A long-neglected American Indian dugout canoe is suddenly the main attraction at a Long Lake museum.
New tests show that the old canoe, unearthed from Lake Minnetonka 80 years ago, is more valuable and rare than first thought — estimated to be nearly 1,000 years old, the oldest of its kind in Minnesota.
“We’ve always thought it was 200, 300 years old,” said Russ Ferrin, a retiree who runs the Pioneer Museum. “And then they came back and said it was 1,000 years old. It totally shocked us.”
The canoe, made from a hollowed tree trunk by some of the earliest American Indians to live on the lake and in the state, was initially dated to about 1750. But recent radiocarbon testing now dates it to between 1025 and 1165 — making it one of the oldest watercraft finds in the state.
“It’s spectacular,” Ferrin said.
The canoe was discovered in 1934 as a family was building a dock on the shore of Lake Minnetonka’s North Arm in Orono. Severe drought had dropped the lake below normal water levels, and one of the dock posts hit what family members thought was a log. They unearthed it and discovered it was the well-preserved dugout canoe, long embedded in the lake’s silt and mud.
The canoe has bounced around to different museums and been lent to various groups.
When no one else had space — or, perhaps, interest — the Western Hennepin County Pioneer Association took it in 1961, adding it to the dozens of family heirlooms and antiques that people have discarded, such as tea cups, a war flag, even a moose shot by Theodore Roosevelt that another museum didn’t want.
“Everything tells a story,” Ferrin said.
The association’s museum shuffled the heavy canoe into a backroom among war memorabilia before moving it into a hallway.
Last year, St. Paul nautical archaeologists Ann Merriman and Chris Olson came across it. Intrigued, they set out to study it and seven other dugout canoes in Minnesota. “No one knows much about them,” Merriman said. “They’re priceless.”
With a $9,000 state grant, the couple researched and did radiocarbon analysis on the canoes found across the state, from the Minnesota River in Bloomington to Dutch Lake in northern Minnesota.
The study, released Tuesday by Maritime Heritage Minnesota, determined that the Lake Minnetonka canoe, which is 11 feet by nearly 1.5 feet, is the oldest. It’s also in good condition despite some deterioration since it was unearthed; it’s lost small pieces and a large crack splits it.
“That’s sad,” Merriman said, adding that the damage may be from the 1930s. “They didn’t know better; they cared about history but didn’t know how to care for it.”
While the canoe may look unimpressive, the archaeologists say it’s a rare find. They now hope to track down more information, such as what kind of tree was used to make it, as well as to research two dugout canoes found in Beltrami and Blue Earth counties.
“We’re hoping there’s more out there,” Merriman said. “This history is important for everyone.”
In Long Lake, the canoe that once was relegated to a corner is now the museum’s centerpiece — fitting, since it’s about 6 miles from where it was discovered. The museum will rope it off and enclose it in a glass case with updated details about how rare and old it is.
“We’ll never loan it again, especially now we know what it is,” Ferrin said.
It’s not just newfound fame for an ancient artifact but also for the small museum. Founded by pioneers 107 years ago, the nonprofit is housed in an old school building. It’s run by Ferrin and other volunteers, and admission is free when it’s open for four hours on Saturdays.
“It is [the main attraction] now,” Ferrin said of the canoe. “We hope it will draw visitors.”