St. Mary alumnus Arnold Spielbauer donates scale-model canoe

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St. Mary alumnus Vernon Heck holds a handcrafted 1/5-scale model canoe donated to the St. Mary's Heritage Room by school graduate Arnold Spielbauer. (Photo submitted)

By Caroline Rosacker

St. Mary's class of 1946 alumnus Arnold Spielbauer, who resides in Liberty, Ill., has been building full and small-scale canoes since 1972. His 46 years of experience has made him somewhat of an expert in his field.

Spielbauer  utilized his time and talent to create a 1/5-scale replica of a decorated ancient woods watercraft. He donated the work of art to the St. Mary's Heritage Room located in the former convent north of the school.   

The vessel's design is a precise replica of canoes used by the Maliseet tribe that inhabited the southeastern part of Canada during the late 1700s to early 1800s.  

Hildegard Spielbauer-Brooks, Arnold's sister, made initial contact with Pat Kolker, representative of the St. Mary's/Immaculate Conception Alumni organization. 

Kolker told The Press, "Former Principal Sr. Suzanne Gallagher originally proposed the idea for the St. Mary's Heritage Room. With the help of many volunteers the project became a reality. Due to generous donations from St. Mary alumni, the Heritage Room has acquired a collection that is representative of the life and times of St. Mary's School and the surrounding community. Marlene McLane, Betty Evers and I have monitored the room and co-chaired the alumni organization for many years. Since our retirement, former graduate Valerie Heck-Cromer has eagerly accepted the leadership of the organization."

She continued, "Hildegard contacted me to see if the alumni association would be interested in the small-scale piece to add to our compilation."  

Arnold describes the scale-model in the photo accompanying the article. "If you look at the picture, at the right-hand edge of the top is a vertical center line. This line, the center line of the hull, splits a 1700s style of a fire steel, which was used to strike a spark from a flint rock, for starting fires. The two curves at the bow of the canoe are fiddlehead ferns. In the springtime the bands of peaks between the fiddleheads and the fire steel represent woodlands to the Native Americans. I have used that line to build every bark canoe I ever built," he said.

Spielbauer has built approximately 12 full-size and 15 scale-model canoes. He used the same book as a reference in building his watercrafts. "It is a bible for crazy canoe builders!" he added.  

"Building and paddling canoes has been a way of challenging my ability to figure out how the old traditions work. I truly believe that my involvement in building and using canoes has been a blessing," he said. 

Spielbauer uses only hand tools to create his vessels. They include a crooked knife, froe, club, pocketknife, draw knife, axe, hatchet and homemade awls. 

Spielbauer and his wife, Delores, have been enjoying the waterways aboard his handmade outriggers since the 1960s. His own personal birch bark canoe is patterned after the ones used by the Algonquian hunters, a tribe of hunter-gatherers from the eastern woodlands. His wife enjoyed the waterways in her Wenonah Wee-Lassie solo canoe. The Wee-Lassie is a classic Adirondack-style boat from the romantic days of recreational paddling. 

"My wife has been with me for many years and was always willing to get into her own canoe and join me on the water," Spielbauer commented. 

He continued, "I helped people at work build canoes, and my wife and I helped and taught a group of Girl Scouts build an all-wood canoe of western red cedar strips."

Spielbauer, will soon be 90 years old. Poor mobility and cardiac issues have kept him on dry land for many years, but he states, "I can always remember, I will never forget paddling." 

St. Mary's/IC School and surrounding buildings, including the convent housing the Heritage Room, are located at 510 South Second Street. The Heritage Room will be open during the upcoming alumni banquet. For additional information on the banquet and access to the Heritage Room, contact the school at 563-252-1577 or online at maryicjoesph.org or find them on Facebook.

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