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Little Chute lock house renovation preserves a piece of the past

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Photo by Craig Augustine.

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.”

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The Fox River Navigational System Authority had previously rehabbed the home’s exterior, so the $150,000 renovation by Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Parkway included extensive work on the home’s interior including repairing mold, water damage and vandalism. Photo by Craig Augustine.

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For their work on the lock house, Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Parkway received the 2016 Wisconsin Historical Society Historic Preservation Award. They also received Outagamie County Historical Society’s 2017 Carolyn Kellogg Historic Preservation Award which recognizes an exemplary effort to maintain, restore or reuse a historic site or object representing some aspect of Outagamie County history. Photo by Craig Augustine.

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The home was built in 1909, but was restored to 1930s period decor to match the front porch addition. Photo by Craig Augustine.

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The home features original woodwork that was carefully stripped of layers of paint and refinished. Sherwin-Williams supplied wall paint in colors that were popular during the 1930s. Photo by Craig Augustine.

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All the home’s furniture was donated or purchased on eBay or Craigslist, including a working 1930s-era refrigerator. Photo by Craig Augustine.

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The renovation was completed in the fall of 2015. That following summer, the 3-bedroom, 1-bath house was used as a vacation rental for travelers visiting the area. “I like the concept that once-upon-a-time in the mid-1900s boats were going by here all the time and it was an active waterway,” says Mortara. “While it won’t go back to that level of activity, it’s nice to see the house used again.” Photo by Craig Augustine.

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