The first documented Christmas tree ship to arrive in Chicago was the schooner Reindeer on December 4, 1876. Thus began the dangerous, but highly profitable Christmas tree trade. There were several ships that made the annual trip, but the most famous was Captain Herman E. Schuenemann. His older brother, August, also was involved in the trade, but he died on the November 1898 trip. Capt. Herman Schuenemann had used a variety of ships in the late 1800s and early 1900s—Mary Collins, Margaret Dal, Ida, Truman Moss, George L. Wren, Bertha Barnes, but it was the Rouse Simmons, a rickety, old three-mast schooner, that the public seemed to embrace. Capt. Schuenemann purchased 1/8th interest in the Rouse Simmons after the 1909 season.1
The Inter-Ocean, December 5, 1876
The schooners Four Brothers and Reindeer cleared last night; the former with stone for the piers at St. Joseph, and the latter with 3,000 pieces of evergreen from Manitowoc.
Chicago Tribune, November 12, 1898
The bodies of Captain August L. Schuenemann, 170 La Salle avenue; E. Turner Davis mate, and the four seamen of the schooner S. Thal are believed to be buried under the tangle of cables, ropes, masts, and rigging lying on the Glencoe beach. In his twenty-five years’ experience as a lake sailor Captain Schuenemann had been obliged many times to tie himself and crew to the rigging, and had said often to his family and friends that such a course gave the storm-beset sailor the best chance for his life. If he carried the theory into practice Wednesday night the bodies are either under the beached portion of the wreck or out 300 yards in the lake, where spars could be seen tossing, indicating that a portion of the rigging is there underneath the surface.
Dynamite will be used to day to free the wreckage from the sand, which already has buried a portion of it several feet deep. H. O. Dickinson, who lived with Captain Schuenemann, and was part owner of the Thal’s cargo, superintended the search made yesterday for the bodies.
Captain Schunemann purchased the boat for $650 six weeks ago in Milwaukee. He did not try to place any insurance on the boat or the cargo, valued at $2,500. He put out from Manitowoc Tuesday night. when the storm was rising. He sent a postal card from Manitowoc to his wife, saying that he was on the last stretch homeward.
Mrs. Schuenemann did not worry, trusting to her husband’s skill, and the blow of his death came with terrible force. Captain Schuenemann was 46 years old and had sailed Lake Michigan since a boy. He left two children, Elma, 13 years old, and Arthur, aged 7. E. Turner Davis and his wife lived with Captain Schuenemann. Until recently Davis was the manager for the Erie restaurant. His first voyage was his last. He was 26 years old, and had no children. “Old John,” for several years an employe of the Captain, drowned with him. The three other men of the crew were shipped from Sturgeon Bay.
Chicago Inter Ocean November 29, 1899
On the deck of the Mary Collins, at a long, improvised table, fifty young girls yesterday bent over a wealth of fresh, green lycopodium, weaving it int wreaths and garlands for the holiday time. When they have completed their task an emerald cable long enough to reach from Chicago to New York will have been braided by their deft fingers.
The decks of Captain Schuenemann’s trim three-master are pulled high with bundles of these fairy trees, gathered by Chippewa squaws in the Lake Superior country.
For seven years past Captain Schuenemann has brought a big cargo of lycopodium, evergreen boughs, and Christmas trees to Chicago, and sold them direct to the people from his schooner. He employs half a hundred girls to prepare the wreaths and garlands ready for decorating churches, halls, and homes. They will be kept constantly at work from now until Christmas. Captain Schuenemann brought 12,000 Christmas trees, among them an evergreen thirty-four feet long and perfectly pear-shapped.
The schooner Mary Collins lies in the Chicago river, under the shadow of the Clark street bridge. All day yesterday her deck was thronged with men and women waiting to order wreaths and garlands. The industry will give employment to a large number of people for several weeks to come. Several other boats and the railways will also bring Christmas greens.
THE MARY COLLINS
Length: 132.00; Beam: 27.30; Depth of Hold: 10.0; Hull Material: Wood; Gross Tonnage: 248.86; Propulsion Type: Sail; Rig Type: Schooner; Registry Number: 16394; Builder: J. G. Shaler; Year Built: 1857; Location Built: Ashtabula, OH
Chicago Inter Ocean December 20, 1908
BY HAROLD C. BROWN.
With the appearance of a floating island forested with pine trees, two big ships, bearing Chicago’s annual supply of Christmas trees, are moored together in the Chicago river at the Clark street wharf. They are festooned from spar to deck with ropes of evergreen and Christmas moss. The decks are bristling with tall, slender saplings from the forests of northern Michigan, the tips of the trees rimming the ships’ rails like prim miniature church steeples.
