Newsletter - December 2010


Burlington Historian

December 2010

All Aboard the Christmas Tree Ship!

Wisconsin author Rochelle Pennington, who has written two books detailing the wreck of Lake Michigan’s Christmas Tree Ship, will tell the ship’s story at the Veterans Terrace on Sunday, December 12, 2010, at 1:30 p.m. The program, sponsored by the Burlington Historical Society, will be presented in the Stars and Stripes Room.

One of the most well-known shipwrecks of the Great Lakes, the Christmas Tree Ship delivered holiday evergreens to the citizens of Chicago each Christmas season before it was caught in the "Great Storm of 1912" and subsequently went to the bottom of the lake fully loaded with trees. The ship is still loaded with its cargo today and is a popular Great Lakes dive site.

"It is a story which exemplifies the best of humanity," says Ms. Pennington. "At its heart we find courage, love, generosity, heroism, and the importance of family. The moment I first heard the story of the Christmas Tree Ship, I understood why it had endeared itself to so many people over the years and was still being shared a century later."

"The ship’s final voyage was not to the bottom of the lake," adds Ms. Pennington, "but into the pages of history."

Ms. Pennington’s initial book on the ship, The Christmas Tree Ship: The Story of Captain Santa, summarizes the story and includes vintage photographs complemented by the nautical artwork of famed painter Charles Vickery. Ms. Pennington’s follow-up documentary book, The Historic Christmas Tree Ship: A True Story of Faith, Hope and Love, expands the story and examines the legendary ship from many different angles. That book includes more than 60 photographs, along with hundreds of citations from century-old newspaper clippings spanning a period of 140 years.

Ms. Pennington’s research was used to create a television program on The Weather Channel’s Storm Stories. The program has aired nationally each December since 2004.

The author has presented over a thousand programs on the Christmas Tree Ship during the past decade at schools, libraries, museums, historical societies, and for civic organizations. Her power-point presentation includes many of the century-old photographs of Captain "Santa" Schuenemann, his family, and his ship. In addition, she brings several artifacts along with her to share with the audience including an actual Christmas tree from the cargo. Underwater photos of the ship with its trees still visible in the cargo area are included with the program as well.

Ms. Pennington’s presentation focuses on many of the little-known facts surrounding the story, including the ship’s mysterious disappearance, clues washed ashore in the decades following the vessel’s demise, ghost ship sightings of the phantom schooner, and mysterious omens believed to have cursed the ship immediately before it set sail on its final voyage on November 22, 1912.

She will also present photos of the "new" Christmas Ship which the Great Lakes Coast Guard has been sailing the past ten years in memory of the original ship.

The program is presented free of charge. The doors will open at 1 o’clock. The Society will hold a short business meeting before the program to elect three members to its board of directors. Refreshments will be served following Ms. Pennington’s program, and she will be available for book signings.

President’s Message

What a fast year it’s been. The face of Burlington has changed many times throughout its history and again this past year. We have seen the completion of the highway by-pass around town, the demolition of many historical buildings in the downtown area to make way for a hotel and parking structure complex, and many road reconstruction projects completed.

Our Historical Society has also had an outstanding and eventful year. Our newly remodeled and expanded museum is now complete and has been re-opened. We have also completed the construction of our greatly needed storage facility at Schmaling Park adjacent to our historic Whitman schoolhouse. We are now able to accept some larger donated items that had been promised and we did not have the space for.

We all have a lot to be thankful for and I wish all a happy and healthy Holiday season and a prosperous and exciting 2011.

             Dennis Tully 

Pioneer Cabin Has A Successful Season

Pioneer Log Cabin closed in October after experiencing another successful season in 2010. A great number of visitors were able to enjoy viewing a part of Burlington’s history as they entered the cabin, which is furnished as a home for a post-Civil War family of German descent, and viewed the agricultural and woodworking exhibits in the adjoining tool shed.

