Of Ships and Seas

Roby and Jessie, 2/12/44

Roby and Jessie, 2/12/44

Jessie, 1948

Jessie, 1948

Roby (portrait by August C. Hoffmann, my dad)

Roby (portrait by August C. Hoffmann, my dad)

When she was in her early sixties Roby’s widow, Jessie Woerfel Bach, found herself back at her childhood home in Sturgeon Bay, caring for her aged mother, Alice. It wasn’t exactly a dream situation, for Mama Woerfel did not like being cared for one little bit, and behaved rather badly (and at times, cruelly) toward her daughter. The older she got, the more difficult she became (sound familiar? I think all parents that are cared for end up this way! The caretaker cannot win).

One late spring afternoon (in 1974? ’75? ’76?) Jessie decided a change of scenery would do them both good. After driving through twenty-five miles of beautiful Peninsula countryside, she turned the car into my parents’ long driveway in Juddville (half-way between Egg Harbor and Fish Creek). It happened I was visiting that day (from Chicago), and the three of us made quite a fuss over the two women whom we loved so dearly.

As the “guest of honor”, Alice became her most charming self and settled into a chair next to the fireplace. Mom — for some inspired reason — raced to get the tape recorder and Dad, the cocktails, (with a nice glass of sherry for Mama W.) Then we all relaxed and enjoyed the impromptu party.

Realizing that we knew very little about Alice, we began to pepper her with questions — and that’s when the magic happened. A soft look came over her face, accompanied by a radiant smile, and Alice opened up like a sunflower.

Although she was in my parents’ house, she was really very far away. Surreptitiously, I turned on the little reel-to-reel recorder we had hidden under my chair, while the story of Alice Blakefield’s young womanhood began to unfold.

Somewhere between her sixteenth and eighteenth birthdays she had taken a job as a teacher in a one-room school on Washington Island. What an adventure for a young woman of that era! Although it was only about fifty miles from Sturgeon Bay — and twenty to twenty-five from Fish Creek — it might as well have been on the moon.

Scale: Fish Creek is 250 miles north of Chicago.

Scale: Fish Creek is 250 miles north of Chicago.

Door County, WI

Door County, WI

The only way to reach Washington Island at the turn of the Twentieth Century was first, by stagecoach to Gills Rock; and then, by boat or ferry to the island. At that time the roads were muddy, rutted buggy trails, bumpy under the very best of conditions, and bone-rattling at the worst. She didn’t say, but I would guess it was a good four hours by stage from Fish Creek to Gills Rock: a 250-mile trip from Chicago to Juddville today takes only a little bit longer!

As a young teacher, she probably boarded with the family of a student, paying for room and board out of her modest earnings. At least she did have the luxury of her own room, with a narrow bed and a kerosene lamp (with possibly a chair) as the sole furnishings.

Most of her students were of Icelandic descent, but Alice made them work hard, and spoke only English to them (not that she knew any other languages). She was charged with teaching all grades, depending upon who was attending school at any given moment. In general, her students covered the gamut from first grade to the end of high school, but many dropped out young to help on the family farm and never returned. There were Irish potato farmers on Washington Island at this time, too, but Alice never spoke of them; they must have gone to other schools.

After school and especially on weekends, there was still time for fun, and the young teacher was invited to every party given on her part of the island. Generally a group of boys and girls would offer to “pick her up” and take her to the event. This actually meant that they would arrive at her door on foot, and when they all departed together, they would do what she described as a peculiar “Icelandic jog-trot” which carried them quickly to their destination. Sometimes the parties would travel from farm to farm, the path illuminated by the Northern Lights and hand-carried lanterns. Jogging through deep snow or mud, and wearing heavy woolen clothing, these expeditions must have been a real marathon!

But Mama was young then and of strong Norwegian stock, so she was unfazed at the prospect of partying hard one day and teaching the next. Her father was from a noble family (according to family lore): the von Blikfelds, later anglicized to Blakefield in America. I never heard his first name mentioned: he was always “Captain Blakefield”, spoken with great respect by all who had known him, including my parents.

The reason for the Captain’s somewhat hasty departure from his homeland was simple. Although he had a valet to dress him and no useful skills as a young man, he fell in love with a maidservant and was “forced” to emigrate in some disgrace, once his intention to marry her became clear.

In Wisconsin, he quickly became a highly skilled sailor and fisherman, hunting (for their caviar) the great sturgeon that once filled Green Bay. He told my mother one time that they used to “stack ’em up like cordwood” on the docks, each of these fish six or seven feet long, hoisted by winches to the top of the huge piles. By the mid-Twentieth Century they were, not surprisingly, virtually extinct.

This fish could have been150-200 years old!

This lake sturgeon could have been 150-200 years old!

Young boys — very old fish (150 years?)
Young boys — very old sturgeon

Alice, though only a teenager, was strong from years of hard work, as life in log cabins — and even clapboard houses — was still very difficult in those days. In towns, water was frequently pumped from a faucet; but in the farms, it had to be carried. Wood had to be chopped, split and brought in to provide both heat and cooking fuel. The use of the new-fangled kerosene in lamps was a boon, replacing labor-intensive candles with bright, clean, controllable light.

Cooking on a wood stove is a skill I never quite mastered, but I’ve always had great respect for the women who were able to bake, boil, cook, fry and warm several dishes at a time, while stoking the fire with just the right cherry log (for example), and madly multitasking for large farm or family gatherings, as well as for “every day”. No food ever tasted so good, believe me: we don’t know what we’ve lost; and we don’t know how lucky we are!

