Little Chute lock house renovation preserves a piece of the past
On Mill Street in Little Chute sits a small, but sturdy home that is swimming with history.
It sits along the canal system of the Fox River which was built in the late 1800s to house 17 hand-operated locks. The only fully restored, hand-operated lock system in the United States today, this series of locks and canals made the Lower Fox River navigable to boat traffic, bolstering manufacturing and economic growth.
The 1-1/2 story, Colonial Revival style home was constructed in 1909 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as the residence of the lockmaster who was responsible for operating the locks by hand, day and night, using a turnstile crank to open and close the doors.
“Today the locks close at 10 p.m., but they didn’t always,” says Candice Mortara, past president of Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Parkway, a non-profit organization committed to celebrating and preserving communities along the Fox and Lower Wisconsin rivers. “Lockmasters had to be available 24/7, so it was common practice to have a home nearby provided for them.”
The Little Chute Guard Lock House was home to many different lockmasters and their families until 1983 when the Army Corps discontinued the designation of the Lower Fox River to commercial traffic. The historic “river house” sat empty until 2015 when it was renovated through the volunteer and fundraising efforts of Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Parkway which leases the house from the Fox River Navigational System Authority.
“Just about every single person who worked on this house walks away loving it just a little bit.” Candice Mortara, past president, Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Parkway
Throughout the nearly two-year renovation process, descendants of former lockmasters and those who grew up nearby would stop to share their memories with volunteers. Some recalled being allowed to operate the lock tender’s crank while others remembered hanging out in the abandoned house as teenagers in the ‘80s.
“I didn’t expect so many people to have such fond memories of the house,” Mortara says. “It was cool to hear all the different stories.”