Preserving the history of commercial fishing at the North Shore Commercial Fishing Museum in TofteJun 30, 2023 08:41AM ● By Content Editor
By Local Writer Nancy Giguere for Boreal Community Media - June 30, 2023
Once upon a time, there were 425 commercial fishermen on the North Shore from Duluth to Grand Portage. “Now there are only eight,” said Ginny Storlie, the president of the Tofte Historical Society.
The Society, created 30 years ago by local residents, focuses on preserving the history of commercial fishing on the North Shore. “That history was going to float away if we didn’t preserve it,” Storlie said.
Keeping the dream alive
From the 1880s to the 1950s, during the heyday of commercial fishing on Lake Superior, the huge native fish population of whitefish, herring, and trout supported an enormous industry, which was the main source of income for North Shore residents, followed by logging and farming. Fishermen — almost exclusively Norwegian immigrants — usually worked alone or in small groups. On average, there was a fishing house located every half mile on the Superior shoreline.
But by the 1980s, the industry was gone, due to overfishing and the accidental introduction of the sea lamprey, a parasitic fish native to the Atlantic Ocean.
Ted Tofte, son of one of the town’s founders, began lobbying the town board to establish “… a museum and interpretive center for this once basic industry, which for 60 years provided the main incentive for the early settlement of the north shore and which was, for that period, its main source of livelihood.”
The museum was slow to get off the ground. Several potential funders turned the project down. But Ted’s nephew Brian worked to keep the dream alive. He contacted local elders and the few fishermen still active, collecting stories and artifacts for the projected museum.
Bill Wehseler, museum greeter (left) and Ginny Storlie, president of the Tofte Historical Society (right)
A museum at last
The Tofte Historical Society was created in 1993 as the town planned its centennial celebration. On July 4, in front of a crowd of old-timers and visiting descendants of the original settlers, board members stood on the site of the proposed museum and turned over a red shovel full of dirt. Afterward, the treasurer collected dues from the society’s first members.
The North Shore Commercial Fishing Museum, which is operated and governed by the Tofte Historical Society, opened in 1996. Bluefin Bay Resort donated the land and has continued to be a major supporter of the museum. Further support came from the 196 charter members of the Society, as well as retired architect Willis Schoellberg who drew up the plans.
These days, the museum welcomes visitors from throughout the United States and around the world, including the occasional Norwegian looking for relatives. In 2022, over 2,000 people visited the museum.
A Vigorous, Tough Life
The museum building is a replica of the 1905 twin fish house, built by twin brothers Andrew and John Tofte and their brother-in-law Hans Englesen, who founded the town in 1893. A wall separated the Tofte and Englesen fishing businesses, but a large opening in the wall allowed for conversation.
Visitors to the museum will find vintage photos, a traditional Mackinaw boat used by Great Lakes fishermen, and samples of their tools: ropes, hooks, wood and cork floats, nets and net reels for drying them. In one corner, stands a mannequin wearing the traditional fishman’s clothing. Nearby, is a notebook containing photos of fish houses up and down the shore, along with oral histories of their owners. “It was a vigorous and tough life,” said Bill Wehseler, the museum’s greeter.
Wehesler’s parents built the North Shore Market (now the Tofte General Store) across the road from the museum site. His mother, Florence, was the treasurer who collected the dues from the Tofte Historical Society’s first members back in 1993.
Though Wehesler wasn’t a fishman, commercial fishing was a big part of his life. As a little kid, he loved feeding the seagulls with fish heads, tails, and guts supplied by Clarence Tofte. As an adult, he sold locally caught fish in the store, and often visited fish houses up and down the shore. “I knew a lot of those fisherman,” he said.
Last year, the Tofte Historical Society formed an alliance with the Cook County Historical Society, the Schroeder Area Historical Society, and the Gunflint Historical Society. The four organizations entered into a planning process focused on working together to take collective action and sustainably fulfill their missions.
“Each society will keep its unique identity, but we found that learning about each other gave us new ideas and created synergy,” said Ranna Hansen LeVoir, treasurer of the Tofte Historical Society.
To begin with, all four societies contributed items to a display at the Schroeder Area Historical Society, which is the first site tourists encounter as they drive up Highway 61. Each site will now display advertising for all four, and the four organizations are working on a joint website.
And in October, the members of the alliance plan to present a storytelling event at the Arrowhead Centre for the Arts in Grand Marais. “We want to tell the story of this land, its peoples, its cultures, and their interactions over time,” LeVoir said.
North Shore Commercial Fishing Museum Visitor Information:
Address: 7136 MN-61, Tofte, MN 55615
- Thursday: 10 am – 5 pm
- Friday: 10 am – 5 pm
- Saturday: 10 am – 4 pm
About Nancy Giguere
Since retiring, she has volunteered as a writer/editor for WaterLegacy, a nonprofit working to counter the threat of sulfide mining proposed for Northern Minnesota. She helps draft and edit grant applications, email blasts, website content, and other materials