They are the good ship George L. Wren (U.S. No. 10816) and the sister ship John Mee. The Wrenn for many years has brought Christmas trees to Chicago. It is now unloading its twenty-second cargo. The captain, Harry Schuenemann, is known to all buyers in Chicago. For weeks the question has been going up and down South Water street, “Where is old Cap Schuenemann? Something must be wrong. He has always been here before this. He has been selling Christmas trees every winter for twenty-two years.”
Well, there was something wrong this year. The Wrenn came near spending Christmas in Davy Jones’ locker. She was caught in the worst storm of her long and honorable career. More precious than gold was her cargo to the children of Chicago. If she had—it almost too awful to imagine—but if she had gone down there would have been but a twig or two for all the Christmas in Chicago. The Wrenn carries a mighty big proportion of the trees used here in the annual celebration.
But the Wrenn is not only wonderful as a Christmas boat. It has a most wonderful crew—most extraordinary—for out of the sixty at mess call fifty pipe “Aye, aye,” in very feminine voices. Yes, fifty of the crew are sailor ladies!
Do they climb masts?
Do they haul ropes?
Not exactly. They do a trick or two with the ropes. Not the hemp ropes, but the evergreen ropes. In fact, that is the principal thing that they do. They have learned the art of weaving fancy mossy, fringy ropes of Christmas drapes. All the way from Manistique, in the upper peninsula of Michigan, to Clark street they are busy, busy tying fibers and threads, snipping shears, raveling and unraveling, twining and untwining with quick nimble fingers.
Along the upper deck a long cabin has been constructed. Queer little smokestacks poke themselves obtrusively out of the long, low roof. Through the center of the cabin a long table, piled high with fragrant verdure of varying shades, gives the ship almost the appearance of as a whirring factory.
But the operatives are happy. It is work, but it is a pleasure trip for them. Some of them have taken the trip many times. Some of them have gone from the confusion of the city and found husbands in the Northern forests of Christmas trees. All the trip up the lake is a frolic for these women.
It takes just a week to get to Manistique from Chicago. All care and worry is thrown to the fresh lake breeze. Who cares what? Christmas is near and two weeks of vacation are at hand. The solemn bell of the ship tolls, the sails are furled and a noisy little tug runs out of the small Michigan harbor like a wary watch dog.
A cable is tossed. The launch churns and sputters, and all in a minute it seems the ship ties up and the sea ladies and the sea men frolic to shore. But the captain is a busy man. He is kind, but he attends to business. He steps out on the wharf and is met by a gang of Indians, all of whom solicit him to inspect the stock of Christmas trees they have brought sown to the shore. They knew he would come. He has come to them for twenty-two years. So with a cane in his hand he walks along the carefully corded trees. He picks out the freshest, the straightest, and the greenest. The red men, who adorn themselves in flaring colors, accompany him, looking picturesque as they tramp through the snow. Each is confident he has picked and brought the best. Each declares he has brought his trees from the farthest point, where no one has been before.
The captain knows them. He is patient. He buys some of this and some of that old man. He is careful to offend no one. The cargo is made up. The men go to work binding the limbs into compactness. The women journey through the forests.
It is a most invigorating week, that week on shore while Christmas is waiting for he Christmas trees. Some of the women who have made the trip many times take their new friends to the farm homes over long paths carpeted with poine needles. Lungs that for months have breathed nothing but smoke and foulness expand with healful balsam laden breezes. Bodies are filled with wholesome country food. There is a dance on the fifth day, and then preparations are made for the return.
LEFT TO RIGHT—“Larry” the first mate, Elsie Schuenemann, Capt. H. Schuenemann, “Tom” Wheelman.
“George L. Wrenn” Twin Christmas Tree Boat
The day for the departure comes. Again the big bell tolls out its important signal. Again the audacious little tug runs its fearless nose over the little waves, hoarsely bellows, and leaves the ship to the mercy of Lake Michigan and its winter storms.
And so it was only this year. With the awful farewell of the little tug echoing from the pine hills a hundred hands commenced the business of making wreaths and ropes for Chicago Christmas festivities. For awhile there was only science. There seemed to be a common realization that life and work had resumed again. At first there was a titter from the farther end as some one of the younger girls told of a sweetheart who had begged her to write to him.
