November 20, 2012 • 09:26:38 a.m.

Great Lakes Christmas legend turns a Boomer into a writer

(Photo provided)

It’s odd how coincidence creates opportunity.

A couple of decades ago, my husband, Fred, and I went on a weekend get-away. Always the history geek, Fred thought a visit to the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc would be great. I was happy to have some quiet time, being able to sleep in and not having to cook or run errands for a couple of days. Besides, there was a good art museum in town and at least a few nice shops. 

On the way north, we were talking about unfulfilled ambitions. My husband said he had always wanted to be a writer. My response was, “Do it. Pick something that interests you and write about it.” One visit to a maritime museum and Fred had found his subject.

Twenty-five years later, scores of museums and libraries later, thousands of miles traveled and tens of thousands of books and articles read, boomer Fred is still at it. He’s still researching and writing. 

The subject that captured my husband’s imagination was the loss of the schooner Rouse Simmons, one of the most famous shipwrecks on the Great Lakes. You cannot live in our house without knowing this Friday is the 100th anniversary of that tragic event. 

Part of Fred’s fascination about the story is that the Rouse Simmons was carrying thousands of Christmas trees destined for Chicago when it sank. (My husband also is a Christmas nut.)

Then there were all those unanswered questions. Why did the vessel sink? Why are there conflicting stories about what happened? And, most importantly, why would a group of otherwise sane men take an old wooden boat out on Lake Michigan in late November with strong winds and freezing temperatures? 

I can honestly say if there is anyone who can answer those questions, Fred can. He fulfilled his ambition. In 2007, the University of Michigan Press published his work as a book, “Lives and Legends of the Christmas Tree Ships.” 

I have to be careful not to say too many good things about my husband. After all, I still have to live with the guy. But what he brought forth from a few questions triggered by a museum visit is impressive. Nonetheless, he would say the journey of doing the research and writing the book was much more rewarding than being a published author.

His research took him from Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., to Washington, D.C., and everywhere he went he learned more about the history of the fabulous part of the country we live in.

Along the way, he has researched and written about French Canadian explorers  and Yankee lumber barons. He has been a crew member on two tall ships on the Great Lakes and he has even started building his own wooden boat in the garage. (By the way, honey, when are you ever going to get that thing done so we can use the garage for what it was intended?) Best of all, he has met hundreds of interesting and friendly people. 

Fred would say he did not start out to write a book, nor even to become a maritime historian. He began with the ambition of learning something new and putting it down on paper. If it got published, even better, but the joy of the process was reward enough. He says the secret is “not to let your ambition become a 900 pound gorilla on your back. Start small and if it is meant to be, it will lead you step by step, sometimes even beyond your expectations.”

As for Chicago’s Christmas tree ship? It’s loss was tragic, but it has also inspired many people. A wonderful musical has been written about it. Beautiful paintings have been produced. Several children’s books and Chicago-area folk singer, Lee Murdock, have celebrated it. Finally, it has inspired many acts of generosity, the greatest of which is performed annually by the United States Coast Guard. Each December, a Coast Guard vessel arrives at Chicago’s Navy Pier to deliver thousands of Michigan Christmas trees for families in need. Hurray for today’s Christmas tree ship and the sailors who still brave the gales of November on Lake Michigan. 

Oh, yes, and hurray for the boomer who wrote the book about it. (Just remember, honey, I was the one who came up with the idea when we drove to Manitowoc!) 

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