Cold Thanksgiving on the Great Lakes

November 27, 2009
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For this Thanksgiving weekend, a story of friendship and a holiday on the seas from Michigander Fred Smith, interviewed by WPA writer Jerome Power in the 1930s at the home of Smith’s sister.
Smith was born in Iona, Michigan in 1885 and at 13 stowed away on a sailing ship to become a sailor on the Great Lakes. At age 52, he had broad shoulders, a rolling gait, “bronzed features” and a ready smile. For a sailor, he had “less than usual profanity and blasphemy in his speech.” His story about friend and fellow mariner Jack McNellis:
I have a vivid memory of how he was initiated as a wheel man many years ago. We were in Duluth, about Thanksgiving time, when we both shipped as part of the crew to take a yacht through the lakes to Brooklyn, New York. The name of the yacht was the “Salt Lake City”. She had what is known as an open bridge, that is, the man at the wheel had no protection against the weather. Jack had experience as a wheel man and thought he was pretty good, too. The skipper assigned him to the wheel, which was all right with Jack, since that work pays more money than an ordinary A.B. He forgot to figure on the weather, however, on Lake Superior, at that late season. Cold rain, snow, sleet like bullets and plenty of fog was the daily dish. Poor Jack was so frozen when he came off duty that he could barely get the ice out of his system before it was time to take the wheel again. We kidded him a lot but I am quite certain he would have died rather than funk on the job. He stuck and we brought the yacht to Brooklyn without more than the usual difficulty … Jack and I are great friends and when we meet these days always talk about this trip, taken when we were both young sailors.
Smith’s story is on the Library of Congress site. Next week if you’re in Battle Creek, catch a free screening of Soul of a People.

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