NPS craftsman Dave Brunsvold hangs up his tool belt

Dave Brunsvold at Devils Island

November 13, 2023

The rich history of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore lives on through the historic buildings and artifacts you’ll discover throughout the park. The man you are about to meet is one of the talented craftspeople dedicated to restoring, preserving and presenting these treasures to teach and inspire generations of park visitors. Dave Brunsvold devoted 23 years to that effort, before transitioning into retirement on October 19, 2023. Friends board member Neil Howk sat down Dave, saying it’s important to give him a tiny bit of the recognition he deserves for the marvelous work that he did.

Neil: Dave, where are you from?
Dave: I’m from north central Iowa, raised on a farm. There was a town of 800 a mile and a quarter away, but the big town was Mason City (about 20 miles away) about midway between Des Moines and Minneapolis. Living on the farm, we never went to either place.

Neil: What kind of a farm was it?
Dave: It was sort of one of the last of the generalized farms. It started out all the crops; corn, beans, oats, and we had hogs, cattle, and chickens. As time went on it became more and more specialized with livestock. And the livestock we did have became more intensive. It was sort of the last of the days when neighbors shared farm machinery. When I was a kid, they’d go in together on a baler or a combine. Then it became more of a big business.

Dave Brunsvold

Dave Brunsvold

Neil: So how did you learn your carpentry skills?
Dave: I purposely avoided all the shop classes in high school. I didn’t have any interest. My first woodworking project was when I was out of college, and I ran into my elementary school principal who had built a cedar strip canoe, and it was pretty cool. He helped me build this… I built a cedar strip canoe, an 18-footer. One of my retirement projects is to actually finish that, I’ve got to put seats in it. So, you know, the full circle is going to happen.

I was planning on getting into grad school, I moved to Iowa City, Iowa. I’d been out of school a couple years trying the farming thing and that wasn’t my bag, so I thought I needed to have a part-time job while getting enough credits to be accepted. So I was going to school part-time and worked for a friend who I grew up with who was doing preservation carpentry in Iowa City. Iowa City is an interesting town on many levels. There’s houses there from the 1840s, so lots of work. And we traveled to different parts of the country, so we did some really interesting stuff. I was having more fun doing that than trying to become a botanist, so one thing led to another.

Neil: When did you start working for the park service?
Dave: It was 1990. I had real bad problem with a herniated disc… low back issues. I was off work for about six months… When I was in college, we did a field class in Teddy Roosevelt National Park for ornithology. One of the rangers came and talked to us around the campfire, just because it’s a quiet place. Somebody asked, “how do you get a job with the park service?” And she said, “well you start out as a seasonal, and get your foot in the door.” I didn’t think much of it, but while I was laid up with my back problems, I remembered that conversation. Herbert Hoover National Historic Site was about 25 miles away, so I thought I could start maybe doing some volunteer work there. I started out working for interpretation. Also, as my back got better, I started doing some work for maintenance. I worked as a volunteer just one or two days a week. I got a call one day from one of the interpreters asking if I’d like a job as a blacksmith. They had a re-creation of Hoover’s blacksmith (shop). Hoover’s father was a blacksmith, so they had a replica of his shop. So, they sent me to a weekend of blacksmith training. I started giving tours to school groups in the spring and fall. And then I ended up going over to maintenance… Doug Pratt (another former Apostle Islands employee) was the maintenance supervisor there, so I got hired on as a seasonal carpenter.

Neil: When did you come to the Apostle Islands?
Dave: August of 2000.

Neil: What was your job title?
Dave: I had two titles. One was “maintenance mechanic” and the other was “historic preservation specialist.” One sounds like you work on old Chevys and the other is kind of a high falutin’ title. Normally I tell people that I’m a carpenter or a woodworker.

Devils Island fog signal building - NPS

Devils Island fog signal building – NPS photo

Neil: When you came to the Apostle Islands, what kind of projects did you work on?
Dave: The first project I worked on was reroofing the Devils (Island) fog signal building. We were supposed to stay out there for the work week. We loaded up the old “PELICAN” landing craft with everything we could possibly need. We got out there and I realized that I had forgotten the roofing nails! The only way, at that time, to get in contact with anyone was to get on the radio and say, “hey, is anybody coming out here?” And somebody was, so I said, “hey, can you bring out some roofing nails?” I figured that would be code enough to say, “bring out 50 pounds.” Sure enough, the next day someone brought out a little handful of shingle nails for me. I found out after that, to just take a deep breath and suffer the embarrassment… Cell phones have helped alleviate that potential embarrassment, sometimes. So, I did a lot of exterior envelope projects trying to just keep these (historic) buildings whole.

Neil: What would you say your specialty is?
Dave: The woodworking…what I really enjoy is doing the finer type of work. I guess the other general specialty is just trying to think outside the box. A lot of our projects, you know it’s a long boat trip back to the shop or the hardware store, so I think one of the specialties is just making do with what you have. And when you tear into something, there’s always more (than you expect) and you have to adapt, so I think adaptability is (important). And also just working with the other people on the crew and listening to their ideas…so that’s kind of a longer answer (than necessary.)

