In the Bloomington Historical Society's early days in the 1960s, George Hopkins was one of the stalwarts. A descendant of a missionary who ministered to the Dakota Indians in the 1840s, Hopkins enthusiastically searched for artifacts for the society collection, especially those linked to Indian culture. He would call his friend and fellow society member Stan Danielson to see what he thought.

"A lot of it was not really worth much," Danielson remembered. "Then he called me and said, 'Stan, I think I found a dugout canoe by the river.'"

Danielson got in his car, picked up his friend and drove down Lyndale Avenue toward the river until Hopkins told him to stop. Sticking out horizontally from the river bank a few feet from the bluff was something that looked like the end of a charred tree stump.

They got out of the car to take a closer look.

"The hollowed-out part just didn't look normal to me," Danielson said. "It looked like a man-made thing.

"I remember saying, 'George, I think you got one.'"

The 16-foot length of cupped and carved tree trunk, dug out of the dirt in 1967, was authenticated by the Minnesota Historical Society as a dugout canoe that dated from around 1600.

For decades it sat in a bed of sand in the basement of Bloomington's Old Town Hall. This fall, the newly cleaned and restored canoe assumed a place of honor among the society's permanent displays upstairs in the renovated Town Hall.

"It is our most precious piece, our oldest antiquity," said Vonda Kelly, the society's president and executive director.

What tribe made the canoe, and what tools they used, isn't totally clear. According to the museum display, Oneota and Dakota Indians made dugout canoes from basswood, cottonwood and maple trees in the Minnesota River Valley for at least 1,000 years. They felled trees by burning the base or cutting them down, then shaped the trunk by splitting the wood lengthwise and alternately chipping away and selectively burning the wood to hollow out the logs.

The Bloomington dugout is about 3 to 4 inches thick and has a flat bottom. Gouges from some kind of tool -- it could have been stone, bone, clamshells or perhaps iron -- are visible on the canoe's curved inside. It would have been an awkward craft to steer, and heavy, too. Kelly said it took 10 men to carry the restored canoe back into the Town Hall.

"They float very well and are very stable, but they had to be expert oarsmen to use them," Kelly said. Paddlers often sat at the back end of the craft, with passengers or cargo in front.

When the canoe was first discovered, Danielson consulted experts at the University of Minnesota on how to preserve it and was told to soak the canoe in polyethelene glycol. The canoe was covered in sand and the liquid was poured over it. Danielson remembers visiting over the next few weeks to "baste" the ends of the canoe that stuck out of the sand. But by 2007, when the canoe was removed as the Old Town Hall was being renovated, the wood had grown spongy.

The canoe was sent to Museum Professionals Inc. in Loretto for restoration. Sand was removed from all the crevices and the canoe was treated with another preservative. The dugout was mounted on a platform that makes it look as if it is sitting on shore, with water lapping at one end of the beached craft.

The restoration was paid for with a donation from Bloomington businessman Gil Williams and with $900 raised by Laurie Dahlgren's eighth-grade social studies class at Olson Middle School in Bloomington. The students sold candy and held other fundraisers to help preserve the canoe.

The restoration means that for now, all the society has to do is occasionally dust the canoe.

"Most people are just awed when they come in and see it," Kelly said. "We have 10,000 years of a culture that's been here, and this helps interpret how they lived."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380