By David R. Schleper
Over the years, by fact and by legend, Shakopee had created for itself a colorful past. Old timers recount stories of times that will never be recaptured. One interesting story is the famed turtles that were captured on the Minnesota River near Shakopee starting in the late 1920s. According to Pat Thielen in 1974, people used to trap turtles commercially, and sold them to outlets throughout the Twin City area and beyond.
Thielen began his interest in hunting, trapping, and outdoor activity at an early age. “I used to go out with my dad almost before I could walk,” he said. Pat Thielen used to be the police chief in Shakopee.
“I started trapping turtles with my dad in 1926, when I was 10 or 12 years old,” he recounted, “and began to market them commercially in the 1930s.”
“We started turtle trapping for sport and for our own use,” Thielen said, “but it gets in your blood.”
Local taverns, according to Thielen, used to have turtle feeds every week, and he had several customers in Minneapolis and St. Paul. A commercial fisherman in Waterville bought Thielen’s turtles, as did a buyer in Wisconsin.
At one time, Thielen had a trap line consisting of 200 traps in Scott and Carver Counties, covering nearly a 75 mile area. He trapped mostly along the Minnesota River.
Trapping took place all year round. During the winter months, when ice formed, turtles were dug out of the mud in spring holes and in channels and creeks where the flow of the water keep the top from freezing.
Thielen’s biggest turtle, a 58 pounder, came out of the Priest’s Bay, which is near Mound in Hennepin County. Thielen was in a boat at the time with game warden Ernie Boyd. They spotted the big snapping turtle on top of a trap, attempting to get the bait inside. He was too big to get into the trap itself.
“I grabbed him by the tail and hauled him into the boat, and the two of us almost left,” Thielen said. “It was the biggest turtle I ever caught or ever saw.”
Over the years, Thielen trapped many snappers that weighed in at 40 to 45 pounds, but the average was generally in the 15-pound range.
In the 1930s, Thielen was paid three cents a pound for live turtles, and 18 cents per pound if they were dressed. In 1964, a live turtle sold for almost 50 cents per pound, and dressed turtle meat cost $2.50 per pound. According to Wholey, in 2018 a snapping turtle meat, boneless, is $120 for 5 pounds.
“I quit trapping in 1941 when I spent five years in the Army. When I came back, I worked at the St. Paul House and started again,” said Pat Thielen. Frank Wampach ran the St. Paul House at that time, and Thielen supplied him with turtle meat.
“Frank wanted some turtles to put in his rock garden to show customers what they looked like,” Thielen said. “So I put 200 of them in there, and they ate $200 worth of goldfish in one day.” The display was not effective for long. The air conditioning system in the building drew in the odor from the turtles, and they finally had to be taken out of the rock garden.
Thielen quit trapping in 1965, but the activity is pursued by a few area residents, though not with commercial interests in mind. While the market for turtle meat was still good when Pat Thielen was interviewed in 1974, there were too few turtles in the area to make it profitable.
Traps were made of reinforcing wire. They were round, about four feet across and four feet deep. Inside the trap, a carp was placed in a small basket for bait. It was not uncommon to find seven or eight turtles in one trap, and Thielen often rounded up between 60 and 70 turtles a day.
Pat Thielen was the first person to trap turtles in Lake Minnetonka, a source from which he got thousands of the reptiles. He also did a lot of trapping in pot holes between Renville and Sacred Heart west to Granite Falls.
A turtle is cleaned by hanging it by its tail and cutting the shell away. “The whole thing takes five minutes if you know how,” Thielen said. “Otherwise, you’d be out there all day.” Turtles and snakes are known for having muscle movements and heart beats many hours after beheading, even more than what chickens have. After cutting off the head, some people scald them in hot water so you can scrape the skin off. Just split the shell on each side to separate the top and bottom. About one-third of the turtle’s weight is consumed in useable meat.
“Turtle meat tastes something like frog but it has a beefy taste to it as well,” Thielen said. “I guess it tastes different to everybody.”
Rubberback turtles are best prepared by French frying, according to Thielen, but snappers are tougher and should be browned first, and then roasted. Snapping turtles are most often used in soup as well. An old Cajun once told David Schleper that turtle stew is so good it will “make your tongue slap your brain!”
A fishing license was required to trap turtles, and there was no limit placed on them. “Turtles will be extinct pretty soon if they don’t put some limits on them,” said Thielen in 1974. Thielen noted that “more people are trapping and eating turtles than ever before.”
A limit of three turtles is allowed, and a state license is required. In fact, most turtles are taken with traps and nets. Turtles can range in weight from 10 to 35 pounds. Turtles are found throughout Minnesota, but starting in 1984 they were listed as a “special concern species,” mostly because of the possibly detrimental effects of commercial harvest on the local populations.
Starting in 2004, commercial harvesting snapping turtles now included limiting the number of traps which could be used, restricting turtle licenses to Minnesota residents, and putting a moratorium on the sale of new licenses. Anyone who held a license prior to the rule changes was permitted to renew it and they may pass their license down one generation to their relatives. Additionally, trappers must now keep a daily log of where their traps are located and how many turtles they harvest.
Thielen had been bitten several times, and carried a knife while trapping. Of course, if someone is swimming in the Minnesota River, and one of the snapping turtles bites down on the toe, it’s going to be a long walk back to the house with an 80 pound turtle on the toe! According to Pat Thielen, “About the only way to get them off was to cut the cords in their neck!”
“If I had the turtles today that I had back in the 1930’s, I’d be a millionaire!” said Thielen in 1974. “But it was sure fun while it lasted!”
(Some information from “Shakopee Was Once Turtle Capital of Twin City Area,” Shakopee Valley News, 25 Dec 1974; “DNR Seizes 1.5 Tons of Turtle Meat,” Minneapolis Star and Tribune, 3 Nov 2015; Wikipedia; “Snapping Turtle Boneless Meat (5 lb.),” Wholey. wholey.com/snapping-turtle-meat/. Accessed 18 Sept 2018.)
Read more about Pat Thielen in Robert George Thielen: The Legend of “Pat” Thielen, available for purchase from the Shakopee Heritage Society.