Bill Casper’s sturgeon shanty may trace its origin to the humblest of beginnings but it is destined for historical greatness.
Those who wander the vast expanse of Lake Winnebago’s field of ice during the sturgeon-spearing season each February no doubt know of Casper’s distinctive shanty in the shape, design and hue of a Green Bay Packers helmet.
Tens of thousands of people have seen it on the ice of Big Winnie, or on Highway 151 and neighboring roads on its way to or from its off-season haunts, or maybe in Washington, D.C. on a site between the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument during a two-week stretch in 1998 when Wisconsin celebrated its 150th anniversary as a state.
Casper, his family and a circle of close friends have speared sturgeon in the Packer shanty for nearly a half century.
The winter of 2015 marked the famed shanty’s last season on Winnebago, not far from where Bill and his wife Kathy make their home along the East Shore between the lake and the historic limestone ridge of cliffs and rock that reaches from Fond du Lac County all the way to Niagara Falls in New York.
A new perspective
The old shanty is about to begin its retirement…in a style reserved for only a chosen few.
“I’ve been told I can’t fish alone anymore,” Casper said recently as he recalled some of his favorite sturgeon memories. “My balance isn’t the greatest,” he noted, adding that he’ll be 85 when the next sturgeon spearing season rolls around.
“So I fished in the shanty with a friend of ours, Theresa Mayer, this season…the last time.”
Mayer took a photo of the shanty awash in early morning tones on Casper’s last day of the season amid the colors that only the Winnebago ice and a Wisconsin winter sun can conceive.
A framed photo of that setting has a special place on the living room wall at the Casper home.
It’s an emotional image for a number of reasons. The emotion is evident in Bill Casper’s face and his eyes and in a long silence that he needs before he continues his story.
Museum point of view
“That shanty is iconic. It has character, legitimacy, authenticity,” said Joe Kapler, a curator at the Wisconsin State Historical Society and the person who will be instrumental in eventually placing the Casper shanty on permanent display at the Historical Society Museum on the Square in Madison.
Then, after thinking a bit more, he finds the word he really wants. “It has provenance,” Kapler added. The word even has an appropriate, elegant sound to it.
Kapler points out that Casper’s Packer shanty embodies “so many levels” of state history and storytelling.
It speaks of the Packers themselves; the birth of professional football; Coach and General Manager Vince Lombardi; the Ice Bowl Game against the Dallas Cowboys in 1967 (the year Casper built his shanty); the “frozen tundra” in the sense of 215 square miles of arctic Lake Winnebago desert; outdoor recreational pursuits; hunting, trapping, fishing and spearing; prehistoric sturgeon (Hiawatha’s Mishe-Nahma, the king of fishes); the founding of Sturgeon for Tomorrow by Bill Casper and others; the sense of community in shanty villages on the lake and within the comfortable homes and colorful towns that dot the Holyland of northeastern Fond du Lac County and beyond; practicality and folk art in the form of steel ice chisels, spears, sturgeon decoys, ice skimmers, gaff hooks, old-fashioned saws and countless artifacts handed down through generations; conservation and preservation; fish biology; water quality; and the social phenomenon that somehow binds all of those aspects together.
“Just think of the layers it all involves,” Kapler added. “You can call that shanty an artifact in itself. It deserves to be preserved in perpetuity.”
What he’s saying is that the shanty deserves to be on permanent display for the educational and historic benefit of the people of Wisconsin and any other state for that matter.
Kapler intuitively grasped that simple fact when he first learned of Casper’s shanty and saw it nearly 13 years ago as a rookie museum curator.“I just knew it…I could see it…the value it had,” Kapler said.
He recalls talking with Casper and saying to him, “Keep us in mind when the time comes.”
The time is now. Within a year or two, the shanty will be placed on permanent display at the State Historical Society. A special exhibit will be built. It will be photographed endlessly and cataloged. Interviews will be conducted. Videos will be produced, and no doubt, there will be examples of sturgeon mounts available, along with all the related sturgeon artifacts that Casper and his family have used over the years.
What is on the shanty walls today will be there decades from now. The wood stove will be there, and the special Lake Winnebago maps and placemats from Sturgeon for Tomorrow banquets will remain. He hopes to add an antique hand saw if someone can provide one and contact him.
A special sturgeon decoy made and painted by Bill Casper’s sister, Mary Lou Schneider, will accompany the shanty to the museum. Schneider’s decoys and other artistic artifacts are prized by countless outdoor enthusiasts and collectors in the Fond du Lac area.
