30 Years of The Canal Experience at Providence
Stories by Jodie McFarland
Canal Experience Coordinator
Looking Back, Looking Forward
September of 2024 will usher in the 30th anniversary of The Canal Experience at Providence Metropark. Over the last three decades hundreds of thousands of visitors have taken a trip aboard The Volunteer, a replica canal boat, and traversed a restored section of the original Miami & Erie Canal through what was once the town of Providence, Ohio.
What makes this experience unlike any other experience in the United States? Plenty.
The Volunteer remains a mule-drawn boat, the way these boats traveled the canals in the 19th Century. First, it was Merril Spiess, beginning in 1994, who walked with these beautiful animals along the Providence towpath then Jake Coolman took over that role. Jake still walks with the mules along the canal route. Jake and the mules, Molly and Sally, are also fixtures at Wildwood Preserve during Holidays at the Manor House where they provide the popular carriage rides through the park.
Part of the experience at Providence is the opportunity to pass through a working lock. The original lock constructed at that location opened in 1840. It remains the only functioning lock in Ohio where a boat can pass through, and it is only one of two locations in the nation that offers this opportunity.
When you add the Isaac Ludwig Mill to the mix, The Canal Experience is the only place in the nation to boast a working canal boat traveling through a working lock with a water powered mill on site.
It's all right here in northwest Ohio as a part of your Metroparks.
Over the coming weeks, we will explore some of the many elements that make up the Canal Experience including some of the staff who helped make memories for countless school kids, families, and canal enthusiasts since September 1994. We will take a look back, and we will look ahead to what is happening on the canal in 2024. Along the way we hope to share some favorite memories from current staff, former staff and visitors who have traveled back in time with us.
Do you have a favorite memory from a visit to the Canal Experience? We’d love to hear about it. Share with us on social media using the hashtag #CanalExperience30 or drop us a note at metroparkstoledo.com/contact
The Timeless Traveler
There are so many stories that make the Canal Experience at Providence Metropark special, and each one has significant meaning to me because the stories feel so relatable to what we offer our visitors. For some, it’s learning more about an ancestor who worked on the canal. For others, it’s rediscovering Providence from their school field trip from years ago. For Mary Ann Fobare, it was a return to normality and the joy that comes with a leisurely trip on a boat.
In 2022, I was at the ticket booth at Kimble’s Landing when a lady approached the booth and purchased a single ticket for our next trip on the canal.
As we exchanged pleasantries, she informed me that she has ridden our canal boat, The Volunteer every year since we opened with the exception of two. Those were the years we were shut down due to covid. As we continued our conversation, I asked her name and she said, “I’m Mary Ann Fobare. My husband and I came down from Royal Oak, Michigan every year to ride the canal boat, but he passed away recently; so now it’s just me. I’m so glad the boat is running again.”
Mary Ann returned again in 2023 for another ride along the Miami & Erie Canal. “It was wonderful, as always!” she exclaimed. Then she added, “Each year is something just a little bit different, and that makes it fun.”
Mary Ann, we hope to see you again in 2024. We’ll have your seat ready and waiting!
Unique Adventures, Crazy Weather, and a Canal Boat Cake
For Marissa Muniz Kolhoff, there was always a party at Providence of some sort. Some were fun, others not so much. However, there can be no question that her time at the Canal Experience from 2015 – 2017 brought a new adventure every day.
“One of the things I remember most is the weird weather we had that first summer I worked at Providence,” states Marissa. “We had record setting heat and extreme rain that season, both of which shut down boat runs. We had to close the park multiple times due to flooding.” Indeed, the flooding at the end of June and into July of 2015 caused major problems for the Canal Experience. The Maumee came over its banks and washed out sections of the towpath, and the high water nearly pinned The Volunteer under the foot bridge at Kimble’s Landing.
A challenge for many a canal worker is learning the fine art of tilling a 12 ton canal boat. While it seems easy to learn, tilling has its moments and can present a problem like no other. Marissa, whose character name was Miss Hamilton, tells us, “One memory that sticks out to me was that on one occasion during a boat ride (with people on the boat), I turned the till the wrong way at the turnaround spot. I sent the boat right into the trees… it was pure chaos. Zero stars, do not recommend, lol."
Most adventures are memorable for good reasons. Marissa has many fond memories of positive experiences during her time at Providence. “One of my favorite things to do was actually making flour in the mill. It was really cool to take something that was grown locally and make it into an everyday use pantry staple.”
“During the 2015 season, we had a great group. We did a lot of things together, such as going out to eat at the pizza place across the river after our shift was over. We also had a lot of work potlucks, and I put my baking skills to the test and made a replica Volunteer canal boat cake. We also created what we called ‘Café Ludwig’; which was whoever was in the mill would make coffee and hot chocolate for the boat crew on cold days. We would run this out to them when the boat was in the lock.”
What is Marissa up to these days? “Since 2018 I have been at the Wood County Museum in Bowling Green, Ohio as the Marketing & Events Coordinator. In 2022 I got married to Zack Kolhoff. Together Zack and I love to travel and post about our adventures on our social media pages. We are also proud pet parents to our cat son, Loki.”
Life continues to be an adventure for Marissa Muniz Kolhoff, and she has many things that keep her busy. However, there’ll never be adventures quite as unique as her time at the Canal Experience at Providence Metropark. Thank you, Marissa for sharing your story.
Yet, She Persisted
So many people have worked at the Canal Experience over the course of its 30 year span. Many of them have moved on to careers in other fields or with other companies or organizations. However, for some, including Shannon Hughes, it was a springboard to a career at Metroparks Toledo that has been rewarding on many levels.
