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Life Afloat on the Big Muddy

By John Gaddo, August 25, 2023

Summer, winter, spring and fall, these boathouses along Lawrence Lake, near Brownsville, are ‘home’ to dozens of river dwellers. (Photos by Nancy North unless otherwise noted).

Life Afloat on the Big Muddy


HOUSTON COUNTY – Southeast Minnesota’s “east coast” boasts river-dwellers of all kinds—they range from communities of beavers and otters to waterfowl and migratory birds…from mussels and clams to fish, amphibians, insects and more. 

But there’s one very special community of river-dwellers you may not readily identify—they’re called “boathouse people”…and they look remarkably like you and me! 

(Map by Google Earth)

While not as prominent as they were a century ago, there are several of these communities still tethered to the banks of the upper Mississippi River.

Just south of the Root River’s confluence with the Mississippi, north of Brownsville, you’ll find one such community hugging the river’s western shore at Lawrence Lake. 

These boathouses are particularly popular in the summer, but they also provide year-round housing—a fulltime home—for many. 


Boathouses on Lawrence Lake—some sporting their original construction and others reflecting contemporary makeovers.

Boathouses can be made of wood or metal, float on pontoons or logs, held in place by spud poles or simply anchored at shore. There are as many looks to a boathouse as there are owners!

Mississippi River boathouse history can be traced back to the early 1900s when shantyboats, or floating cabins, provided shelter for trappers, hunters, fishermen and others working to make a living on the river. 

The romantic, yet challenging lives of boathouse owners—including those on Lawrence Lake—have been chronicled by authors and historians over the years.

In her book, The Floating Boathouses on the Upper Mississippi River, author Martha Green Phillips points to major events that have caused boathouse communities to recreate themselves over the past century: The Great Depression, World War II, boating innovations, and the Nine-Foot Channel Project that redefined river navigation by creating pools between today’s locks and dams. These have all helped shape what remains of boathouse communities on the Mississippi. 

Most boathouses in this area are post-World War II structures, according to the author. “Word of mouth spread the gospel of boathouse building and ownership within small communities and workplaces,” she writes.


The Lawrence Lake boathouse community is sandwiched in between the Canadian Pacific rail lines and the Lawrence Lake shoreline, adjacent to the Great River Road (Minnesota State Highway 26). A network of docks and walkways connect the boathouses with each other and nearby roads.


“For many years, most owners were local people and each community  was a neighborhood extension of rural Minnesota towns.” In years gone by, residents from Spring Grove and Caledonia are often mentioned among those taking particular interest in the Lawrence Lake area.

Unique Communities

Upriver from the Lawrence Lake boathouse community, there’s a smattering of other Minnesotans—and Wisconsinites along the east banks—who are doing what they can to maintain their lives on the Mississippi.

But regardless of where they live along the Mississippi, boathouse owners’ stories are much the same. Like-minded characters can be found in just about every boathouse community.

One such southeast Minnesota community is along the river at Winona. In the entertaining and informative video Tiny Homes on the Water, Off the Cuff documentary producers Harris Dirnberger and Chris Parr share some of these first-hand stories. 

Federal and state laws regulate what remains of these boathouse communities—and prohibits their expansion. That alone makes them unique—and their owners, ever so determined to literally keep their homes afloat!




Off the Cuff producers visit with boathouse owners near Winona, Minnesota. (Off the Cuff photo)



For nearly a dozen years, A Secret History of American River People has been archiving personal stories of people who live and work on the Mississippi River, its many tributaries, and other select U.S. rivers. While not necessarily relating stories about boathouses near Brownsville, the similarities among ‘boathouse people’ seems universal. 

The project features “lost narratives” of river people and river communities, including reflections from a visit to the Lawrence Lake boathouses, a video clip of boathouses across the Mississippi near La Crosse, and river anecdotes from those whose lives have been shaped by the river: former Brownsville, Minnesota resident Ken Lubinski and Lansing, Iowa river historian Karen Galema.



John Gaddo is co-publisher of Root River Current.

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