Bio: Schueneman Family, Christmas Tree Ship


Surnames: Schuenemann, Talbott, Harrison, Hinsdale

----Source: Tribune/Record/Gleaner (Loyal, Wis.) 14 Dec 1972

The Legend of the Christmas Tree Ship
By Linda Talbott

Soon the presents will all be wrapped and tucked under a tree; an evergreen gaily festooned with tinsel; the tree itself illuminated by softly twinkling from hundreds of tiny lights nestled within the boughs. Ornaments, some new and others cherished heirlooms handed down through the years, will be carefully suspended from each branch while, at the very top, the star or angel will complete the adornment and set the stage for Christmas morning.

These days many families simply go out to the garage, or up to the attic, and drag out a box full of tangled greenery which miraculously manages to turn into a very life-like replica of what we once trudged through knee deep snow to obtain. I recall when I was a child, growing up in the UP north, we would go out into the woods and cut our own tree. We never did find the “perfect” tree, but we pronounced that it was as it was heaved onto the roof of my father’s old Buick and tied it down for the ride home. Once there it would be stood up in the mud-room were it was warm enough to melt off all the snow and ice before shoving it through the doorway and into the house; the fragrance of freshly cut evergreen wafting through every room as the decorations went up.

The tradition of bringing an evergreen tree inside the house and decorating it for the Christmas season was brought to this country early on by German settlers and Hessian soldiers during the Revolutionary war and, initially, was not well received at all. In fact, at one time putting up a Christmas tree at all was banned in some New England states. The notion slowly gained in popularity but it wasn’t until 1891, when President Benjamin Harrison put one up in the White House that the Christmas tree began to be widely accepted. Within a decade there was a large demand for Christmas trees and it became common for a handful of schooners to make late season runs to bring the fragrant evergreens from forests in Wisconsin and northern Michigan; a particularly risky venture as they were tempting the historically notorious dangerous gales of November. These vessels became known as the “Christmas tree ships”, and between 1880 and 1920 they carried countless thousands of evergreens into lake ports. The one that has endured in legend and lore through the years, immortalized in books, documentaries, paintings and a play, and the one to become known as THE Christmas Tree Ship was the schooner Rouse Simmons.

Herman Schuenemann and his brother, August, began their venture into the Christmas tree business in 1876 when they brought 1,300 evergreens into Chicago from Algoma on the schooner W. H. Hinsdale. The family had never been what anyone could call prosperous and operated on a very tight budget; buying old schooners and doing the best they could with what they had. Herman and August continued in the business together until November 10, 1898, when the schooner S. Thal, with August Schuenemann in command, got caught in a severe gale while attempting to make her home port of Chicago, and was wrecked off Glencoe, Illinois. Despite his own grief over the loss of his brother, Hermann made the annual run to the northern end of the lake, bringing more than 11,000 trees back to Chicago, using two schooners to accomplish it. Now he not only had his own family, including a six year old daughter and new-born twin girls, to provide for but August’s widow and two young children as well.

Over the next fourteen years the Schuenemann boats spent the main season of navigation running in and out of lake ports carrying any freight that could be found but, come November, they would always be found making the Christmas tree run. In Chicago it was said that Christmas didn’t really arrive until the Schuenemann Christmas ship arrived and tied up at the southwest corner of the Clark street bridge with electric lights strung from mast to mast and a lighted evergreen high atop. By selling directly from the dock, and eliminating the middle man, Captain Schuenemann was able to sell his trees at lower prices. For one dollar you could take your pick of the entire load. But the business was not, in fact, all “business.” In 1906 St. Paul’s church recorded that Captain Schuenemann had dropped off a wagon full of trees and wreaths at the church, parsonage and orphan asylum. When someone went to the dock and inquired for the bill his response was “Blow the bill!” No one left the Schunemann boat without a tree for lack of money. His gifts of trees for the lesser privileged through the years earned him the nickname “Captain Santa.”

In 1910 the 124 foot, three-masted schooner, Rouse Simmons, joined the list of vessels known as Christmas tree ships when Herman Scheunemann purchased a one-eighth interest in her. The Simmons was built in 1868 and owned for twenty-five years by Thomas Hackley, sailing in and out of Muskegon for the Hackley and Hume lumber company. It was the Rouse Simmons that departed Chicago on May 21st, 1891 in company with the 132 foot schooner, Thomas Hume. Both were sailing light and headed back to Muskegon when a severe storm hit the lower part of Lake Michigan. The Simmons turned back for Chicago but the Hume continued on and “sailed into a crack in the lake,” her disappearance still remaining a mystery. The Rouse Simmons was the last vessel that Hackley and Hume sold when the company went out of business.