Beginning in 2006, Shannon worked on The Volunteer as the captain’s wife, and her character had an interesting and unique backstory. “Back in the day we used our mother’s maiden names or grandmothers names when devising a character. My character name was Lizzy Phillips and I was the canal boat captain. I was running the boat while my husband was off fighting out west under Colonel George Custer. I was working his canal boat in the meantime making money until I could join him out west. My crew was comprised of my younger brother and a few of my trusted friends and fellow feminist/teetotalers. (Terrible backstory now that I know I have Native American blood on both sides of my family but at the time I really was an Army wife so it made sense).”
Many people remember the Oberle Hotel that was on site at Providence in what is now the Kuhlman’s Landing parking lot and canoe/kayak launch. The Oberle had what many would say is a “colorful” past. It was believed to be a brothel for much of its existence, but it was used as office space and for programs as part of Metroparks Toledo until its demolition in 2012. Shannon recalls her time there, “When I first took over as the canal experience lead programmer, I worked in the Oberle Hotel—so it always made an interesting conversation when I told people my first job out of college was a historic brothel—but that’s not the main point. When I was working alone in the hotel one evening, I was sitting on the floor organizing some files and a squirrel came out of the attic, and we had a staring contest that he lost when he decided that he would run up my back and try to nest in my hair. Seriously I couldn’t make that up. I think Angela and George had fed him and tried to make him a pet. When I told them this story they got me a funny fake mouse in a coffee cup gag gift that I still have in my office to this day.”
One of the greatest benefits of working at the Canal Experience is the lasting friendships that sometimes form as a result of working side by side in a unique setting. Another benefit is the valuable lessons learned from working with people in an historical setting. Shannon claims both of these to be true. “I actually still talk to two individuals I worked with—I’ve gone to their weddings, baby showers and all sorts of life events. It’s one of those jobs that seriously can knit a friendship together.” She goes on to say, “Patience at that site was a must and it was a great lesson to learn at 20 years old.”
Today, Shannon is still part of the Metroparks family as the Director of Education and Programming. Dr. Hughes has also been named one of Toledo’s 40 under 40, and she has been an integral part of the many awards Metroparks Toledo has earned over the last several years. Shannon, thank you for sharing your story.
Teamwork, Family, and the Legend of the Log Hunter
Teamwork and family are two words that many staff of the Canal Experience use to describe their time at Providence. Sophie Huss is no exception, and that sense of closeness and teamwork has gone with her in her career pursuits to make a difference in the world.
Sophie worked at the Canal Experience in 2017, and then assisted at Providence periodically in 2019 and 2020 while working as an Environmental Education Programmer for Metroparks Toledo. It was her time at Providence where she learned about the value of teamwork, and it was her time at Providence where she earned the title, “Log Hunter”
“There was a big log in the canal that was messing with the boat,” Sophie recalls. “The crew said they could wait for maintenance to handle it, but I for some reason was determined to get it out of the way. I slid down the bank (which was covered in poison ivy by the way), waded chest deep into the canal in my 1800’s clothes after the last run of the day, and moved the log to the bank. I was gifted the name ‘log hunter’ from that day on."
Despite the bravery of the log hunter, there was more personal growth to this story.
“I learned so much on the canal boat and in the mill. I think most of all, this job helped me come out of my shell and to try new things, even if they seem scary at first. It was also incredibly team-oriented, and I always try to bring that sense of teamwork with me in all I do. Providence is a special place and really brings people together. I am still in touch with many folks from the canal, and it’s always so special running into them and catching up. I love coming back to volunteer or go for a ride on the boat because I always get to see friends I worked with and meet new faces too! It truly felt and feels like family… once canal folks, always canal folks!”
Currently, Sophie is in her third year of her PhD program in Earth and Environmental Science at Michigan State University. As a part of her program, Sophie is involved in community-engaged work in environmental justice, in particular tribal environmental justice with indigenous nations around the United States. That sense of teamwork and family comes in handy in this role, and it’s exciting to see the “log hunter” making a difference in the world.
Overcoming the Comfort Zone
Mike Mathis didn’t like school, and he didn’t care for speaking in public. However, a new job at the Canal Experience brought him out of his comfort zone, brought praise from family, and set the stage for a career in parks and recreation.
From 2008 – 2010, Captain Jacob Schuler worked on the Miami & Erie Canal aboard The Volunteer to the delight of visitors from all over the nation. Captain Schuler, portrayed by Mathis, got his start by teaching some men a lesson in animal kindness. A passing canal boat captain saw how well Schuler could fight, and he took him on as a deckhand. That backstory leads us to the rest of the tale of Mike Mathis and the Canal Experience.
Mike tells us, “Jacob was my great-great-great grandfather Mathis who came to the United States from Germany. Schuler was my mother’s maiden name.” Honoring family is one way that staff at the Canal Experience develop their characters and create names for the characters they portray. For Mike, it went a step further during his time at Providence. “I remember my grandfather coming to the boat to watch me, and he told me how proud he was of me because I never liked school but loved the canal boat.”
Mike recalls the California white pizza from the pizza place across the river in Grand Rapids; an ongoing staple among Canal Experience staff. He also fondly recalls the staff from his first season that included Shannon, Ashley, Becca, Jake, Angela, Jen, and Jeff, and he loved his time working on the canal boat.
Captain Jacob Schuler is a memory in the archives of Canal Experience history. However, for Mike Mathis, Jacob Schuler was a springboard for a future career. “The Canal Experience definitely put me out of my comfort zone with public speaking and acting. It was totally worth it to put myself out there.”
Today, Mike is more than comfortable with his role as the Director of Parks and Recreation for the city of Two Rivers, Wisconsin.