Heartfelt thanks go to the docents – Jim Kubath, Kathy Thate, Mary Lueder, Debbie Regner, Elaine Burke, Bernard Walli, Don Vande Sand, and Jackie Heiligenthal – who kept the cabin open from May through

 October on Thursday evenings and Saturday afternoons. The weatherman cooperated by providing suitable weather at most times throughout the season. Thursday nights saw many visitors who stopped at the Cabin while visiting the Farmers' Market in Wehmhoff Square.

Thanks also to Judy Stone, Paula Puntenny, Eddie Krumrey, and other members of the Burlington Garden Club and Master Gardeners who tended the Vintage Garden and Kitchen Garden near the Cabin. The gardens are always popular stops for Cabin visitors.

The Society is always looking for new Cabin docents. If you are interested in volunteering, please contact Jackie Heiligenthal, 262-661-4272. Training is free and the rewards are great!

The Cabin will reopen the first weekend in May 2011.                Painting of Pioneer Log Cabin (when it was in Echo Park)

Trip to Bremner’s Island

The members of the Society’s Board of Directors were treated to a tour of the island in Brown’s Lake on the last Saturday in September. They were invited by several descendants of David and Katharine Bremner, who had bought the island in 1894. The descendants, who share ownership and divide use of the island among the share owners’ families, also treated the board members to an evening meal in the large home on the island.

The island, near the western edge of Brown’s Lake, close to Lake Street and the Island View condominiums, was first settled by Julius Lueck and his family, who occupied it by "squatter’s rights." When Lueck entered the Civil War, his family moved to Burlington. (One of Lueck’s daughters, Bertha, later married Hubert Wagner, Jr., and was the mother of William, Albert, and Louis Wagner.)

About 1874, the island became a summer retreat for members of Gideon's Band and their families. Gideon's Band was a social group of mainly Racine citizens and well-known western railroad men.

In 1876, Band member, Fred Wild, general freight agent for the Racine & Southwestern Division of the Western Union Railroad (the Western Union Railroad was later known as the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad), learned that the island was still owned by the federal government. He sent an agent to a land sale at Neenah with instructions to acquire the island. The agent did so, paying the government $14 for the island, which was then named Island Wild.

Fred Wild then conveyed the island to Gideon's Band. The Band built a hotel in 1881. The hotel was one of the earliest buildings in the Burlington area to have a telephone when a wire was put up between C. W. Wood’s drug store on Pine Street and the island in June 1881.

One newspaper article that summer reported that the fishing and boating was excellent, and "game," such as seven-up, ten-cent-ante, and poker, was wonderfully abundant, and greatly enjoyed.

In 1882 a steamer owned by Gideon’s Band plied the lake, and a floating boat house was built. Hard times ensued, however, and the Band’s mortgage was foreclosed in 1883.

In 1885, the island was sold to the Iona Catholic Men’s Club of Chicago, which renamed it St. Mary’s Island. One of the Club members, David F. Bremner, president of Bremner Brothers Biscuit Co., and his wife, Katharine McGregor Bremner, bought the island from the Iona Club in 1894 for use as a summer home for the Bremner family. The island has since been known as Bremner’s Island.

Century-Old Diary Presents a Glimpse of a Pioneer Christmas
               By Vern Wolf

This article, which appeared in the Standard-Press of December 21, 1961, recounts a few activities of Alma Montgomery Aldrich (1837-1902). Mr. Aldrich came with his parents, Mr. and Mrs. William Aldrich, to Wisconsin in 1847 and settled on a farm about 3 miles west of Burlington, in Spring Prairie township. He remained there until he retired from the farm and came to Burlington in 1889. In Spring Prairie, he was a supervisor and chairman of the town board and was elected assemblyman in 1877. After coming to Burlington, he was twice elected chairman of the town of Burlington, twice elected president of the village, and was elected to the Racine County board of supervisors, where he served as chairman of the board for several terms.

Has the observance of Christmas always been one mad whirl of parties, gift giving preceded by an even more frenzied period of preparations and shopping that the season is typified by today?

