“The Most Interesting Man On The Upper River”
John Schmoker Sr.

John Schmoker Sr.

John Schmoker Sr.

“The Most Interesting Man On The Upper River”

John Schmoker Sr.

The Upper Mississippi River near Winona, MN was still the domain of Wapasha’s band of Dakota/Sioux Indians, that wintered below Rollingstone Point, when John Schmoker Sr. was born in a wood cutter’s camp on Prairie Island. His father, Paul Schmoker had come to the U.S. with his parents in 1839, living first in Pennsylvania. After his marriage to Rosalia Stehli, and the birth of their first child in Pennsylvania, the little family moved to the banks of the Mississippi River about 1854.

John was born September 8, 1856. His earliest boyhood days were spent playing with the Indian children and visiting in their camps. He wrote, “The Indian boys used to come over to our place, and I would go with them to their camp to play. They were very good to me. I used to watch their mothers make beaded work. The Sioux had fur tepees. They had fur to sleep on, and always plenty of meat. They spent the winter in the river bottoms and would move on in the spring.”

John grew to manhood with daily work and adventure close to the river or on the river. He was a young man with a love of nature and a gift of observation and memory. As he grew, his knowledge of fishing, hunting, trapping, boating, and nature’s moods and seasons became as complete as any book knowledge of wild life. He lived and observed the white man’s imprint on the virgin territory along the Mississippi river, from Alma, WI down river to Trempealeau, WI.

In the late 1800s when John’s children were little he was a market hunter. As people moved westward, the cities of Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, etc. grew to become market centers for selling wild game that was harvested along the Mississippi River and shipped by rail. The river system with it’s abundant vegetation was a haven for water fowl migrating through, both spring and fall. Such a time of plenty saw money to be made for a good market hunter.

John Schmoker was a good market hunter. He had a trusty 12 gauge double barrel shotgun, and with two shells in the gun, two shells between his fingers and two shells in his mouth, he could get six shots off in rapid succession at large flocks of birds.

It has been written that a good market hunter could get 100 birds a day and with a pair of mallards selling for $1.25 the money was good. However, it was hard work not only for the hunter, but for the family that had to help pluck and clean the birds, as well as salt pack them in barrels for shipment. Even with the overhead and hard work, market hunting lasted until about 1918 when the Migratory Bird Treaty Act between Canada and the U.S. put and end to the market hunter era.

In the late 1800s the need for a deeper and more consistent river channel saw the government Corp. of Engineers developing plans for and contracting for the building of wing dams. John Schmoker became a partner with Captain Frank Fugina in contracts with the government for improving the upper river by building these wing dams. These dams were made from mats of woven willows covered with rock. They extended out from the bank of the river and toward the main channel, and their job was to divert
the rushing water into the middle of the river and thus propel the sediment along and keep the channel as deep as possible for navigation.

In the years after about 1909, John, who was a good friend of John A. Latsch, became a full time guardian of the vast river holdings that John Latsch owned. From Trempealeau, WI upriver to Alma, WI, Mr. Latsch owned thousands of acres of land, marshes, sloughs, swamps and back waters. John Schmoker became the first ranger and first superintendent and caretaker for the John A. Latsch Memorial Board. This board was to manage certain extensive lands, parks and reserves that Mr. Latsch gifted to the States of Minnesota and Wisconsin as well as the cities of Trempealeau and Winona. This included Prairie Island, where John was born.

John Schmoker was held in high regard by State and Federal government departments & agencies for the care, development and conservation of the river and the lands along its banks. His guidance and knowledge was frequently sought at many committee meetings and he was an “expert” witness at court trials involving the river and its environs.

During his life time, the Mississippi pearl button industry began and thrived for many years. People, who may have never gathered the river mussels for food like the Dakota, began gathering the many varieties for their shells and the sale of such to the button factories. It was during this process that many Mississippi River pearls were found and collected.

Pearls had been a favorite gem of Indians along the river for a long time. Native Americans of the Upper Mississippi River Valley were wearing pearls in necklaces and other ornaments when the early French explorers arrived. The pearls came from these same freshwater mussels or clams found in the Mississippi and other rivers and streams that the newly arrived Europeans were now harvesting for their shells and the making of buttons.

Natural pearls come in a variety of colors. The tones of the freshwater pearls are dictated by the mother shell. White is the most common, followed by pink. Other colors depend on the type of mussels. Big washboard mussels usually have pink pearls, as do the wartybacks. Threeridge mussels have pearls in shades of blue-green and lavender. Muckets produce fine pink pearls, and sand shells have salmon-pink pearls.

The shape of a pearl is determined by its location in a shell. Those along the lip are round and are the most valuable. Wing-shaped pearls form along the back of the shell, and irregular pearls form in the heels of shells.

The Mississippi River pearls used in the making of this pin are from the collection of pearls that were John's and are still in John Schmoker’s family. From John to his daughter, Emma; from Emma to her son, Marvin; from Marvin to his son, David…..these pearls have been past from one generation to the next. Found in the back of a dresser drawer, after Emma died, these pearls were found with a note about them belonging to her father, John.

A brooch made with these pearls is for sale.

John Schmoker was born in 1853 and died in 1937. He was given the title “The Most Interesting Man On The Upper River” in the newspaper column “THE VOICE OF THE OUTDOORS” which appeared weekly in the Winona, MN newspaper, the Republican Herold. This article appeared on March 13, 1926.

Brooch from pearls owned by “The Most Interesting Man On The Upper River” John Schmoker Sr.

Natural Mississippi River pearls for sale.

Comments for “The Most Interesting Man On The Upper River”
John Schmoker Sr.

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Look for the word “From”
by: Anonymous

For those who question the placement of Trempealeau, WI, look for the word "From" in the article!

Nice to hear
by: Kari

I'm glad John Schmoker's descendants can enjoy the article about him. Interesting, isn't it, how our legacy lives on after we're gone!

As for Trempealeau not being "upriver", when you consider how far south the Mississippi River goes, any part of it north of St. Louis would be "upriver" don't you think?

by: Anonymous

I am also a descendant of John Schmoker. Thanks for the story about his life and career as well as the photo of him! It's greatly appreciated!

great grandson of JS
by: Anonymous

Descendent too of John Schmoker. Great article with interesting facts. Thanks.

by: Anonymous

Grew up on the Mississippi in Fountain City. Trempealeau is quite a ways south of Alma.. WI, not upriver.

by: Anonymous

I am a descendant of John Schmoker. Thanks for this article, it was very nice to see and the photo was quite nice.

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