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Lake Sallie Hatchery celebrating 100 years

The Lake Sallie fish hatchery is celebrating its 100th year anniversary this month, as fishery experts with the DNR continue to ensure area lakes are stocked with healthy fish populations. Photos by Brian Basham1 / 4
Hatchery technology hasn't changed much over the years, as the hatching process is set up the same way today as it was 100 years ago. The eggs are placed in jars in the hatchery, where they will sit and incubate as well water gently circulates around them, keeping them oxygenated for two weeks.That's when the famous eye of the walleye becomes visible and the tiny, baby fish are ready to hatch.2 / 4
Local farmers used horses (above) and slip scrapers in 1912 to build 12 bass ponds at the Lake Sallie station.Although some of those ponds are still in existence today, they are not used for reproduction.3 / 4
This is the first fish hatchery building, which at the time was also used to hatch northerns, trout, sunnies, crappies and more. Today, the hatchery is used to help produce walleye and sturgeon. Photos courtesy of Wilbur Joy4 / 4

For 100 years, the Lake Sallie Fish Hatchery at Dunton Locks -- just out side of Detroit Lakes -- has been helping Mother Nature along -- increasing the fish population in area lakes.

It has undoubtedly strengthened commerce, business and livelihoods in lakes country since its inception in 1912.

That's why DNR officials are hosting a century celebration on Aug. 9, which will include hatchery tours to the public, refreshments, some fishing and speakers like Wilbur Joy.

Joy grew up and worked on the hatchery as his father, William Joy, was the manager, starting there in 1924 and retiring in 1970.

While the hatchery was in full swing by the time Joy began making childhood memories there, he says there was once just a little river there -- an outlet from Detroit Lakes.

But at the turn of the century, John K. West -- a Massachusetts man of financial means -- came into town.

"And when he saw how the Pelican River connected all these lakes, he thought it was the most beautiful place in the world," said Joy, "and he immediately thought he should attract people from North Dakota, South Dakota, Canada..."

And he did.

But his newly purchased land had one problem -- there was a five-foot drop from Detroit Lake to Lake Sallie.

"And that made it hard to do anything except to flood that area so they could float boats down the embankment where it goes into Lake Sallie," said Joy. "So they blocked the river off at the outlet of Detroit Lake, deepened the channel, and they strengthened the embankment and built the locks."

After they built the locks (which West named "Dunton" after his friend, Fred Dunton, who helped finance the project), they shut the river off and Muskrat Lake formed.

West built the Pelican River Navigation Company, which used steamboats to haul people from lake to lake, allowing them to enjoy the lakes in a way they never had.

The steamboats became a very popular attraction, and commerce around the lakes quickly followed.

Knowing how vital the fishing industry was to the area, West decided to donate the land at Dunton Locks to the state of Minnesota under one circumstance -- they build a hatchery there.

It took a few years, but finally the state appropriated enough money to begin construction on a hatchery, which would be right next to the water head. It was 4½ feet deep and moving -- the perfect set up for fish spawning and reproduction.

Construction began in the fall of 1911 and was completed in the spring of 1912. A cottage was also built at the same time, which was not only the residence for the fishery superintendent, but also acted as the DNR headquarters.

They began helping Mother Nature along by physically taking the eggs out of the females, the semen out of the males and mixing them together for hatching inside the new, cement-block building.

"There were four wooden batteries, long wooden tanks that are now metal," explained Joy. "Four stacked one on top of the other, and the jars were fitted along the battery. That's where the water came through, down through the jars, out of the spout and into the lower battery."

From there, they went underneath the concrete floor and into other tanks that were built into the floor. When the little fry would come into that tank, they'd take them out and stock them into lakes.

Back then though, it wasn't the DNR that did the stocking.

"To get the fry to the lakes, they would let the public know so they would come with their horses and carts, coming with their cream cans, scooping 20,000 fry in one can," said Joy, "and the people would put them in whatever lake they wanted."

Pairs of fish were also placed into 12 newly built ponds around the property, which were drained in the fall. Fingerlings were extracted and also stocked in various lakes.

They hatched crappies, bass, northerns, trout and walleye.

In the winter, horses were used to harvest ice for an icehouse that was also there.

But in the 1940s, the hatchery went through quite a transformation as the government's New Deal put people to work in the Works Project Administration.

Camps were set up at Dunton Locks, while the area was revamped to pull water from the colder, cleaner Lake Sallie instead of Muskrat Lake.

A new dam was built, as well as new locks. But because the steamboat industry had come to a screeching halt (thanks to automobiles), the new locks were never really used.

Eventually they were taken out and fish are now free to swim from one lake to another.

Other little changes have happened along the way as well. Buildings have since been torn down and new ones built, including a separate DNR headquarters.

The ponds are not used for stocking anymore, but are simply considered natural wetlands. DNR officials now handle all the stocking of public lakes, and they primarily just hatch walleye and sturgeon there.

"But the technology hasn't changed much," said Hatchery Manager Gary Huberty, explaining that the battery troughs are still stacked four high, but the spigots are now brass instead of wood. "And we use well water now instead of surface water just because I don't think the water quality is what it was back then."

The engineering is the same, as is the result -- a local hatchery that continues to produce one of our area's greatest natural resource -- a healthy fish population that just keeps reeling in the fishermen.