We would answer in the negative at least when we think of the observance of Christmas in this area between 90 and 100 years ago. Of course, we may be drawing an unwarranted conclusion since all the evidence we have of Christmas observance merriment is based on a few excerpts from a single person’s diary of 1853, ‘54, ‘55, ‘56, and ‘72. The diary referred to is that of A. M. Aldrich, great grandfather of Mrs. Wallace Zabler (nee Donna Peck).

Mr. Aldrich, a Mormon, was named Alma after one of his books of the Mormon Bible. Excerpts from his diary for December 23, 1853, tell us that he went to school in the morning and then in the evening went to a Christmas ball at Vienna (near Honey Creek). He lived at that time in the same house presently occupied as a home by the Wallace Zablers at the top of the hill on highway 11.

The diary entry for December 24 of that same year is as follows: "Got back from Vienna about 5 a.m., helped with the chores and went to bed for about an hour and a half and then went to school." Christmas was on Sunday that year and according to the diary the young man went to visit a Mr. Bartholf with his mother and then went on to see a Mr. Gaylord. When he returned home he went on another visit to a Mr. Eastman. He reports that his father went to Waterford to get Henrietta and her sister, "the latter to work for uncle." No mention is made of any gift giving or religious service on Christmas day.

The day after Christmas he reported that he went to school and mentioned that there was a ball and oyster supper at Spring Prairie that evening.

The entry for Christmas day 1855, reports that father took Miranda home and paid her $15 for four weeks work. He wrote in the diary that he went to Burlington with the hired man and before he returned he went to the depot to see if a buggy which had been ordered had arrived. He noted that it had not. In the evening he reported that a Mr. Lincoln called that evening. Aldrich reported that the weather was cold and that the "Thermometer was below zero all day."

The entry for Christmas 1854 was missing from the diary. The next mention of the holiday season was that for January 1, 1856. He reports that he stayed home in the morning and that he went to Burlington in the afternoon to visit a Mr. M. S. Ayres (probably Maurice L. Ayers) and then to call on another person where he collected $5 on account for some work he had done. He then went on to Rochester to the ball and oyster supper. About this social event he reported, "I was well pleased with it, there being about enough to have it pass off pleasantly, 130 couples, all agreeable."

The only other mention of the holiday season and its observance was that from a diary from 1872, which also included the household account. (Mr. Aldrich had married Sarah Elizabeth Hewitt of Rochester in 1865 and had two sons, Charles born in 1866 and George born in 1868.) In the entry for December 24 of that year, we found, "bought nuts, candy and crackers." That was the only entry regarding any purchase for the holiday that we found in the rather limited diary account of those days of yesteryear.

It appears that the observance of Christmas in at least one home in the Burlington area between 90 and 110 years ago was much quieter than it is today. It appears that it was pretty much just another day in the lives of those pioneers.

Society Has New Storage Building

Realizing a need for more storage space after going through some difficulties in finding storage for the artifacts and display cases that needed to be moved out of the Museum during renovation, and having to delay acceptance of several large historically important items because of the lack of an appropriate place to store them, the Board of Directors voted several months ago to ask the City for permission to construct a storage building on city parkland near the Society’s Whitman School. After city officials considered and rejected other options, the city council eventually approved the Society’s request.
As a result, the Society contracted with Cramer Brothers Construction to put up a 40 by 30 foot storage building in Schmaling Park, next to the Whitman School building. The frame building, with a ten-foot overhang, sits on a concrete slab. It has a roll-up overhead door and a service door, and is equipped with electricity. There are no windows.
Museum Re-Opened in October

After being closed for three years for interior and exterior renovation and addition of a second floor, the Society’s Museum was re-opened to the public on October 9. A good-sized crowd visited the Museum that day and many more people have visited since then during the Museum’s regular hours on Sunday afternoons. In addition, some scout and other groups have visited the Museum at other times for conducted tours.

The photo to the right was taken by board member Ray Ziebell at the Museum’s re-opening.

New Director

Judy Stone, long-time member of the Board of Directors, has stepped down to devote time to other activities. The Board has elected Don Zurn to serve the remainder of Judy’s term. Judy will continue to be the Society’s representative on the City’s Historic Preservation Committee.