The life of a boat used in the lumber trade was a hard one and, on November 21st, 1912, as the Simmons lay alongside the dock at Thompson, east of Manistique, there were those who expressed doubts about her seaworthiness. The year 1912 had been a particularly nasty year for shipping. Two weeks earlier a horrendous snow storm had blasted the Great Lakes for four days, burying tree farms in Michigan and Wisconsin. Competitors, discouraged by the severe weather, had decided not to make the Christmas tree run that season and Captain Schuenemann stood to see a substantial profit from his cargo of freshly cut trees; money that would support his family through the off-season. Wagon after wagon filled with evergreens, their branches tied down tight to prevent breakage, were being loaded into every nook and cranny on the schooner as well as being stacked row upon row on her deck. Meanwhile the sky was turning an ominous leaden gray and the barometer was falling. An average cargo was between 300 and 400 tons and the Simmons, loaded with over 5,000 trees, rode low in the water as she set sail for Chicago on the 22nd with another storm about to blow in. Twelve miles out from Thompson she met the steam tug Burger towing another vessel into port to escape the oncoming storm. The tug captain yelled above the wind "That crazy Dutchman's going out in this, and with every inch of canvas up!" With every penny Herman Schuenemann had, and a good amount that he didn't, wrapped up into the trip this was a make it or break it final run of the season. The Simmons might not have been in great condition but she was also all he had so, with the mariner’s belief of “sail when you can and run when you must,” her bow was pointed southward for the dangerous 300 mile voyage home. Sailors are a superstitious lot. Renaming a boat is bad luck. Whistling will bring gale winds. Don’t step aboard with your left foot first, and NEVER sail on a Friday. November 22nd, 1912 just happened to be a Friday. Friends of the captain had practically begged him to hold off a day but, with his blue eyes twinkling as he handed out candies to the children at the Thompson dock before sailing, his reply was that “The kiddies must have their trees.”

They hadn’t even made it half way when the gale overtook them. Caught in the teeth of the storm, with gale winds of 60 mph driving sleet, snow and icy spray, the trees stacked high on the deck soon became thickly coated with blankets of ice. Battered hatch covers allowed water into the hold where it turned to ice as well, adding a massive amount of extra weight to the already staggering schooner. The Rouse Simmons, flying distress signals, was sighted by men of the United States Lifesaving Service from the station tower at Sturgeon Bay, her sails shredded and running before the wind, but they only had a surf-boat and there would be no hope of catching her with only oar power. The power boat, Tuscarora, was sent out from Two Rivers to attempt a rescue but the blinding snow hid the Rouse Simmons from view. She was briefly sighted at a distance during a break in the storm, barely afloat and resembling a floating block of ice. With engines at full ahead the Tuscarora made a valiant effort to reach the Simmons however the storm had regained intensity and the blizzard once again shrouded the schooner, never to be seen again atop the waves.

On the 27th, Claud Winters, a peg-legged former sailor and long-time friend of Captain Schunemann, waited anxiously at the Clark street bridge in Chicago for the arrival of the Christmas tree ship with a group of men hired for the unloading. The captain had once given Claud a silver dollar saying "Always keep this and you'll never be broke." He kept the coin and showed it to the captain every time they met. No doubt it was deep in his pocket as he waited, scanning the horizon for sight of the Rouse Simmons' sails. The day wore on and by late afternoon many of the hired men had tired of waiting and left. Claud had faith in his old friend and the aging schooner, believing that she would arrive even after a note, written on a sheet from the vessel's log, washed up on the beach at Sheboygan, Wisconsin in a bottle. The note read, "Friday...everybody goodbye. I guess we are all through. During the night the small boat was washed overboard. Leaking bad. Ingvald and Steve lost too. God help us. Herman Schuenemann." Almost three decades of the Schuenemann Christmas tree ships ringing in Chicago's holiday season had come to a tragic end. Claud made his lonely trek to the wharf on Christmas Eve, still believing in, and waiting for, the arrival of the Rouse Simmons. He was found there, still waiting, by a policeman on Christmas morning; his lifeless body blanketed with snow. When Claud’s body was lifted a silver dollar dropped from his frozen fingers, rolled through a crack in the dock and fell into the icy water.

