Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum: A Look at Canoeing History

Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum: SIgn

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I have to say, I haven’t really given canoes a thought since the days way back when my Dad and I took the old heavy aluminum canoe and participated in the Madison Paddle and Portage canoe event. I was maybe 100 pounds when soaking wet back then and it was kind of a hellish experience, LOL. To this day, we have kayaks, not canoes in our camping stash.

Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum: A Look at Canoeing History

Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum: A Look at Canoeing History

Little did I know that kayaks came from canoes…which seems rather obvious now, but I would learn this spring when I went to the Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum. The Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum is a museum that collects, preserves, and shares the history of the canoe. They are focused on preserving the heritage of paddlesports in Wisconsin and beyond.


The museum focuses on the history and heritage of canoe building, canoes, and canoeing in North America. The displays are diverse and include historical craft from a variety of geographical regions in North America and across time periods.

our tour guide at the Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum
We had the best tour guide 🙂

I found it interesting that the Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum (WCHM) is a 501c3 non-profit corporation based in Spooner, Wisconsin with its exhibits hall and shop housed within the part of the Baker Grain Elevator building, built circa 1912. I LOVE it when buildings are repurposed instead of torn down and replaced.

The collection basically started with the collection of Jeff Dean and Jill Weber Dean of Dean Clinic. And if I recall correctly, they founded Wooden Canoe Magazine – they were such fanatics.

What do you learn?

One of the first things I learned was that there are basically 3 types of canoes: Bark, Dugouts, and Skin Boats, that last category usually being pretty rare to see on a display.

We learned how Native Americans opened up a lot of the area by canoe travel and that was passed on to the early European settlers.

Field of Flowers North Farm
Click on the picture to check it out

There is a rich legacy of canoe craft clearly demonstrated here – in the well-used space to showcase their wooden canoes. From the rafters to using mirrors on the floor, you get the best views of all the canoe paraphernalia and an extensive collection of historic canoes. I found it fascinating how canvas canoes came to be and the fact that over 100 years ago canoes had sails!

There is a clear evolution of canoe design visible as you walk through the canoe museum in order and look over the display space. Seriously, any museum visitor will be amazed at everything from the Canadian Canoes set up to use a mast down to the bent shaft paddle design of legendary Eugene Jensen.

I had no idea that there were so many different sizes, depths, lengths, and more based on a canoe’s intended use! They were different for rivers, lakes, the great lakes like Lake Superior, racing, fishing, travel, etc. And, in this museum, they are all put in proper historical context with their eclectic assemblage of boats.

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Important Contemporary Builders

The Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum has a 2,500-square-foot canoe shop. The working canoe shop offers classes to help people learn how to build canoes and other types of boats by hand or by machine so a new generation of builders can learn restoration techniques and contemporary construction. Canoe construction demonstrations are cool once you realize they used to build them like the Native Americans: from the outside in and now they are built upside down, on a form, from the inside out.

One interesting tidbit is that when restoring a canoe, it is usually the tips that are in the worse shape. Canoes are usually stored upside down, in the dirt, and that is why the tips rot out first.

A canoe with sails at the Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum
A canoe with sails was an unexpected sight!

The shop is available for the general public to use, but you NEED to know what you are doing as there are no instructors on staff or formal instruction.

Canoe and Wooden Boat Show

This is an annual event held on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend – a great way to kick off their opening for the season! It is a literal party with food and drink, tours, demonstrations, live music, and so much more! You can learn more about it here – WCHM Boat Show

Things are well described at the Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum
Things are well described at the Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum

WCHM Annual Canoe

One of the big fundraisers for the WCHM is the simple fact that they build or restore one canoe a year to raffle off – I LOVE that! I heard that a canoe workshop can involve 100 hours and up to 100 people. In that time they can build that canoe in those 100 hours. What a fascinating opportunity that would be!

Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum Facebook

This is a great place to keep track of all events and activities – just check it out for yourself: WCHM Facebook Page

Such incredible works of canoe art at the Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum
Such incredible works of canoe art

Location & Hours

So, next time you find yourself in Washburn County, Wisconsin in the summer (Memorial Day through Labor Day) check out this part of Spooner for yourself – the museum is open from 10:00 am-4:00 pm on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday but appointments can be made to visit during other regular hours at 715-635-2479 or info@wisconsincanoeheritagemuseum.org

It really is a great way to see the architectural vernacular of the era – that golden age of North American canoe travel and how it takes us through to today.

Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum | 312 N Front St | Spooner, WI 54801

A map at the WCHM
You see more than just canoes at the WCHM

Nearby Places

If you’re looking for something to do near Spooner, Wisconsin, we’ve got you covered. There are a lot of great shops and restaurants – like check out Round Man Brewing Company for lunch or even the Spooner Outlet for affordable souvenirs! We scored great deals on Tshirts and Hoodies for our family!

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