Then some one else had something just as funny and then another had something funnier. Never had fifty women been out on such a lark, and never had fifty women had such fun in telling it. Meanwhile their fingers, twined rebellious twigs, twisted stems and jerked strings, and the piles in the center of the table went down and down and piles of wreath went up and up.
On the second day things did not go so well. The sea was heavy. The ship would seem to be going up a hill steadily, then with an all-upsetting plunge drop into an abyss. After that the rain came and that was followed by snow. The masts creaked and groaned and the women became ill with terror. There were sneers and there was crying and the making of wreaths for waiting Chicago children ceased while some went on their knees in prayer.
In all its history the Wrenn had never had tro wrestle with such a storm. The spirit of Christmas that had settled down so delightfully a few hours before had suddenly turned into a hissing, freezing monster, seeking to wrench the ship asunder. The water fell into the hold. It caked about the bundle of trees. Frozen wreaths looked sadly out of place as they slid from one side of the little deck cabin to the other.
For a week the boat slipped and rolled, drunken and blind. All clew to course lost. Only the numb, persistent thought in the head of the steersman to keep away from the breakers kept the boat from smashing on the rocks a thousand times.
Christmas Tree Boat.
Then one morning the sun came out and winked over the sloughing waves. For all its brightness it looked cold and pitiless. The ship, wrenched, battered, and staggering, worked its way still carrying its burden of Christmas trees for the Chicago children., along the shore. As though wounded and tortured the masts wailed and howled in their fastenings. All day like this they crept along with the sand hills to be seen faintly in the distance. Then into the night. About 9 o’clock there was a tiny ray seen creeping up in the sky. It wavered and then swept along the horizon.
There was a shout on the ship. A curious shout it was, but it sounded full of heart and cheer. Chicago would have its Christmas trees and there was a refuge. A tug brought them into a small Wisconsin town, and for a week the boat kept close to the wharf. Carpenters were kept busy hammering and sawing and the South Water street merchants kept wondering and wondering.
While the boat was in the Wisconsin harbor the captain received a message and sent a message. All the towns on Lake Michigan had been watching and waiting for word from the Wren. In a Chicago telegraph office a pretty young girl with swollen eyes eagerly waited.
“Little Pet: All safe and sound—Father.” So said the operator to the little girl and in a frantic tantrum of joy she ran with the news to her mother.
Lashed to the sister boat (or brother, perhaps, from the name, John Mee), the Wren rocks gently in the tide of the Chicago river. All but a few of the lady sailors are still with her. They are making up for lost time in the making wreaths and garlands for Chicago Christmas decorations.
Many thousands of trees are being unloaded and hurried to all parts of the city by express wagons. Not one whit will Chicagoans miss by the adventure of the Wren, which really ought to be christened the “Reindeer.” Captain Schuenemann looked over his lady crew and the men who modestly stood in the background.
“They’re brave hearties,” he said. “Next time I’ll be able to put ’em in the riggin’, and they’ll be able to do as well as men.”
THE GEORGE L. WREN
Length: 129.20; Beam: 26.00; Depth of Hold: 9.60; Hull Material: Wood; Gross Tonnage: 214.10; Propulsion Type: Sail; Rig Type: Schooner
Registry Number: 10816; Builder: Christianson; Year Built: 1868; Location Built: Fort Howard, WI
THE BERTHA BARNES
Length: `151.5; Beam: 30.00; Depth of Hold: 9.60; Hull Material: Wood; Gross Tonnage: 330.91; Propulsion Type: Sail; Rig Type: Schooner
Registry Number: 2935; Builder: John Gregory; Year Built: 1872; Location Built: Sheboygan, WI
In 1909 Captain Schuenemann chartered the Bertha Barnes for this season’s run.
Chicago Inter Ocean December 9, 1909
“Christmas trees are going to be high this year,” observed Captain Schuenemann as he stood on the bridge of the schooner Bertha Barnes yesterday and filled the bowl of his pipe with tobacco that he had been rolling in the palm of his hand.
“This is the twenty-third trip I’ve made up into pine country for Christmas trees, and it’s about the slimmest cargo I ever brought away. Many a poor little kiddo in Chicago will have to go without his Christmas tree this year because his Santa Claus won’t have the price to buy one.
Only 15,000 Christmas Trees.
“Why, I’ve only got about 15,000 trees on the whole ship, and you know, of course, the Chicago market depends pretty much on my supply.
“It’s the bad weather that’s to blame. Trees were ice crusted and half bare. Also made it hard for the choppers and Indians. The Indian women, you know, depend on the Christmas trees for their pin money for the whole year.