The search for the missing schooner and her crew went on for days. Initially marine men believed that she could not possibly have sunk; that the inherent buoyancy of the evergreens would have kept her afloat and she was surely disabled somewhere on the lake. After all, hadn’t the schooner Minerva arrived in Chicago from Manistique badly damaged and ten days overdue? Pressure from the family and the Seaman’s Union kept the cutter Tuscarora continuing to search until December 13th when the cutter Mackinac was ordered out of the Soo to pick up the search while, at the same time, beach patrols scoured both shores for any trace of the Simmons. Paul Pearson, the No. 1 Surfman at the Pentwater Coast Guard station, patrolling the beach came upon a lone soggy, ice encrusted evergreen, its branches still tied down tightly. It was just one of many that came ashore around the lake and were taken home, bringing joy to others in the aftermath of tragedy. The combination of the holiday season, the cargo she carried, the long standing legacy of the Schuenemann Christmas ships, and the human loss caused an overwhelming sense of sadness all around the lake. On Christmas day an evergreen draped with black crepe stood on the prow of a boat which lay at the Clark street bridge where the Rouse Simmons should have been.

The loss of the Simmons and her cargo resulted in a severe shortage of Christmas trees in Chicago that year. Tree cutters as far away as Vermont and New Hampshire were wired with orders to replace what had been lost, but it was late in the season and many of the orders couldn’t be filled and shipped in time. The loss to the Schuenemann family was much, much greater. The tradition of the “Christmas tree ship” did continue that tragic year, but from the deck of the borrowed schooner, Oneida, docked where the Simmons should have been at the Clark street bridge with trees that had been shipped in. Warmly greeting the crowds that gathered was Herman’s widow, Barbara, and their two daughters, giving thanks for the kindness and support that was given to them. True to her word that “Chicago will have her Christmas trees as long as the Schuenemanns last,” the captain’s widow continued annual tradition of selling trees at the Clark street bridge location until the holiday season before her death in 1933.

The year following the loss of the Rouse Simmons and her beloved captain “Captain Santa” Chicago erected its first municipal Christmas tree. The thirty-five foot evergreen was donated by a tree merchant as a memorial to the two captains, August and Herman Schuenemann, who had provided Christmas joy to so many families for decades, even at the cost of their own lives. Resounding cheers went up from the crowd of roughly 100,000 people who had gathered on Michigan Avenue as the tree was lit for the first time.

The sunken wreckage of the Rouse Simmons was located in 1971 by Milwaukee scuba diver, Kent Bellrichard, resting on her side with much of her cargo still stuffed in the well-preserved hull. In fact she is so well preserved that following an underwater survey of the wreck in 2006 one of the volunteer divers stated "You could pull her up and she would float." Her anchor was recovered in 1972 and is displayed at the Milwaukee Yacht Club. Her discovery also settled the question of why Captain Schuenemann didn’t put into a safe port when he had a chance? Her wheel was missing! Smashed off during the storm the lost wheel left the Simmons unable to steer and at the mercy of the screaming winds and heavy seas.

Now, each year in early December, the final run of Captain Scheunemann and the Rouse Simmons is commemorated by the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw, which makes the trip from northern Michigan to deliver a symbolic cargo of Christmas trees to Chicago's disadvantaged families. This year the Mackinaw arrived at Navy Pier on December 5th and was welcomed by a Chicago Fire Department boat as she brought more than 1,200 trees into the port. During its voyage to Chicago the Mackinaw holds a solemn tribute, dropping a memorial wreath near the final resting place of the Rouse Simmons.

The disappearance of the Rouse Simmons has spawned tales and legends that have grown with the passage of time. Some mariners on Lake Michigan claim to have seen the schooner, her sails in tatters, rising from an icy mist. They say if you watch the lake closely on Christmas Eve you can sometimes still see her running before the gale with a Christmas tree lashed to her mast. Captain Schuenemann’s body, like his brother’s, was never recovered but his name is inscribed on the same headstone with his widow’s in Acacia Park Cemetery. Through the years the frequent visitors to the Schuenemann grave have claimed there is the scent of evergreens in the air. In April, 1924, twelve years after the Rouse Simmons went to the bottom of Lake Michigan, Captain Schuenemann’s wallet was pulled up in the nets of a fishing tug near Kewaunee. The name of the fishing tug? Well, of course, it was the Reindeer!!



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