Happy New Year! May 2018 be a good year for readers of this blog, Michigan authors, & books about this great state.
Quote for the day: "... there's still a fine line between Michigan and misery --winter." Sonny Eliot, Michigan Living, September 1988.
Tom Reid was born in Alpena in 1870, and at age six moved to St. Ignace where his father started a small salvage business. For young Tom, school was a complete waste of time and effort because the freshwater seas became his obsession. He was working on his father's tugs by his teens, and captained a tug by his early twenties. He started out by towing vast rafts of white pine across and down Lake Huron to sawmills, but he jumped at any chance to do salvage work. He designed his own tools and equipment, and created new methods for raising Great Lake bulk carriers.
Tom Reid earned a reputation for raising wrecks other experts thought couldn't be salvaged, and by his mid twenties became a partner in his father's firm. The author was given access to the company records, and the book's biggest surprise is the salvage business seems to be all risk. Every salvage operation holds danger and can be life threatening. Captain Reid narrowly escaped death on several jobs. Some of his crew were not so lucky.
Every salvage job is also a financial risk. Salvage operators contact the wreck's owner or the insurer and make a bid on raising the vessel. Low bid wins and a low bid, even the the Depression, could often exceed $25,000. Doner's careful examination of the company's books show that on several occasions Reid's company spent thousands of dollars trying to raise a ship only have the wreck break up, leaving the salvage company holding the bag for its expenses. They are only paid if they raise the wreck. Or, if the shipping company feels the the wreck is a total loss, Reid might offer to buy the hulk for a few thousand dollars. If he is able to raise it, tow it to a dry dock for repair, and then sell it he's in for a big payday. If he can't, he's out the purchase price and the money he invested in trying to raise the wreck.
Obviously, it's a pretty stressful life and made more so by long absences from his family. Reid was married to a devoted wife who was left to raise the kids, and endure months of worry and loneliness. Reid missed the births of his children, graduations, wedding anniversaries, and other important family events. It put a terrible strain on his wife who always found a way to manage the stress and her family. The author's inclusion of the story of those left on shore is an important addition to the maritime history of the Great Lakes.
My only complaint with the book is the author's almost obsessive inclusiveness in listing every wreck Captain Reid ever salvaged. Some pages read like an accountants brief notation of the date, place, fees charged, and a very short description of how the wreck was raised. I would have wished for a more detailed explanation of the more difficult and dangerous jobs and an appendix listing every salvage job.
In spite of the above minor complaint, this book is a valuable look into the rarely written about world of the Great Lakes salvage business.
The Salvager: The Life of Captain Tom Reid on the Great Lakes by Mary Francis Doner. University of Minnesota Press, 2017, $21.95
The idea of a log house appealed to the author and his wife because the couple wanted a home that was distinctly and artfully different in this "age of massed-produced sameness." The author did his due diligence in researching log homes. He became familiar with the laundry list of problems inherent in building a log house, but nothing he read, or asked log home companies prepared him for the reality of building one. When Hill discovered the final cost of the house would be much higher than the couple had budgeted, he committed his first major mistake. To save money, he became his own general contractor.
Readers who have their hearts set on a log home may not be deterred by this cautionary tale, but they will have been warned of the many special problems that occur in building them. Hill admits that he made many mistakes being his own general contractor, the worst of which was not writing detailed contracts for his sub-contractors. Hill quickly found out carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and most sub-contractors don't like working on log homes, and they either failed to live up to their contracts, or didn't fulfill verbal promises Hill failed to write into the contracts. He also discovered the log home company failed to mention, or glossed over inconvenient truths about building a log home. He was told by the company that the logs were hand peeled, but when delivered he found the logs had been peeled by machines which left them very rough. It took the author over two weeks of manhandling a 20-pound grinder to smooth all the logs.
The old home-repair saying is equally applicable to building a log home. The "simple stuff" is never simple and the "easy, little jobs" take forever. The two to three years Hill thought it would take to finish the house turned into 25. The author finally shed the pressure and his frustration by learning to simply enjoy the process.
Woven within the account of a house that took longer to build that one of Egypt's great pyramids the author recalls his childhood in the Soo, reflects on his Finnish fore bearers who settled the U.P., and how living in Michigan's northern peninsula tests and tempers a person. The hard winters, a rugged environment, and great swatches of near wilderness made for tough, fiercely independent, and proud people.
The lesson any reader will learn from this enjoyable and thought provoking book is that building any home is part and parcel of building a life.
Lost in the Woods: Building a Life UP North by Richard Hill. Gale Force Press, 2017, $19.95.
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