“Here, you little girls, climb off that cabin or you might fall into the water! Santa Claus won’t bring you any presents if you fall into the water.” The captain paused in his soliloquies to attend to half a dozen curious little schoolgirls who had come down to the Clark street bridge to see the Christmas boat and its burden of trees.
Children Vist Boat.
“I guess the kids are the gladdest of anybody to see us come pulling into the river every December, “he continued, when he saw the little girls were safe again within the rail of the bridge when she swings open for us, and they wave their hands and cheer, and we cheer back. Some of them think we are actually coming from the north pole.
“Say, I’m wondering if our poor luck in getting trees this year hasn’t something to do with our changing boats. We’re on the Bertha Barnes this year. It’s the first time she ever had this honor and she acts as if she’s mighty proud of it. But I can’t help feeling a mite sorry for the (George L.) Wrenn. I took the Wrenn up there for the past twenty-two years.”
Cheers for Jolly Old Skipper.
“Last year she nearly chucked the captain and his crew into Davy Jones’ Locker, so we had to get a new boat. That’s her, back to stern of us—bare decks and weather beaten. Looks kind of heartbroken at her rival, doesn’t she. Well, here come the women. Ahoy, ladies!”
The captain beamed his broadest smile as half a hundred girls and women came out of the cabin where they had been twining and weaving wreaths.
“Hooray for Captain Schuenemann!” shouted some of the women as they waved their handkerchiefs at the jolly old skipper who resembles Santa Claus.
THE BERTHA BARNES
Length: 151.50; Beam: 30.00; Depth of Hold: 10.40; Hull Material: Wood; Gross Tonnage: 330.91; Propulsion Type: Sail; Rig Type: Schooner; Registry Number: 2935; Builder: John Gregory; Year Built: 1872; Location Built: Sheboygan, WI
The following season, Capt. Schuenemann bought 1/8 interest in the ship Rouse Simmons (US No. 110087). The popular captain and his crew perished in a storm on the Rousse Simmons during the 1912 run.
Chicago Examiner December 5, 1912
The three-masted schooner known as tbe “Christmas ship” because she is loaded with Christmas trees, has been lost with all hands. All hope that the vessel is afloat was abandoned yesterday when storm-tossed wreckage and several trees were found on the beach near Pentwater, Mich. There were probably eighteen men on board the schooner.
The boat carried Chicago’s supply of Christmas trees. It sailed from Thompson’s pier, near Manistique, Mich., on the west shore of the lake, November 17.
Even under the most unfavorable conditions the boat should have docked at the Wells street bridge on November 20.
The Rouse Simmons carried no lifeboats. Just how many were aboard probably will never be known. Fourteen years ago the schooner S. Thai, then known as the “Santa Claus ship,” sank off Glencoe. Fourteen lives were lost and but two bodies recovered.
The Rouse Simmons was last sighted between Kewaunee, Wis., and Two Rivers, Wis.
Eight Known on Board.
Among those known to have been on board the boat are:
SCHEUNEMANN, CAPTAIN HERMAN, 1688 North Clark Street, part owner,
NELSON, CAPTAIN CHARLES, 1834 Humboldt avenue, part owner, (pictured at right, with Mrs. Nelson and his two daughters)
NELSON, STEPHEN, first mate, .
NELSON, CHARLES, sailor, Chicago,
BOSWINK, PHILIP, sailor, Chicago,
LYKSTAD, ALBERT, cook, 420 North Desplaines street.
SWENSKN, GILBERT, tree cutter, home near Humboldt Park.
CARLSON, FRANK, tree cutter, Austin.
Stephen Nelson recently came to Chicago from Sweden. All the others are from Chicago, but their addresses could not be learned.
For over eighteen years Captain Scheunemann has made annual trips across the lake.
Each year he has returned with enough Christmas. trees to supply the entire city. He secured command of the Rouse Simmons when he dissolved partnership with his brother, Captain August Scheunemann, commander of the ill fated S. Thai.
Captain August Scheunemann and his crew perished with the S. Thai on November 12, 1898. He left a widow and two children, Ilma and Arthur. Captain Herman Scheunemann is survived by his widow aud three children, Hazel and Pearl, twins, aged ten years, and Elsie, aged seventeen.
The Rouse Simmons sailed from Chicago six weeks ago with a crew of seven men and seven tree cutters. The tree cutters and part of the crew were engaged a few hours before sailing. It is believed the crew was augmented for the return trip.
