Post # 11

Monday, January 1, 2018

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.


The Salvager: The Life of Captain Tom Reid on the Great Lakes
by Mary Francis Doner

Originally published in 1958, and long out of print, the University of Minnesota Press has done historians and those interested in Great Lakes maritime history a major service by reprinting  this book. In my fifty-plus years of reading Michigan and maritime histories of our great inland seas the salvaging of shipwrecks seems to have been all but ignored, except for Mary Doner's book. What makes this detailed biography of  Tom Reid so important is that Reid was the first salvage operator on the Great Lakes who made salvaging a science. It's a revelatory account of a chapter of Great Lakes maritime history that seldom makes it into print. 

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

Lost in the Woods: Building a Life Up North
by Richard Hill

A quarter century ago the author and his wife decided to sell their profitable kiosk in the Cherryland Mall in Traverse City, and build a log home on Lake Superior, just west of their hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. If this book starts out as a cautionary tale of the pitfalls of building your own log home, it also becomes a rumination on life and living in the U.P. The book succeeds on both counts.

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.

The Great Lakes at Ten Miles an Hour: One Cyclist’s Journey Along the Shores of the Inland Seas
By Thomas Shevory

I’ve had a love affair with the Great Lakes from my first trip across the Straits of Mackinac on a car ferry and spied the towers of the great span that would tie the state’s two peninsulas together rising out of the water. That said, you couldn’t pay me enough to ride a bicycle around the shores of all five Great Lakes. But you also wouldn’t have to pay me to reread this informative and always interesting narrative by a professor of politics at Ithaca College who, over the course of four summers, pedaled from 40 to 100 miles a day as he made his way around all five lakes.

The author is a perceptive and keen observer of culture, nature, history, and geology and reading the book is like riding on his handle bars and listening to a running commentary of whatever might appear around the next bend in the road.  Shevory is very good at finding the little things that define a place, so for this reader even the familiar is looked at from a fresh prospective.

The author found a striking difference between the Canadian and American sides of the Great Lakes. Except for Superior, the American side of the four other Great Lakes are much more heavily populated than the Canadian side. On the lower lakes big cities huge the shores and as one travels north the coast is lined with cottages. On the Ontario side the coastline, of the lower lakes, is heavily devoted to agriculture. If there are stretches where cottages and cabins replace farms it is highly likely the vacation homes have to be built across the road from the beach. This leaves the beach open for every ones enjoyment.

The author finds it hard to account for the night and day difference between Canadian and American cities that are virtually twin cities. Traveling from Port Huron to Sarnia, the Canadian Soo to the American Soo, or from Detroit to Windsor, Shevory unfailingly found the Canadian city cleaner, had significantly less vacant buildings, and in nearly every aspect, were in better shape. The author concludes Canadians put more “stock in its cities and supports the infrastructure that makes them work,”

Shevory was even more disturbed after biking through the Michigan twin cities of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, Michigan. Benton Harbor is 90% African American, has 26% unemployment, and a 40% poverty rate. Just across the river, St. Joseph is 90% white, has only 2% unemployment, and the poverty rate is too small to count. Shevory writes: “A starker contrast between two Americas, one poor and black, the other comfortable and white, would have been hard to find.”

All is not bleakness here though. The book is a painless geography lesson on the Great Lakes area and the book captures the inspiring beauty of the coastline, its geological and human history, and the physical demands and rewards found in long-distance bike touring. The author has an eye for the curious whether man or municipality. He meets a man in Alpena who has nine very literary cats. One can only assume they’re literary from the fact that the man read them the entire works of William Faulkner and had begun reading Dostoyevsky to them every night.

In 1963 when Sputnik IV lost orbital speed and fell to earth, a large chunk of it landed in a Wisconsin city street. A brass ring is embedded in the street where the junk from outer space landed, and every September since 2011, the city holds a Sputnikfest which includes the “crowning of Miss Space Debris.”

This is a very good armchair-travel book and the author is a great travel companion. You almost get to know him and his moods well enough to tease him. It seems he can unerringly sniff out a Tim Horton’s in any city that has one, where he is certain to order two toasted raisin bagels, orange juice, and coffee for breakfast. He also seems to have a weakness for Chinese buffet dinners, and after eating in one the author invariably complains about its poor quality. Yet Shevory never thinks twice about hitting the next Chinese buffet he runs across.

I’m ready for another trip as long as the pedaling is left to Shevory.

The Great Lakes at Ten Miles an Hour by Thomas Shevory. University of Minnesota Press, 2017, $16.95.

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