Walworth County Sunday | Janesville Messenger | Stateline News



Walworth County Sunday | Janesville Messenger | Stateline News



Thursday, 12 December 2013 17:03

Fontana author pens ‘The Christmas Ship’

Written by  Margaret Plevak
Diane French always had been intrigued by the story of a Lake Michigan captain who brought Christmas trees to Chicago each winter during the late 1800s and early 1900s, so she decided to write “The Christmas Ship.” The Fontana author recently had her gift book published. Diane French always had been intrigued by the story of a Lake Michigan captain who brought Christmas trees to Chicago each winter during the late 1800s and early 1900s, so she decided to write “The Christmas Ship.” The Fontana author recently had her gift book published. Terry Mayer


WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY — A 19th-century schooner laden with Christmas trees, a brave sea captain, a terrifying blizzard on Lake Michigan in November 1912, shadowy images of a ghostly ship: the true account of the ship Rouse Simmons has all the makings of a classic holiday tale.  

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Fontana resident Diane French thought so years ago when she saw “The Christmas Schooner,” a musical based on the Rouse Simmons and its captain, Herman Schuenemann, at the Chicago Bailiwick Repertory Theater. Tickets to the play were a Christmas gift from her children, and the family liked “The Christmas Schooner” so much, they saw it again when the Door County Players performed it a few years later.

Over the decades, the Rouse Simmons was featured not only in a musical but countless newspaper, magazine and website articles, and Rochelle Pennington’s comprehensive hardcover book, which sat on French’s coffee table every holiday season for years. But French, a designer and former middle-school teacher, figured no one had an audience of middle-schoolers in mind when they told the story. So she tackled the job, piecing it together with research done online at the Wisconsin Historical Society and through back issues of Midwest magazine.


Her 32-page paper-bound gift book, complete with color pictures, “The Christmas Ship,” briefly outlines the story of Schuenemann, who would annually cut and gather Christmas trees in northern Michigan and bring them by ship to the Clark Street Pier in Chicago to sell during the late 1890s and early 1900s. It was a profitable venture for Schuenemann, whose ship carried cargo at other times of the year, but the captain was known to give some of the trees away to the neediest families who couldn’t afford them.

For many in Chicago, Christmas officially arrived when the captain pulled into port. So Schuenemann was determined to get the trees across Lake Michigan, even during a fateful November in 1912, when winter storms lashed out, killing hundreds of seamen —including him. He went down with the Rouse Simmons, though no one saw the ship sink.

“When you picture the last known sighting, this ship was encased in ice and moving silently and then no one ever saw it again. I think that picture sticks in your mind,” French said. “I have such respect for people who manage big ships anywhere. I mean, even being on Lake Geneva, if it’s just a little bumpy, I’m ready to go back to shore. And I can’t picture that kind of courage.”

Schuenemann’s widow and daughters ended up continuing the annual trips across the lake until 1933 — one daughter even became a captain herself. It’s an affirming message to French.

“It’s a story of bravery, courage and suffering, but it still has a happy ending,” she said. “Even though the ship goes down, it’s a good story for girls today because it’s the women that carry on. Who could think they were feminists before the whole thing even started? They were way ahead of the game.”

The tale also has another modern twist.

“In 2000, the Christmas Ship Committee was formed,” French said. “The first Saturday in December, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw comes down and brings Christmas trees to Navy Pier for the unfortunate, needy kids in Chicago. People can watch the ship come in. (The Coast Guard does) it as a training exercise and it’s become a huge charity. ... All the money goes to giving out the trees.

“I think (Schuenemann) is probably smiling, he is so happy. Whatever descendants there are — I’m sure there are still descendants in Chicago — I think they’re very proud of their family. So it’s a story that goes on and on. It hasn’t died. And it’s a very special Wisconsin story with so many connections.”

French feels those connections as an Illinois native who grew up coming to Fontana since she was a child.

“We were part of the migration of college kids who would come in here and terrorize the community,” she joked.

An avid reader, she remembers growing up curious about the world — a world that felt more inclusive, especially at Christmas.

“Somewhere back in time — I don’t know if it was a school project or grandparents — when we were kids, my brother and I learned about other traditions and cultures. We were raised not to be offended by someone else’s faith, but as something we should understand. Otherwise, how can we all get along?” French said.

“I don’t know if the kids are as aware of those other traditions today. I know my own kids thought the Christmas tree was invented by Toys “R” Us. So I decided I would write this little book and condense this nice little Christmas story you could tell on Christmas Eve to your family.”

Within “The Christmas Ship,” French wove a traditional German tale of the Tannenbaum, or Christmas tree, and how it symbolizes eternal life. The addition was a nod to stories she’d once heard as a child, in hope of sparking an interest in the multicultural layers of Christmas for another generation. She turned to Tate Publishing, an Oklahoma company that describes itself as a Christian publisher, with “The Christmas Ship.”

“I thought a Christian publisher would be the one to push it because I don’t think big New York publishers touch stuff like that,” French said.

While researching the story, French said she was especially struck by how people of the time worked together.

“The German community in Chicago was so strong, and they all rallied around with a disaster. They all helped and they all kept the tradition of bringing these trees to Chicago. And then of course, the Germans had them, then the Italians wanted them, the Irish wanted them, everybody else wanted Christmas trees.”

Decorating the Christmas tree with her own children and grandchildren is one way French enjoys the holidays.

“Christmas has become so commercialized,” she said. “So as a family, we’ve toned Christmas way down. Instead of toys being piled up to the ceiling, we do more things together — a special dinner, putting up the tree, listening to music or stories, taking a wintry walk on a nice day. We really try to keep it so that we appreciate each other to kind of get into the spirit of Christmas.”

French said she has a shelf full of stories written for children, but “The Christmas Ship” is her first effort at publishing. Since its recent release, she’s sold about 50 copies, with good reviews from family and friends.

“My grandchildren are just dazzled,” she said. “I told them, ‘Kids, I did not write, ‘The Hunger Games.’ This is not ‘Harry Potter.’ This is a gift booklet, a sweet little Christmas story.’ But they love the fact that you can download it as an e-book.

“My grandsons also love learning about the sea superstitions, like rats leaving the ship. They think that stuff is just great. They say, ‘Tell me about the rats again! Forget the Christmas story, let’s talk about the rats!”

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