Connecting the Brule River's past and present: Joe Lucius canoe lands at Douglas County Historical Society

The canoe tells the story of conservation and the Brule River.
Douglas County Historical Society board of trustee members, from left, Jon Winter, Gary Androsky and Ron Leino, help Damian Wilmot carry a canoe made by Joe Lucius into the DCHS on Monday morning, Oct. 4, 2021. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

A 15-foot canoe built by Solon Springs pioneer Joe Lucius is on display at the Douglas County Historical Society.

The piece, donated by Janet (Kinnear) Lietha and her brother, John A. Kinnear, shares a link with the Calvin Coolidge exhibit. The 30th U.S. President tickled the Brule River in search of trout from inside a Joe Lucius canoe. It also fits with the current “Made in Superior” exhibit, which business manager Jon Winter said could be expanded to “Made in Douglas County.”

The sleek green craft, weighing less than 100 pounds, tells a story of its own, however, incorporating Solon Springs, the Brule River and Lucius Woods Park.

No one knows how many canoes Joe Lucius made in Solon Springs.

“He built canoes from the late 1800s through about 1953,” said Damian Wilmot of Superior, a local expert on the craft. “This boat is actually dated 1953. This is absolutely one of the last ones.”


'It's a treasure'

Wilmot has restored two Joe Lucius canoes and guides fly fisherman on the Brule out of one.

“Most of the boats that are still in existence are on the Brule River, and almost all the families on the Brule River had Lucius canoes at one time; many still do,” he said.

Lucius canoes have a distinctive design, incorporating cedar plank construction that requires a soak in water to swell and seal; ribs, gunnels and thwarts made of white oak; a stem of tamarack; and a tapering keelboard. There's a 20-foot version on display at the Wisconsin Canoe Museum in Spooner.
Damian Wilmot talks about a canoe made by Joe Lucius in Solon Springs in 1953 that was donated to the Douglas County Historical Society on Monday, Oct. 4, 2021. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Wilmot was tapped to truck the donated canoe from the shores of Lake Minnesuing to the Douglas County Historical Society Monday, Oct. 4.

"This thing is immaculate for a Joe Lucius canoe, other than the color," Wilmot said. "Rustoleom Hunter Green, by the way, is a great match for that (original color)."

“It’s a treasure,” he said.


Jack of all trades

Lucius’ list of accomplishments runs long.

In his youth, he and his brothers rediscovered the old portage trail between the Brule and Lake St. Croix. He helped build the village’s first baseball diamond in 1886, using pickaxes and shovels.

He served on the first U.S. Conservation Congress in Washington, D.C., in 1904 and was a member of the state’s first forestry department, started in 1905.

He was a jack of all trades on the railroad; he planned and built the first state tree nursery and ranger station; he designed steel fire towers and helped design the stockade building that sat along East Second Street; and he was instrumental in setting up the first Wisconsin fire protection laws.

Solon Springs connection

Lucius Woods park is named for Lucius' brother, Nicholas, who donated the land for a state park. It was later turned over to Douglas County. The fight to donate that land is what brought the canoe into the hands of John E. Kinnear, a business owner and lifelong resident of Solon Springs

"Dad and others in our area, as well as the Lucius family, were interested in keeping the property that became Lucius Woods as a park rather than having it be developed," said Kinnear's daughter, Janet Lietha. "Dad helped Mr. Lucius do what needed to be done to make that happen."

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John E. Kinnear of Solon Springs was the original owner of the Joe Lucius canoe that was donated to the Douglas County Historical Society on Monday, Oct. 4, 2021. Contributed / Janet Lietha


As a thank you, Joe Lucius made him the canoe.

"Dad loved that canoe, and often explained to my brother and I that it was not just a canoe, but a work of art," said Lietha, who lives on Lake Minnesuing.

She and her brother remember helping repair and maintain the craft with their father.

"My brother, John A. Kinnear, especially remembers trips on St. Croix Lake, the St. Croix River, and the Brule. One special trip down the St. Croix to the Gordon Flowage allowed Dad and John to sit and watch a family of otters playing and eagles fishing," Lietha said.

The decision to donate the craft was made jointly.

"Our dad died in 1978, but the canoe has always stayed with us. It has always been kept indoors, so it is in good shape. But it has just been sitting in a garage. It really is a work of art that should be shared as part of local history," Lietha said.
The Douglas County Historical Society received a canoe made by Joe Lucius in Solon Springs in 1953 on Monday, Oct. 4, 2021. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram


Winter said he's torn over returning the craft to its original color or leaving it as-is.

"T his color tells the story of the owner," he said.

When the family approached him with the donation request, Winter did some quick calculating to make sure the canoe would fit before approaching the board. He's excited about adding a Douglas County story to the collection.

"The Brule river is a big Douglas County story, all the way from Coolidge and presidents before him," Winter said. "There’s a lot of story to tell there."

Visit the Douglas County Historical Society website or Facebook page for more information and open hours.

Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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