To hear Bill Picconatto tell the story, he first met his brother-in-law, Bob Carlson, when Carlson came to pick up his sister for a date. Picconatto was 20 at the time and promptly backed his car into the front end of Carlson’s. Not exactly a distinguished start for a couple of guys who would embark on an intricate canoe research and restoration project decades later.
The canoe is an 18-foot, cedar-planked Old Town square stern. Made in 1938, it has carried years of history and most likely a lot of U.S. mail along Minnesota’s North Shore. Its white-oak stern nicely accommodates a small outboard motor, which made it useful as a freighting craft.
The serial number stamped into the canoe’s inner stem offered the two men and Carlson’s wife (and Picconatto’s sister), Angie, an initial paper trail for tracking down the original Old Town invoice. When the canoe was completed in 1939, it was shipped to Kelley-How-Thomson Co. in Duluth for sale.
There’s no record of who bought it from the hardware store, and the group is still working on some history. However, Carlson’s father bought it at a postal auction in the late 1950s. He was told the canoe had been used for mail delivery up toward the Knife River along the shore of Lake Superior.
According to an e-mail they received from a postal history research analyst, watercraft have been used to transport mail ever since there has been mail. Routes in rural areas were known as star routes and run by private individuals contracted by the postal service. These routes also included mule trains, railroads and sled dog teams like the route run by Minnesota’s legendary John Beargrease.
In the early 1980s, Picconatto bought the canoe from Carlson’s father and used it for two seasons. When he put it away, he said he noticed some dry rot on the transom, cracked fiberglass and other deterioration. He stored it upside down in a shed realizing he’d have to repair it.
Then, 30 years passed.
Carlson, 71, of Eden Prairie, and Picconatto, 62, of Rogers, are dive-in kind of fellows. During the winter of 2015, they got to talking about restoration. “Let’s try this,” they said.
“It’s a big project. A lot bigger than one would think,” Carlson said.
Picconatto said they learned about restoration partly through books and partly by just doing it. It suited the team chemistry. “[Bob] is so even-keel that it offsets me, who is kind of not as even-keel,” he said.
The multistep process spanned nearly two years. Though novices at restoration, they were keen on maintaining the original artistic integrity down to proper nails for replacing planking.
The canoe was originally made of cedar, spruce and white oak. But Carlson’s father put fiberglass over the hull to cover the original canvas, which was deteriorating. The restoration began with striping the hull down to bare wood.
They also had to be careful not to break any parts that were no longer replaceable, like the keel, which is one 18-foot piece. They reused every bit of wood and only replaced parts where necessary. At the back end, that was the transom. Up in front, the bow and deck were rotted.
The original front seat was made of cane but had broken and had been covered with pegboard. Undaunted, Carlson went online and learned caning to replace it.
Picconatto said that each step of the way, Carlson took photos and they learned one process after another. However, canvas work was the hardest part of the entire job. Whereas most canoes are double-ended, this one had a square stern which literally threw wrinkles into the plan. The job required infinite pulling, pushing and shoving to get it smooth.
“Any wrinkle will show like mad,” he said. “After about two weeks, we finally got the canvas where it looked good. It took that long.”
When finished, they were determined to make good use of that square stern. They hooked a three-horsepower Johnson outboard on it that Picconatto’s father bought new in 1955. It had been in storage since 1984.
“We put it in the water and it started after three pulls,” Carlson said. As for the canoe, he added, “It’s stable and just the most beautiful ride you can imagine.”
The two men launched the restored canoe on Aug. 6, 2017, at Lake Elora near Cotton, Minn. Being 18 feet, the canoe wasn’t easy to carry. But they found a trailer that had been sitting in the weeds for 50 or 60 years on Picconatto’s property. They dug it out and restored it, too. Picconatto said the two men and their wives are making an annual event of taking the canoe out for the final time of the season to view fall colors in late September.
The canoe has been part of Carlson’s family history since he was about 10 and fills him with nostalgia. “I remember my father putting fiberglass on it. I remember fishing out of this canoe.”
Picconatto said he loves woodworking and when Carlson approached him about the project, he was fascinated. What’s more, the canoe canvas wasn’t the only thing to emerge wrinkle-free.
“It became a great opportunity for me to develop a really good friendship with my brother-in-law,” he said.
As a result, both are now officially co-owners of the canoe.
Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely. He can be reached through writingoutfitter.com.