Lock Tender’s Little Helpers

Posted on Oct 8, 2021 by

Lock Tender Jack Willey and his wife, about 1960

This memory was written by Jane Bouressa Smits, a long-time supporter of the locks and we thank her for sharing it!

It is 1960. The bell rings! A boat is coming! Soon lock tender Jack Willey drives down the gravel path behind my house to the Little Chute lock. He is a mentor to my friend Jerry and me, allowing us to open the lock gates by pushing the metal handle around and around and around, engaging the gears that open the locks. We feel powerful moving those heavy gates! He instills pride by letting us help him. He teaches us about nature by pointing out rabbit hutches and identifying birds and flora around his little work station on the locks.

His workroom in the government-provided “lock tender” home has an enormous slanted wooden table (like a drafting table) mounted on the wall. There he sits on a stool and records: the vessel name or number, i.e., Sherry Lyn, MaHenapa, Rusty Pelican, W.S.4990AX; type of boat, i.e., tug, houseboat, sailboat, launch; time signaled; arrival/departure times; direction (up or down river); and number of lockages on the Fox. His wife may be busy preparing lesson plans for English classes at St. John High School. It is all very “official.”

Often, my friend and I either cross the locks or the Little Chute lift bridge to traverse the narrow peninsula that leads from the Little Chute lock to the Combined Locks dam, encountering brush, roots, trees, fallen branches and occasionally poison ivy and poison oak! We light a campfire below the Combined Locks dam (when it isn’t flooded by water) and eat a lunch consisting of Campbell’s alphabet soup and a couple cookies. It is a “wonderland,” and we are free to explore it.

Fast forward to 2012. It warms my heart that the same peninsula is broadened, paved, made safer and open to the public to enjoy and explore. People bike or stroll down Little Chute Heritage Parkway Trail that connects Island Park with Heesakker Park.

Fast forward to 2016. Mr. Willey’s home is now open for rental, so people are able to stay and experience the Fox Locks area up close like Jerry and I did when we were youngsters.

Fast forward to 2021. The Heritage Parkway Trail is extended mostly through the generosity of the David and Rita Nelson Family to become the David and Rita Nelson Family Heritage Crossing. An approximately 1100’ pedestrian bridge was built crossing over the Fox connecting Little Chute to Kaukauna. Also included is a 3/4 mile asphalt trail extending from the Kaukauna side of the bridge into downtown Kaukauna. More extensions of the trail system are planned.

Jayne Bouressa Smits and her friend Jerry taken about 1960

Thankfully, individual citizens, communities, and organizations such as Friends of the Fox, Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Parkway, Fox River Navigation Authority and Fox Cities Greenways have the foresight and drive to develop and preserve our heritage. They provide opportunities for future generations and make me . . . feel like I’m 10 again!

Jayne Bouressa Smits

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