Winnebago angler Ray Groff hooks a musket

ray-groffBy Michael Mentzer

The story of Ray Groff of Fond du Lac and his new-found flintlock musket — from the depths of Lake Winnebago, no less — gets a person’s attention faster than “Fish on!” in a Wisconsin walleye fishing tourney.

Groff is feeling the impact of widespread recognition even though he has no interest whatsoever in fame.

“At first I really wasn’t going to say anything about it,” said the 67-year-old Groff, a lifelong Fond du Lac resident and a meat cutter for nearly 40 years, 35 of them at Piggly Wiggly. “But it was a story too good not to share.”

Photos of Groff holding a rusted, zebra mussel-encrusted flintlock musket with a 47-inch barrel, similar to the ones Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett used as pioneers, first appeared in The Reporter newspaper in September. The tale continues to trip the triggers of reader interest in newspapers and magazines across the country. Images abound on a litany of Internet sites.

The musket itself is commonly referred to as a Northwest Trade Gun, the variety manufactured in large numbers in Belgium, France and England for nearly 300 years. North Star West Inc. notes on its website that the Northwest Gun “is a classic example of the Indian Trade Gun …handled by such trading companies as the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Northwest Company, the Mackinaw Company of Michilimackinac and the American Fur Company,” enterprises that shaped the history of this part of the nation.

A trade gun could be obtained by Indians and trappers for 20 beaver pelts. More than 2.5 million trade guns were imported to North America in colonial times through the mid-1800s, according to a number of Internet sites.

No doubt, the Northwest Trade Gun would have been among prized items in 1801 at the first trading post in Fond du Lac on the Fond du Lac River where the east and west branches meet near Scott Street.
Muskrats, rather than beaver pelts, likely were a common trade commodity at Fond du Lac area outposts.

Based on research through key Internet sites and the State Historical Society, Groff believes that it is likely the musket he pulled up from the bottom of Lake Winnebago was made in Belgium and dates to the late 1700s or early 1800s. If that time frame is “in the ballpark,” it means the musket precedes the first white settlers in Fond du Lac by more than 30 years.

The musket also features the classic brass serpent on the side of the firing mechanism so richly prized by Native American traders.

ray-groff-2The Ray Groff story and photos strike me as some of the most interesting aspects of upbeat human interest to pop up in Fond du Lac in a long, long time.

Maybe it was the pure-and-simple perch fishing angle. Or possibly, it was the fact that the mind-boggling discovery happened right in the midst of our favored fishing haunts about a mile offshore from Clarence’s Harbor and not far from the Lakeside Park Harbor Lighthouse. Or maybe it’s the link to local history, Native Americans, French trappers and that whole Fond du Lac (foot of the lake) mystique.

Whatever the case, the story has been the subject of discussion for weeks around town and beyond.

“Wouldn’t you love to know what actually happened,” said longtime local resident Tom Guilfoile amid a lunch group at Friar Tuck’s. “The air must have been blue when whoever it was lost that gun.”

What struck me when I first heard the story is the threat to survival suffered by the person who owned that gun, whether it was a trapper, a Native American or maybe an early settler. A man without a gun on the frontier was no doubt a desperate individual without the means to defend himself or gather food.

The speculation is endless. Did the 50-caliber, smooth-bore musket with flint still intact in the firing mechanism fall from a trapper’s or Indian’s canoe into the lake? Did its owner break through the ice in winter and lose the prized musket in an attempt to save himself? Did the gun owner die and are his remains buried in the mud and clay of Lake Winnebago not far from where the wood stock of the firearm decayed and disappeared in the waves of time?

Or is it possible the lake did not extend as far as it does now and the gun was dropped or lost in the vast cattail marsh that covered so much of the Fond du Lac area near the lake?

It’s the stuff that legend and lore are made of.

For Ray Groff, the perch fisherman who tries to be on the water every chance he gets, it’s a simple story that dumbfounded him from the moment he saw the fragile firearm.

“I can’t remember if I was going to move a little bit or call it a day,” Groff recalled of “just a normal fishing day” in the late morning of Sept. 4.

When he lifted the anchor, he knew immediately that it was a rifle barrel hanging there at the surface.

By the way, it was no ordinary anchor that snagged the musket. His Richter anchor has a mysterious history of its own.

Years ago, Groff snagged the Richter anchor he uses today with an old anchor he was using while fishing on the Third Reef.

The Richter anchor, with its trademark four “legs” for grabbing and stability, had been lost by another angler years ago but salvaged by Groff for a much more interesting snagging operation he never saw coming.

With the musket secured in his 14-foot Lakeland boat, Groff turned toward the Lighthouse and home.

“When I got that musket, I knew I was done for the day,” he said. “It was the catch of a lifetime, I guess.”

Once he was on shore, someone called to him near the fish-cleaning station to find out how he had fared that morning.

“Not many perch today but come see what I got,” Groff replied.

Gauging by reactions from onlookers, it was the hands-down catch of the day, maybe the summer.
The Indian Trade Gun now occupies an exalted spot along with fish mounts and wildlife art prints in the Groff residence.

Ray’s wife Nancy “just shook her head” when she saw the latest catch destined for a place on the wall. She’s accustomed to fish taxidermy, but a historic firearm is a different story.

“It will outlast me,” Groff said of the musket, but noted that it will continue to decay and deteriorate no matter what he does to preserve it. Experts have told him the effects of 200 years in the lake can’t be overcome.

Groff coated the musket with several layers of sealer to delay its rust-eaten fate.

“It’s a conversation piece,” Groff noted. “It’s probably not worth anything except to me.”
It’s a piece of history as well. That’s what strikes me. That old gun makes me wonder where we’re headed.

The pace of change has accelerated almost beyond our comprehension since the day that old flintlock slipped away to a watery Winnebago transformation.

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