She fashions the decoys and artifacts in her workshop on the farm overlooking Lake Winnebago where she and Bill grew up.
Finding the proper place
“We’ll probably have to knock out a wall to get it in the museum,” Kapler said of the shanty.
“I don’t know all the details yet. We’re working on it,” he said.
The shanty will be a museum mainstay for 50 years or longer, Kapler hopes, adding, “We’ll take the best care of it we can.”
If it makes it to 2067, the shanty will note the century mark, an age matched by some of the sturgeon speared and netted each year in the Winnebago System.
As many as 80,000 people will see the shanty every year, Kapler said, pointing out that 30,000 fourth- and fifth-graders annually visit the museum on class trips as part of their study of Wisconsin history.
“It would be ideal if people could actually go inside the shanty, to see what a real spearing shanty is like,” Kapler noted. “We’ll give it some thought.”
Until the permanent museum display is completed, Bill Casper’s shanty will be available for viewing by the public at locations in the state.
“We’re not prepared to make that announcement yet,” Kapler said. “We’ll be letting the public know when we know.”
For Bill Casper, it’s almost like watching a member of the family or an old friend leaving for a faraway destination and knowing they’ll never return to their old stomping grounds.
The shanty is about to answer a higher calling, but that doesn’t make it any easier for the heart and soul to process.Building an icon
Casper recalls the day he saw a bunch of curved rafters his old friend Bernie Baker from Giddings & Lewis was trying to get rid of.
“I ended up buying them for a dollar apiece,” Casper said. “I had an idea what I was going to do. I wanted an arched roof and so that’s what I built.”
A machinist at Giddings & Lewis, Casper had the know-how to get the job done with a combination of wood frame, metal and mechanics. It’s surprisingly roomy, with dimensions of 12 feet in length, six feet in width and more than six feet at its greatest height.
He and Kathy’s four children — Sharron, Mike, Barb and Nick — were youngsters when it was built, and they spent many hours in the comfort of their Dad’s shanty.
It was Kathy’s idea to transform the shanty shape into a Packers helmet.
“It looks like a helmet,” Kathy remarked at the time. “Why don’t you make it a Packer helmet?”
She is surprised to this day that none of the Green Bay TV channels ever focused on the shanty for a story.
After all, it became one of the most recognized and sought after structures on the winter lake-scape every season. In a sense, it was famous.
Sturgeon for Tomorrow
Ten years after the shanty was built, Casper led the founding of Sturgeon for Tomorrow, a conservation and preservation organization that spawned a number of other chapters.
The organization has helped make the Winnebago System arguably the healthiest, most prolific sturgeon fishery and habitat in the world. Winnebago sturgeon are being utilized to save and foster sturgeon populations across the nation and around the world.
Sturgeon for Tomorrow volunteers known as the Sturgeon Patrol are instrumental in protecting vulnerable spawning sturgeon throughout the system, and local fish biologists lead the way in propagating the species for generations to come.
“We’ve come a long way,” said Casper, who earned the nickname Sturgeon General for his leadership abilities. “We’re almost at the million dollar mark,” meaning that the organization is close to donating $1 million to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for sturgeon improvement projects.
For his leadership and devotion to the organization, Casper is a recipient of the Outdoor Life Conservation Award, a distinction shared by some of modern history’s acclaimed conservation leaders, including Wisconsin’s Aldo Leopold.
Casper points out that the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., also wanted his Packer shanty for permanent display.
“That was quite an honor that they wanted it,” Casper said. “But I just felt it belonged in Wisconsin.”
That’s perfectly understandable. It has its lifeblood here…and its treasured memories are rooted here.
“I was 8 years old the first time I went sturgeon spearing,” Casper recalled. “I went with my Uncle Ambrose Langenfeld. And when I was 14 — that’s 70 years ago — my Uncle Ambrose gave me his shanty and his spear. That was my first shanty.”
His uncle’s antique spear and one of his uncle’s ancient decoys will be going with the Packer shanty to Madison.
With a sense of amazement, Casper added, “Would you believe that Paul Langenfeld, my cousin…Ambrose’s son, got the last sturgeon to be speared in my shanty! Paul was born the winter Uncle Ambrose gave me my first shanty. Amazing!”
The final installment of the Casper shanty is yet to be scheduled. There will be a dedication and Bill Casper and his family will be there, God willing.
The Packer shanty will enjoy a place of honor at its final resting place in a museum on an isthmus between Mendota and Monona.
And 80,000 people will visit it each year.
What an auspicious ending and what an eventful beginning!
Michael Mentzer, now retired after a 40-year newspaper career, writes a monthly column for Scene.