If you want to know more about the history of transportation in Wisconsin, you can get a double dose during a visit to the town of Spooner.
Sitting across from each other on a shared parking lot are the Railroad Memories Museum and the Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum, both packed with information about early modes of transportation in the Badger State.
The Railroad Memories Museum opened in 1987 in the former Omaha/CNW railroad depot. Right inside the front door is a diorama depicting Spooner’s railroad yard as it existed over the decades. Museum volunteer Tom Gossen, who grew up in Spooner, said the diorama is a very accurate representation of the railyard.
“At one point, there were 14 passenger trains a day,” he said, “and as kids, we ran all around this area. At the edge of town were the woods and there were a lot of hobos that rode the trains and they stayed out there in the woods.”
Gossen said at night he didn’t count sheep to get to sleep, he listened to the guys switching the railcars in the yard.
He wasn’t the only one with memories of the railroad activity in Spooner. Over the years, people from around the area have donated enough railroad lanterns, locks, signs, photos, paintings, telegraph machines, maps, books and anything else related to the railroad to fill 13 rooms.
Many of the items have detailed information cards attached to them, so visitors can spend a few minutes or a few hours working their way through each room.
“People enjoy seeing the way things used to be,” Gossen said. “For the older visitors, it’s a chance to relive the memories, and for the younger visitors, it’s an education, often with things they may have never seen before.”
Next door, the Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum remembers a slower, quieter mode of transportation.
Volunteer Chris Pratt lives in Grantsburg and drives to Spooner every Wednesday to “hang out with the boats,” he said. His love of the canoes on display is not uncommon in a region of the country where canoes and their history have been a significant part of many people’s lives.
The museum, which opened in 2010, displays many varieties of canoes from dugouts and sturdy backcountry canoes to canoes with sails and oars to sleek racing canoes. Information cards explain each canoe and feature stories about the builders whose works are included in the collection.
“These wooden canoes take so much work,” Pratt explained. “People in this region know about the voyageurs and they come in to learn more about the history of that era. They want to know more about how we got around for years on our waterways.”
In addition to the displays of canoes and paddles, the museum also features a 2,500-square-foot workshop where interested participants can watch and learn the art of building wooden canoes.
“A lot of people who come in here love canoes so much,” Pratt said. “There is something about the wooden construction, the various styles of it. They respect the history, how the Indigenous people took the time to learn how to split the wood. There is so much involved in the history of these boats. It’s amazing.”