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Boathouses keep lake country's history afloat

By Lee Bloomquist

Duluth News Tribune

SOUDAN, Minn. — In the 1950s and ’60s, Sunday was haircut day at boathouse No. 123 on Stuntz Bay in Lake Vermilion.

"Being down there was part of life," said Frank Gornick, 57, of Soudan, a fourth-generation boathouse owner on the bay. "My dad (Martin) would give haircuts to everybody. On my first date with my wife (Jorgine), I took her down there and went out in the boat to watch fireworks. It seemed like the thing to do."

Gornick’s boathouse, a simple, corrugated-steel structure, stands amid 142 other boathouses on the south shore of Stuntz Bay on Lake Vermilion, one of Minnesota’s largest and most scenic lakes.

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Like the hard-working iron ore miners who built them, each boathouse is different.

Some are framed with tamarack or spruce poles, others with rough-sawn lumber. A few are covered with wood fasciae. Many have a ball finial — an architecturally distinct steel ball — at the roof’s peak.

Attached to each boathouse is a number ranging from 1 to 151, the original number of boathouses built along the shoreline.

Signs reading "Burger King parking only" or "Sioux Fans parking" or bearing fish figurines and family names are nailed near the small Finnish-style pedestrian doors on the boathouses.

The cluster of boathouses, some dating to the early 1900s, is a piece of northeastern Minnesota history that some people want to preserve. To keep the boathouses afloat and the memories alive, a group of local residents is moving to make them a formal part of history.

If approved at the state level, the designation still would require final approval by federal officials. The decision is expected by mid-summer.

It would be the state’s first boathouse district to receive National Register of Historic Places recognition.

"There may be others in the nation, I don’t know," said Susan Roth, preservation officer for the Minnesota Historical Society. "But this is the first collection of boathouses that have come under the consideration of this office."

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In 1884, the Minnesota Iron Co. built the first boathouse on Stuntz Bay to protect a company steamboat called the Decora Tower.

Across the Vermilion and Mesabi ranges, mining companies built homes and clubhouses in employee communities called mining locations and provided services such as water and electricity to the locations. To keep employees happy and loyal to the company, amenities such as health care and recreational facilities were offered within the locations.

In Soudan, boathouse lots were offered by the Oliver Iron Mining Co., which took control of the Minnesota Iron Co., as a reward to senior miners for their dedication and years of service to the company, according to Stuntz Bay Association officials.

Some of the mining company’s top-level employees used the boathouses to get to island properties, said Nancy Larson, secretary of the Stuntz Bay Association.

The boathouses became a way of life for miners and their families.

Stories have it that miners used the boathouses for fishing and boating and as a place to gather for haircuts, beer drinking, cards and music-making. Using electricity provided by the company, women would meet at the boathouses to do laundry and socialize.

On lots leased by the mining company, miners built the boathouses.

"The boathouses tell the story of the relationship between the miners and the company and the miners and the lake," Roth said. "You worked hard and you played hard."

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Most of the boathouses were built between 1900 and 1955.

"I see huge value there," said Duluth architect David Salmela. "It is something that is very spontaneous by circumstance and is very beautiful. As a singular assembly of buildings on that lake, or on the Iron Range, it exceeds everything by far."

Larson said the boathouse district meets criteria for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places for several reasons.

Qualifying it are its historical connections with the area’s entertainment, recreation, architecture and iron ore industry, said Larson of Soudan who, with her husband, Dick, owns a boathouse in the district.

"We’re looking into perpetuity," said Larson of the historical designation and passing on the property to children and grandchildren. "We know how much they mean to this community, to us, to our parents and to our kids. It goes through many generations."

Although the boathouses’ primary use has been to provide easy access to Lake Vermilion, they mean much more to the miners who built them and the generations that followed, said Chuck Tekautz, 66, of Soudan.

"Back in the early 1950s there was always lots of people down there," Tekautz said. "We would go out there after football practice and fish until 9:30 at night and then come home guided by the lights of the boathouses."

Joe Yapel, a retired schoolteacher, said the boathouses always have been more than a convenient spot to launch a boat.

"Each boathouse used to have electricity," Yapel said. "People would come down there to do their laundry and iron clothes. When we were kids, we lived at the lake. We fished there and had picnics there. We’d like to see them remain there for our children and their children."

Jim Hill, president of the Stuntz Bay Association, said his father, Jim Sr., built the family boathouse in 1957.

"When I was young, we’d open the doors up and fish right out the boathouse," Hill said. "There’s so much history out there; we just know a drop of it."

On warm summer nights, it’s still common to find boathouse owners congregated at the site, holding family gatherings and socializing, said Jim Essig, manager of the Soudan Underground State Park, which includes the land on which the boathouses stand.

"It’s not uncommon on a Friday night to see 120 cars down there," Essig said. "Some of the people who have boathouses will picnic or have a beer."

Salmela said it’s critical to preserve the boathouse district and other buildings related to the history of Iron Range mining.

"It’s an amazing place," Salmela said. "Tearing these down would be like tearing down Kaleva Hall in Virginia. If we had been more historical and preservationist thinking, we would have retained all the mine buildings at Soudan, and we would have people coming from all over the world to see them."

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