A Fishing Boat Built in La Crosse

Robert Mullen

Catalog Number: 2018.021.01

If you grew up in La Crosse, you probably went fishing on the Mississippi River at some point.

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If you were fortunate, you went out on a boat and found a place where the fish were biting and ate some pan-fried sunfish, perch or maybe walleye that night. Fishing has always been considered a leisure activity that also brought food to the table. You could say that fishing is in the blood of many La Crosse families.

That was certainly true for Walter Kofta, a La Crosse native born in 1928. He grew up in La Crosse and married Agnes McCabe here. He worked at the Auto-Lite plant on the city’s north side. And Wally loved to go fishing on the river in his boat.

The boat in this picture was purchased by Wally in 1952. It is a flat-bottomed wooden boat, 16 feet long, and it carries an 18-horsepower Evinrude outboard motor. Wally’s boat was handmade in La Crosse from a popular boat pattern by his friend Frank Voigt. While Voigt was not in the business of making boats, he made four more of these boats for local fishermen.

Agnes didn’t like that the boat sat quite low in the water, but she still liked going on the river with her husband and cooking the fish they caught for supper.

A bit of a daredevil, Wally even took his boat out fishing when there was considerable ice in the river. He used two home-made eight-foot pikes to drag the boat through or over the ice to get to where he wanted to fish. He recalled that he once saved his friend Frank Voigt on a winter evening when Frank got trapped for three hours on an ice floe that broke away and floated downstream.

Wally moved to Waterloo, Iowa, to work at the John Deere plant after the La Crosse Auto-Lite plant closed, but he often came back with his boat to fish in his home territory on the Mississippi.

Walter Kofta died in 2017. His family donated the boat, motor, pikes and other related material to the La Crosse County Historical Society earlier this year.

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on December 15, 2018.

This object can be viewed in our online collections database by clicking here.

Turkish Nook in the Hixon House

Peggy Derrick

 Photo by Roger Grant-Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

Photo by Roger Grant-Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

One of the best parts of giving tours at Hixon House, La Crosse’s premiere historic house museum, is getting to show off the home’s Turkish Nook.

It always gets lots of “oohs and ahhs” from visitors who are enchanted by its beauty and amazed that it is such an old decorating scheme, going back to the late Victorians.

Eastern-themed rooms existed long before Pier-One Imports or the fad for draping Indian “bedspreads” about a room to give it an exotic look. In the latter half of the 19th century, travel to the Middle East became increasingly affordable and safe, and affluent Americans began making the trip in large numbers. Their travels and the souvenirs they brought home helped feed the American fascination with the “exotic east,” and the decorating trend that encouraged Oriental rooms and “nooks,” such as the one in Hixon House.

 This historic photo includes, from left, May Crosby, Joseph Hixon, Ellen Hixon and an Egyptian guide.

This historic photo includes, from left, May Crosby, Joseph Hixon, Ellen Hixon and an Egyptian guide.

In 1898 and 1899, Ellen Hixon added Turkey and Egypt to the European Grand Tour she made with her niece Mary Crosby and son Joseph. A widow by then, with five grown sons, Ellen Hixon enjoyed travel and was lucky to be able to afford it. We have a photo of her and her companions atop camels by the Great Pyramids, and letters that describe shopping in the bazaars and purchasing some of the items that make up the décor of the Turkish Nook.

It’s a small room, added in 1900-01, that serves as an elegant pass-through to the dining room. The built-in bench is upholstered in antique Kilim woven carpets, with embroidered pillows. The walls and ceiling are gold (gold leaf, in the case of the ceiling), and decorated with antique Persian weaponry and period photos of the streets of Cairo. Stained glass windows let in light and help create an exotic atmosphere.

By far the most commented-on item is the standing wooden lattice screen to the right of the photo. “What is that?” people always ask, and telling them it’s a “harem screen” just adds to the confusion.

In fact, wooden lattice screens were common enclosures on Egyptian balconies and in courtyards; they allowed light and air to pass through while preserving the privacy of Muslim women who lived with strictures against being seen by strange men. The lattice screens allowed them to observe and participate in the life of the street and courtyard while maintaining their religious rules.

The screens themselves are intricate and beautiful, and to the curious Westerner, they symbolized the mysteries of a private world that was hidden from them but imagined to be quite exotic and titillating — hence the Western name, harem screen.

This fascination with the mysteries of the east had a bit of a risqué touch. One historian, Karina Corrigan, writes that the Victorian image of the Near East was one of “turbaned men smoking hashish in hookahs and their many wives lounging on divans, gazing longingly out of the latticed windows of harems.” Mrs. Hixon may well have been showing off her sophistication by having such a suggestive item in her “Oriental room.”

By the 1920s the fad for the Turkish style in home décor was fading. It became symbolic of heavy-handed Victorian excess, and Oriental rooms and cozy corners were replaced with more modern styles. The risqué Turkish Nook appeared old-fashioned, fussy and quaint. They began to disappear.

The Turkish Nook in the Hixon House is a rare, fragile survivor of what was once a very popular style of decorating. Since the 1960s, we have seen Near and Far Eastern textiles and décor come back into fashion, used is somewhat different ways than in the 1890s-1910s. But La Crosse’s Turkish Nook has survived long enough to be “cool” again.

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on December 1, 2018.

Florence Thompson's WWII WAVES Uniform

Amy Vach

Catalog Number: 2018.044.01

 Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

This week’s artifact is a World War II woman’s naval uniform worn by La Crosse resident Florence Thompson.

During World War II, the U.S. Navy established a military unit for female members, Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. The WAVES was initially developed to free up clerical positions so that more men would be available for combat positions. Before WAVES, women were only allowed to serve as nurses in the Navy. To be eligible to enlist, women needed to be between 20 and 36 years old and have no children under the age of 18. Throughout the war, roughly 100,000 women served in varying roles. Some women performed clerical duties and others served as instructors.

Shortly after graduating from Logan High School in La Crosse, three young women enlisted in the WAVES in 1943: Lucille Will, Helen Jorgenson and Florence Thompson. The family of Florence Thompson donated her uniform along with a scrapbook and ephemera from her time serving in the WAVES to the La Crosse County Historical Society recently after she passed away in 2017.

After finishing her training at Hunter College in New York City, Thompson wrote home that she enjoyed her work very much and was thrilled about the uniforms and training.

In December 1943, Thompson was assigned to administrative work as a yeoman in the Bureau of Naval Personnel in Washington, D.C. While serving, Thompson had quite the experience on the East Coast, according to her scrapbook, which is filled with programs from sporting events, concerts and plays. In addition to souvenirs from her activities, Thompson also saved postcards and cards from home. A few of the postcards feature G. Heileman Brewing Co.

Five months after WWII was over, Thompson was honorably discharged. She returned home and enrolled at Luther College in Decorah, where she received her bachelor’s degree. After college, Thompson returned to La Crosse and worked for the county as a social worker for 25 years. Florence married Robert T. Moe in 1951 in La Crosse. After his death in 1999, she married Preston M. Olson, a former high school classmate of hers.

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on November 24, 2018.

This object can be viewed in our online collections database by clicking here.