhoun was teeming with canoes by 1912, when Minneapolis stopped issuing permits for vessels with suggestive names such as Win-kat-us and Ilgetu.

Photo: Minnesota Historical Society,

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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.

Uh-huh.

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.

“Girl Canoeists’ Tight Skirts Menace Society,” according to a headline in the Minneapolis Morning Tribune. The way Berry saw it, the narrow skirts of the day would hamper women from swimming should their canoe capsize. While it’s unclear whether a tight skirt ever led to a drowning, his concerns did lead to more women and girls taking swimming lessons.

Parks’ use reflects society

These days, there are few, if any, law enforcement issues concerning urban canoeists, said Dawn Summers, a spokesperson for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. Rented racks accommodate 438 canoes on the Chain of Lakes, and sell out every year. Names painted on canoes seem to have gone the way of ladies’ bloomers.

“The fascinating thing about the study of park history is that the use of parks reflected society at the time,” said Smith, who shares his research on his blog, http://minneapolisparkhistory.com. “People always used the parks for what suited them, so parks have gone through great changes over the years.

Consider 1896, when the bicycle craze resulted in a path built around Lake Harriet, and construction of an enclosure big enough for 800 bikes, where cyclists could “park” while at the lake for the day.

“The park commission acquired the land for the parks, but ultimately people decided how they would use that land — or water, in this case.”

Society, of course, soon moved toward a more land-based pursuit with the emergence of the automobile. By the 1920s, the canoodling that happened in canoes was taking a back seat to, well, the back seat.

But also to the front seat, Smith said. “People could get away as a couple.” And, while Edsel wasn’t as clever a name as Kismekwik, Americans’ love affair with the open road had begun.

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185

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  • Scan from original credit Minnesota Historical Society

  • “Getting After the ‘Spoons’ ” editorial cartoon from the Minneapolis Morning Tribune June 29, 1913, that appeared on the front page.

  • David Smith, a local historian who specializes in Minneapolis parks history, near the shores of Lake Harriet in south Minneapolis. At right, an editorial cartoon from the June 29, 1913, edition of the Minneapolis Tribune.

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