"All of a sudden, SPLEESH!" Bob Gasch said, his deep voice booming. "This 20-foot sea monster came up from the lake, spewing bubbles!"
True story, Gasch told a group of about a dozen day campers from YMCA Camp Christmas Tree in Minnetrista when they visited the Western Hennepin County Pioneer Museum in Long Lake one recent afternoon. In 1913, a sea monster loomed out of the town's namesake lake, scaring the locals.
Sitting around a table, the campers listened as Gasch added vivid details. After the sea monster emerged, kids were restricted from swimming, Gasch said, "because they might get eaten by the sea monster."
Fishermen's wives feared the monster would flip their boats "and start chewing on their husbands." Finally, a man went out with a rifle, shot the monster three times and was baffled when "it didn't bleed and it didn't die."
Turns out, the "sea monster" had been built of wood by a local prankster.
At 70, Gasch is celebrating 50 years as a professional storyteller. He has captivated audiences in libraries, schools, summer camps, scouting troops, county fairs and other museums.
The Cokato, Minn., resident has spun tales throughout Minnesota and elsewhere around the country including Colorado, where he lived for a while, and south Texas, where he told a story while visiting friends and soon found his skills in demand as word spread. He's even been a frequent storytelling visitor in Northern Ireland.
He gets paid for some gigs and volunteers with historical societies in Cokato, Plymouth, Wayzata and the Long Lake-based Western Hennepin County Pioneer Association.
When growing up in Orono, Gasch also attended Camp Christmas Tree and later worked there as a counselor.
He saw "how much kids learned in an informal setting — doing, being physically active and exploring." He realized he wanted to shape a career around working with kids. But not as a teacher having to deal with paperwork, grades, standardized tests.
He began volunteering in classrooms, initially impersonating characters. He started with Abraham Lincoln, because back then Gasch was similarly tall and thin (he's now stout and white-bearded) — then Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, Robinson Crusoe and others. He told stories about gold mining, railroads, family farm traditions.
School history curricula, he said, tend to concentrate on big events and famous leaders, often overlooking ordinary daily life. Gasch focused on the lives of Native Americans around Lake Minnetonka — "this was their grocery store, this was their pharmacy and this was their church." He'd tell about the lives of pioneers and cowboys on cattle drives.
Teachers marvel at Gasch's abilities to keep students spellbound.
"He's better than TV, better than anything else," said Sue Strom, a Wayzata School District teacher who has worked with Gasch frequently over the years. "He gets such visceral responses from the kids. They're scared when they're supposed to be scared. [He] has them feeling sad, he has them wondering."
The Dassel-Cokato School District in May held a celebration honoring Gasch's storytelling anniversary, with students gathered outside holding up signs they'd made for him.
"He appears bigger than life and commands an audience," said Debbie Morris, principal of Dassel Elementary School. "The stories resonate with children because he is so well-read about history and has actually talked with descendants."
After concluding the tale of the Long Lake sea monster, Gasch led the day-camp group on a tour of the museum, which is crammed with, well, pretty much everything associated with daily life in the area's pioneer days: horse shoes, washboards, school desks, a hair curler that would be heated in a flame, a toaster to be heated on a stove, an ice box that chilled food with a block of ice.
He cranked a still operable windup phonograph and gave kids turns blowing a squawking car horn. He pointed out the braided wreaths of human hair kept as mementos of deceased loved ones in the days before photography, and showed the kids the oldest watercraft in Minnesota, a 1,000-year-old dugout canoe.
The campers were fascinated with the objects, but Gasch doesn't need props to get kids interested in history. He makes use of a tool far older than washboards or horseshoes.
For tens of thousands of years, humans have passed along history, created legends and enthralled each other with storytelling.
"I learned how to tell a story so that you could picture it in your head," Gasch said. "I learned to get kids to use their imaginations."
Katy Read • 612-673-4583 Twitter: @Katy_Read