One particularly cold winter Alice returned to her family’s home for the Christmas holidays. Although the Door Peninsula is narrow (averaging only about fifteen miles wide) — and is sheltered on both sides by Lake Michigan and Green Bay from the Arctic conditions endured by, say, Madison — the strong winds often create blinding “ground blizzards” that bury and obscure the roads. It is easy to get lost, or worse, to end up in a roadside ditch, even today, as the snowdrifts render the road edges completely invisible, and the roads, impassable.

At the end of her holiday, she made the difficult stagecoach trek back to Gills Rock, where she fortuitously ran into the local mailman with his boat. Under different conditions, he would have — for a ten-cent fee — rowed her across “Death’s Door”, the passage between the Peninsula’s end and Washington Island.

Death’s Door was originally named “La Porte de la Mort” or “La Porte des Morts” by the voyageur, LaSalle, in the Seventeenth Century. I know of no one today who is strong enough or foolhardy enough to try to row across it, as the waters are deceptively rough and the current, treacherous, while the distance is quite long: a bad combination altogether! In fact the only thing it’s really good for is underwater archeology, due to the unusually large number of sunken craft in that short passage.

But this particular winter was so cold that even the turbulent Door had frozen solid. Consequently, the postman had affixed runners to his sturdy rowboat. Mama graciously accepted his offer to walk her to safety across the ice, and they had a long but agreeable stroll, until they reached the docks of the island.

At this point, things took a funny turn. The mailman stopped abruptly in his tracks and, drawing himself up to his full height (which wasn’t much), announced that Alice owed him a dime for the crossing, a relatively large amount of money in those days.

Miss Blakefield was incensed. “Why should I pay you?” she demanded. “I did all the walking myself, and would have anyway, even if you hadn’t been there!”

“Yes,” he replied, “but I accompanied you with my boat, as if I were rowing you. Normally you would have paid me to make the crossing with my boat. I’m charging you for the ride!”

At last she gave in. There’s no arguing with a stubborn Scandinavian, even if you’re one yourself!

One spring evening, the teen-aged teacher was reading in bed. A terrible storm was raging outside, rocking the trees and delivering cannonades of thunder and lightning. An unusual restlessness and anxiety took hold of her, although she was not usually afraid of storms. Unable to concentrate, she finally blew out her lamp and snuggled down under her quilt. As the howling wind began to play directly on her nerves, she burrowed deeper, stretched out and tried to sleep.

The minute she closed her eyes, however, she had an vision of people struggling in black water, huge waves driving them under in the surging seas. Frightened, she fumbled for a match and re-lit her lamp. After attempting to read for a while longer, she at last began to feel sleepy and more relaxed. But the minute she lay down in the dark, the horrible images returned, as vivid as if she were actually hovering over the waves watching those poor souls drown. It was unbearable, and she realized in a flash that something had happened to her father.

After tossing and turning all night, she arose with the dawn and found a message had arrived for her by messenger from Fish Creek. Her father’s ship had gone down the night before in Green Bay, destroyed by a black waterspout (a tornado over the water). There were no survivors.

Requesting a short leave of absence, she hastily packed her valise and returned home to help her mother with the funeral arrangements. All week long, flotsam from the shipwreck kept washing up on the bayside beaches. It appeared that her father’s vessel had been reduced to kindling plus the odd shoe washing ashore, but nothing more was ever found. It was a dreadful week, as most of Fish Creek had relatives that had been lost in the storm, as well.

At last the memorial service was prepared and everyone was assembled at the church for the ceremonies that had so tragically affected an entire community. People had come from all over the Peninsula, as everyone was pretty much related to everyone else. The reverend gave his eulogy, and the congregation bowed their heads to pray. When they looked up, however (Mama swore it was true!), they all saw the ghost of Captain Blakefield standing in the doorway of the church! A collective gasp went up from the crowd.

But no, wait a minute: it really was Captain Blakefield himself! At the moment the ship had gone down — “as if pushed under by a giant hand” he later recalled — he had been on the deck with the helmsman trying to stay afloat, and was washed overboard. As he fought the towering waves, he was eventually able to grab hold of a plank from the wreck, which he rode for a day or two, clinging to it for dear life in the frigid waters of Green Bay.

At last he was spotted by a ship, outbound for Michigan, and was rescued. However, being a mule-headed Norwegian, he cited the Law of the Sea to the captain, demanding that he turn around immediately and take him to the nearest Wisconsin port. The captain was not amused, but Blakefield had the law on his side. Once ashore, he made his way back to Fish Creek, arriving just in time for his own funeral.

Meanwhile, a year or two after her teaching career began, young Alice caught the eye of Mr. Walter Woerfel (though how they met remains a mystery to me). He was planning to seek his fortune in the gold fields of Colorado; but he promised to write often and return within a year (I think it was) to marry her, if she would wait for him. She did — and he did — and they eventually moved to Sturgeon Bay, where Papa Woerfel got into the banking business.

In later years, he took to wearing a fedora squarely on his bald head, and driving a black 1930s-style car, with a grim expression, at fifteen miles-per-hour through town. My father, who was still young and restless in those days, dubbed any slow, deliberate driver a “Papa Woerfel”, until he himself became one.

I don’t remember any more of what Mama W. recounted that sunny spring day — more than thirty-five years ago now! — but the sherry my father plied her with definitely had its effect, to everyone’s benefit. It was one of the last times I ever saw her, and I’m glad she took to the “sauce” for at least one spring afternoon!

(originally written on Sunday, July 24, 2011)

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