Raspberry Island boathouse restoration in progress

Raspberry Island boathouse restoration in progress

Neil: What project has been your biggest challenge?
Dave: There’s been a lot… I would have to say the biggest project, the most challenging one, was the Raspberry Island boat house. The Friend’s group helped out on that. When we first looked at the project three years before (we started) lake levels were at a record low. When we came back to start the project they were at almost a record high. Everything was under water. We had to lift the building up in place. There were docks on three sides, so we had to build sandbag dikes and try to pump out the cribbing that was now underwater. That was a really tough project.

Dave Brunsvold installing metal plating on the hull of the Twilite

Dave works on the Twilite 

The Twilite fishing tug restored and on display at Little Sand Bay

Neil: Weren’t you working on the (Hokenson family fish tug) TWILITE for a long time?
Dave: Oh yeah! That was another one. (laughter) We had to move it off the shoreline to work on it. We had a boat conservator come out (to Little Sand Bay) from San Francisco Maritime (National Historic Park) and everybody said that this boat is going to hang together. I thought it was really fragile. So they lifted it with a crane up onto a truck and hauled it up this narrow passageway through the trees.

Years later, I talked to the same people that helped move it and they said, “oh yeah, we were all real worried about it!” They were sure it would fall apart. So yeah, we spent a lot of time working on it. That was a real challenge. I’d wake up in the middle of the night thinking, “we’re never going to get this thing back together!” I’m not a boat builder…I built a canoe (laughter), but there’s a big difference. The crews that worked on it with me had a lot of dedication. They deserve a lot of credit.

Probably the most satisfying thing that we all did, and people still talk about it today, is replacing the rub rails (along the sides of the boat). We had to steam-bend those. We were talking with the sawmill and the logger all summer trying to find just the right logs for us. It was getting late in September and people would run into the guy who had the sawmill (Leonard Isaaksen) on the street and say, “hey Leonard, have you found (the logs) yet?” He had a lot of pressure. I was calling him twice a week, it was getting cold, and we can’t do the steam-bending when it gets really cold. Finally in late September he called and said, “we’ve got the logs, but we don’t have enough people to run the sawmill.”

Neil: What type of wood was it?
Dave: It was red oak. So, I said, “we can come out and help.” Six of us piled into the truck and went out there (to Herbster) and basically handled the logs from point A to point B. And the next day we started steam bending. We had a 20-foot-long plastic culvert and three turkey friers with clean gasoline cans pumping steam into this culvert. Everybody was ready, we had all the tools and contingencies in case this didn’t work…They were full 2” x 6” pieces of red oak and we had to double them up…So we started with the first piece and…it worked! We were like halfway through and we all just got almost ecstatic…as much as maintenance people can be (laughter)! “It’s working!” (more laughter) That was on the last day of the week, and even when people showed up on Monday everybody was still buzzing about it. We had just got one piece on, we still had six more pieces to put on, but we were all pretty stoked that it actually worked.

Neil: I understand that you went on some detail assignments in the winter (when you were on furlough from the Apostle Islands). What kind of places did you go to?
Dave: I went to eight different parks over the years. I went on a couple hurricane cleanups to the Everglades and Cape Lookout (North Carolina). My first winter detail, when we had an empty nest (my wife, Piper, was looking forward to going with me) my first detail was to Pictured Rocks over in the upper peninsula, so she wasn’t so (long pause)….she came and spent a week and actually it is a beautiful place in the winter so we had a nice time. I also went to Biscayne (National Park) to work on their visitor center out on Elliot Key, Albright Training Center which is in the Grand Canyon. I spent three winters there. I just loved being able to explore the canyon. I lived across the street from the mule barn so…

Neil: Just like home…
Dave: Just like home, yeah, mules smell a lot better than pigs (laughter). And then let’s see, where else? Lewis and Clark Historic Site out in Oregon. I absolutely loved it out there. If I’d have known about that as a young man…who knows? And my last detail was in Puerto Rico at San Juan Historic Site.

Neil: What did you do there?
Dave: We worked on a project rehabbing employee housing. A 150 year-old structure built by the army. They had this system of windows and integrated shutters made out of mahogany and we had to basically cut the windows…let’s say rehabbing windows so people could egress in case of fire. Then I was involved with building cabinets. In the tropics they don’t use plywood, they use 4’ x 8’ sheets of PVC plastic which comes in the same dimensions as plywood because of insects and humidity so (the cabinets) don’t rot. The people there were awesome. It was an interesting (experience). Spanish is the predominant language, so I had a helper. It was an amazing place.

Neil: So, what’s the next chapter?
Dave: Finishing my canoe… I have a boathouse and a barn workshop that need exterior work. I’m going to continue woodworking. We also have two boys and two grandchildren. Our youngest son is getting married next fall so we’re going to be spending time with the kids and grandkids and helping them out with projects. And doing some traveling.

Neil: That’s great. Thanks so much for all this, Dave.

Neil Howk began working as a park ranger/interpreter for the National Park Service in 1978. He worked at a number of different parks over the years and served as the assistant chief of interpretation at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore from 1993-2016. He now serves as a board member of Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

Friends of the Apostle Islands Board Member Neil Howk

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