Fox Wisconsin Heritage Parkway

A non-profit organization dedicated to the improvement and preservation of the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers.

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Unlocking the Memories: Fox River Locktenders’ Oral History Project

The Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Parkway has set out to tell the untold story of the men who made navigation safe for commercial and recreational travel on the Fox River throughout history.Since 2010, FWHP has been collecting stories and artifacts of the men and their families who lived in the many government locktender homes between Portage and Green Bay. Researchers have spoken to retired and current locktenders, their wives and descendants, some tracing their ancestry to those from the 1860s. To date, more than 500 historic and current photos of the locks, houses, locktenders and their families have been collected.

Locktender Jacob Wittmann, Combined Locks, circa 1911. Boy on steps is Jacob’s son Harlan who succeeded his father as lockmaster and served until 1952.

In addition, the stories of these individuals are being collected for an oral history project. These accounts tell the stories of the locktenders and their families who lived this unique lifestyle. With a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, a folklorist from the University of Wisconsin interviewed five locktender families in December 2011. Research has now been expanded to focus on the Upper Fox, the area between Portage and Lake Winnebago.  All documentation collected will help the Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Parkway support the concept of a travelling museum exhibit to focus on the lives of locktenders on the Fox River.

We are asking for help locating the following items:
  • Names and contact information of locktenders and their descendants
  • Photos
  • Locktender’s log books
  • Newspaper articles or any other items of interest
  • Individuals are also needed to help with research

Please contact Christine at info@heritageparkway.org.

On September 24, 2011 a reception was held in Appleton, drawing more than 60 locktenders, their families and descendants to share their common history. The video above is an excerpt from the “Unlocking the Memories.”

Unlocking the Memories Video

As part of this project, FWHP has created a DVD of the project. The video records the locktender event, which tells the history of the locks and locktenders, discusses current restoration efforts of the locks and lockhouses, and shares personal stories of the locktenders and their descendants.   The full-length, two-hour video is available to watch online.

The DVD can also be purchased for $15 (includes tax and mailing costs). A portion of the proceeds will be used to continue research on the history of the locktenders on the Fox River.

To purchase your DVD:
Submit your payment online via PayPal by clicking the link below or send a check payable to the “Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Parkway”, Unlocking the Memories DVD, PO Box 204, Kimberly, WI 54136. Please include the quantity of DVDs desired and your mailing address. Please direct any questions to Christine at info@heritageparkway.org.

History of Locktenders on the Fox River

The Fox and Wisconsin Rivers are situated between two of the most navigable water routes in the country, the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. Long stretches of the Fox were not navigable due to strong rapids and currents. Construction of a lock and canal system began in the 1840s. Ultimately, 24 locks spanned the 162-mile stretch between Portage and Green Bay.

To allow round-the-clock navigation, lockmasters and their families lived in government houses built next to the locks. Prompted by the whistle of an approaching barge or boat, the vessel would be raised and lowered in the lock using a hand-operated crank that opened and closed the large gates.

With a reduction of commercial traffic due to increased competition from railroads and highways most of the lock system was closed by the 1980s, including all of the locktender’s houses. However, the two locks at DePere and Menasha have remained in continuous operation under the careful watch of locktenders who continue this time-honored profession.  In 2004, ownership of the lock system was transferred from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to the State of Wisconsin.  Since that time, many of the locks have been restored and are again operational allowing for increased river traffic.  Restoration work will continue, including finding reuses for the 11 remaining lockhouses. The Fox River lock system remains one of the only two hand-operated lock systems in the United States in continuous operation.

For more information on the history of the Fox River Locks and locktending, reference Unlocking the Memories Fact Sheet.

Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Parkway – Locktending from Squawk Productions on Vimeo.

Funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use historic, culture and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the  National Endowment for the Humanities.

    One Comment

    • Reta McNutt says:

      I sent info on my grandfather Joseph P.Demerath ,who was a lock tender at the Berlin lock. In 1916 he drowned trying to save a person who fell in the river. I sent all the newspaper clippings to Bobbie Erdmann(920-361-2460) via the Berlin Journal.I hope this is the type of information you are looking for. Please let me know. Also there was a picture of the Berlin lock and some boats waiting to enter the lock, it was taken in 1907.

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