Almost from the moment the schooner left the Michigan dock It met with head winds and a heavy sea. Its progress was slow. A week after it sailed it was sighted off Kewaunee. Wis. At that time it was flying distress signals. The boat was scudding before a heavy northwest gale
under a single reefed sail and jib.
When they sighted the boat at Kewaunee Captain Nelson Craite and his life saving crew made a vain attempt to reach it.
Captain George Segge, in charge of the life saving crew at Two Rivers, twenty four miles south, was notified. Aided by Captain Charles Carlaud of the Chicago station he attempted to locate the vessel, but was unsuccessful.
T. A. Hanson, secretary of the Seamen’s Union in Chicago, yesterday appealed to Captain Berry, commander of the United States revenue cutter Tuscarora to attempt to locale the missing boat. The Tuscarora steamed out of Milwaukee, Wis., before noon and headed for Pentwater.
Captain M. R. W. Ewald. in charge of the Pentwater life saving station, found the fragments which pointed to the tragedy.
The wreckage consisted of a “booby” hatch, to which clung fragments of Christmas trees. Christmas trees were picked up along the beach.
It is believed the boat went down near Two Rivers a week ago Sunday night.
Captain Herman Schuenemann (center) & two members of his crew
THE ROUSE SIMMONS
Length: 123.50; Beam: 27.60; Depth of Hold: 8.40; Hull Material: wood; Gross Tonnage: 205.26; Propulsion Type: sail; Rig Type: schooner
Registry Number: 110087; Builder: Allen, McClelland & Co.; Year Built: 1868; Location Built: Milwaukee, WI
The location of the Rouse Simmons wreck remained a mystery for 59 years. Christmas trees washed up along the coastline for years to follow; and, in 1923, Captain Schuenemann’s wallet came up in a fisherman’s net near Two Rivers, Wis. It was not until Milwaukee diver Kent Bellrichard in October 1971 discovered the vessel’s remains 12 miles northeast of Two Rivers, Wis., in 165 feet of water.
Considered by many to be a grave site, the wreck of the Rouse Simmons was added to the National Register of Historic Places On March 21, 2007. Each year in December the U.S. Coast Guard commemorates the final voyage of Captain Schuenemann and the Rouse Simmons by sending their Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw to makes the journey from northern Michigan delivering a shipment Christmas trees to be distributed to Chicago’s needy families.
Archaeological site plan of the Rouse Simmons
Photo by WHS, Maritime Preservation and Archaeology Program
Body of Water: Lake Michigan; County: Manitowoc; Nearest City: Two Rivers; Latitude: N 44° 16.640′; Longitude: W 087° 24.863′
Trees being loaded aboard ship.
Painting by Charles Vickery (1913-1998).
In loyalty to her husband’s purpose in life of providing the best of Christmas trees for Chicago, Mrs.Schuenemann took up the work after his death. Every year since, this brave sailor’s wife, now a white-haired woman of sixty, has gone up into the forests of northern Michigan and Wisconsin, personally selected her trees, and returned with them to Chicago. Owing to the scarcity of boats occasioned by the war, Mrs. Schuenemann has for a few years been obliged to give up the Christmas ship, but has brought her trees in by rail and sold them from a little shop in Clark Street. She sells at both wholesale and retail, and her trees are the choicest of spruce, balsam, cedar and Norway pine.
The great bulk of Christmas trees coming into Chicago are consigned to commission merchants on South Water Street, who, in turn, sell them to retail dealers throughout the city. They come in car-load lots at the depots serving the northern and eastern roads. There are about 500 bundles of the smaller sized trees to a carload, and the bundles average four trees each, varying the number with the size of the trees. The largest trees, those measuring from twenty-five to thirty feet, come in lots of two or three only on one flat car, and often there is a train-load of these fiat cars, bearing Christmas trees. One such load is nicely portrayed in the frontispiece of this issue, in the yards at the Lake Front.3
1 Chicago Tribune, Nov 11, 2012.
2 The complete list of those on board is Capt. Frank Schuenenmann, Captain Oscar Nelson and his wife, Alex Johnson (first mate), Edward Minogue (sailor), Frank Soh=bata (sailor), George Watson (sailor), Ray Davis (sailor), Conrad Griffon (sailor), George Quinn (sailor), Edward Murphy (sailor), John Morwauski (sailor), “Stump” Morris (sailor), Greely Peterson (sailor), Frank Faul (sailor), Edward Hogan (sailor), Philip Bausewein (sailor)
3 “A Million Christmas Trees” by Mabel McIlvane, 1922