by Dennis Dalman
If it weren’t for the sport of fishing, Minnesota might be known far and wide as the state with a winter of arctic cold, a summer of swarming mosquitos and a place to avoid at all costs unless you need serious treatment at the Mayo Clinic.
Well . . . OK, Minnesota’s not all that bad.
However, fortunately, it is the Land of 10,000 Lakes (actually more than that), and it is the Land of Fishing. Minnesota fishing has lured visitors from every state and many countries, making for a rich cultural and historical heritage, not to mention being a boost to the state’s economy. Even before settlers arrived, Native Americans thrived on the fish provided so readily by lakes and waterways throughout the state.
Therefore, is it any wonder that two diehard fishing buddies, Al Baert and Morry Sauve, decided 25 years ago to open a museum dedicated to the Minnesota fishing heritage? They are the proud founders of the Minnesota Fishing Museum in Little Falls, which is hosting a holiday season event that will run through Sunday, Dec. 7. From noon to 6 p.m. daily there will be free admission, and on the museum’s “Christmas Tree Lane,” visitors can bid on a silent auction with more than 50 decorated trees, wreathes and gift baskets. The museum is located at 304 W. Broadway in downtown Little Falls.
Baert, 91, lives in Sartell. Sauve used to live in St. Cloud but now lives in Arizona.
Their museum is jam-packed with virtually everything related to fishing. The following is just a partial list:
- Nine old fishing boats.
- 120 outboard motors.
- 880 display cases that showcase thousands of spears, rods, reels, hooks, lures and what is presumed to be the largest collection of ice decoys in the world, all carved by Minnesota carvers.
- A huge diorama of a fish house on a frozen lake, complete with a northern pike surfacing to snatch the bait.
- A cabin that houses antique fishing equipment from the 1920s and 1930s.
- A 1963 Skidoo snowmobile.
- A 270-gallon aquarium stocked by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
- One whole room is dedicated just to muskie fishing.
- A gift shop.
Almost all of the thousands upon thousands of fishing-related items in the Minnesota Fishing Museum were donated by Minnesotans or their descendants. The photos of those who owned the items are often displayed next to the items in the display cases.
“People who come to the museum will see a display of someone they loved – a husband, a grandpa, an uncle – and you cannot imagine their reactions,” Baert said. “Sometimes they cry. One man from Minneapolis visited and saw the box he used to use to haul his gear out onto the ice. The good memories made him cry when he saw that box again.”
Born in Maple Lake, Minn., Baert knew (and still knows) many anglers from that area. People like Ronnie Lauer, who donated to the museum fishing decoys dating all the way back to as far as 1810, decoys owned by his great-great-grandfather. Another Maple Lake pal is Lester Pauman, who donated hundreds of items to the museum.
Baert didn’t set out to be a museum founder. That task just sort of came to him one day. An Air Force colleague used to tell him he should open a fishing museum someday. Years later, Baert came into possession of an old fishing lure, a 1912 “Surf Oreno,” which is a wooden-carved lure with a propeller in front and back and with three hooks on the underside of it. He had found the lure in a tackle box given to him by another long-time Maple Lake buddy, Louis Opatz.
One day Baert, knowing the lure was valuable, took it to a sports show at a civic center. He asked a lure expert there, “How much?” The man said “six bucks.” Baert gave a snort, said “No way!” and walked away.
“I went home and told my wife, Jean, that man was one greedy collector,” he recalled. “I could never be that greedy. By the way, that same fishing lure is worth more than $300 today.”
And it was at that time, about 25 years ago, Baert started seriously thinking about a fishing museum. With the help of fishing buddy Sauve, the two men began building dozens of display cases and accepting donations for their non-profit venture. Soon, they were overwhelmed with fishing artifacts that filled Baert’s home basement.
Fortunately, in 1998, the Little Falls City Council came to the rescue, providing space in the north end of the Cass Gilbert Depot building.
“The museum is now 10,000 square feet,” Baert said, “but we’re going to need more space. We’re looking for some property just to store some stuff.”
Baert has had a long and exciting life, but he always comes back to a beloved constant – his love of fishing. At age 92, he still loves nothing better than to get out on those lakes and cast his line.
“Dad and I fished just about every lake and waterway in Minnesota and a lot of them in Canada,” he said. “I’d have to say fishing in the Lake of the Woods is my favorite. I live right near the Mississippi north of Sartell, and I like river fishing a lot, too.”
Baert was a member of the U.S. Air Force for many years, serving in North Africa in World War II and in the Korean War for the Air Transport Service. He has toured the world as part of his job or as a pleasure tourist. One of his favorite memories is an audience with Pope Pius in the Vatican City, Rome, many decades ago.
For many years, Baert then worked as regional director for Minnesota Emergency Management before retiring in 1987.
He has two daughters. The youngest died just one year before his wife, Jean, died in 2001. His only surviving daughter, the oldest, now 70, is a retired nurse in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“I feel very blessed,” Baert said. “I’m in good health, and I travel a lot. I don’t know the key to living long. I drink now and then and don’t smoke. I keep a positive attitude.”
Baert forgot to add that a life-long love of fishing is surely one of the keys to his longevity.