Tuesday, June 7, 2016

River Tales

Our house on the river (1941)

Dear George,
The Menominee River holds a revered place in the history of the region.  In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Menominee tribe had its village on the banks of the river at the current site of Riverside Cemetery.  Stanislaus Chappee, the area’s first European settler, built his trading post on the Menominee in 1796, just north of the current Hattie Street Bridge, and William Farnsworth and Charles Brush constructed the first sawmill there in 1831.  By the late 1800's Menominee and its twin city of Marinette had become the world's largest timber port, and the Menominee River was the passageway for up to 4 million feet of white pine logs a year.
My maternal grandfather, Guy Cramer, a widower, moved to Menominee from Omaha in the late 1930’s to join my parents there.  He had been an insurance executive in Omaha, and he lived down the street from us on Ogden Avenue.  In 1941 Guy built a summer home along the Menominee River, about a mile west of the city limits.  It was the first house along that stretch of the river, and it had commanding views toward Riverside Cemetery to the east and toward the forested islands to the west.  The largest island was directly across from Guy's house.  My parents named it Pig Island because you could occasionally see a farmer's pigs grazing on the island's banks. 

My grandfather's house was built of Norway pine.  It had a large living room with a high arched ceiling and a great stone fireplace.  My father, grandfather, and others lugged the stones for the fireplace from fields in the area.  The house was set back about 20 yards from the river, and it had a big front lawn which we had to cut with a push mower.  My grandfather died in 1942, and my father departed for the Navy a year or two later.  When he returned in 1946, our family moved from our apartment in town to the house on the river.  I was 9, my brother Steve was 5, my brother Peter was 1, and my sister Vicki was yet to be born.  The house was not entirely habitable when we moved.  There was no electricity, no indoor plumbing, no telephone, and few amenities.  We had an outhouse by the garage and got our drinking water from a pump near the driveway.  We took our baths in the river and lit the house at night with kerosene lanterns.  After a while my dad obtained a gasoline-powered engine that furnished electricity to the house.  It broke down nearly every week, and John Sargent, a family friend, would make the trip of several miles from his home at Northwood Cove to get it started up again.  A year or two later, when we got a couple of neighbors, a phone line was put in along our road, and we shared a party line with two or three other households.  As kids, we liked to secretly listen to other people's conversations until they yelled at us to get off the line.

Moving to the country was a difficult transition.  In town we'd lived on Sheridan Road with lots of other kids nearby, and I spent most of my leisure time playing outdoors with neighborhood friends.  There wasn't a single child within a mile of our river house, and my younger brother Steven was my sole playmate on a day-to-day basis.  At the same time, our locale offered elements of paradise for children.  We soon became very adept at swimming, and we spent hours in the water every day throughout the summer.  When we got a little older, Steve and I would take the family rowboat across the river to Pig Island, collect a half dozen dried out logs, tow them back home, and tie them together to make a raft.  My mother, Doris, would never allow us to go swimming unless she were sitting on the river's bank, watching us with an eagle eye.  When I was 12 or 13, my dad would row across the river in our rowboat, and Steve and I would swim behind the boat, trying each time to break our speed record.  When we got older we swam all the way down the river to the lumberjacks’ island near the cemetery.  

Compared to Green Bay, the river water was warm and comfortable.  It was also the home to various creatures, large and small, and we entertained the constant fear that we might lose a toe to a snapping turtle.  Though that was fantasy, the river bottom was home to hungry bloodsuckers, and we would always find one or two attached to our feet when we got out of the water. 

Steve and I made regular boating expeditions to Pig Island to hike in the forest and search for deer antlers, snakeskins, turtle shells, and other wonders.  There was a channel between Pig Island and its neighboring island to the west that was a mysterious place.  It was filled with waterlilies, dragonflies, and waterlogged stumps.  Usually when we went to the channel we’d see two old men fishing from their rowboat in a cove -- they must have spent every day there.  We'd also see a Great Blue Heron flying from one side of the channel to the other. 

Every summer my dad would put our 1.5 horsepower motor on the rowboat, and the whole family would travel a half-mile up the river to Indian Island for a picnic.  There wasn’t enough room in the boat for our Irish Setter, Mike, and he would swim behind us for the full half-mile.  Indian Island was only thirty yards in diameter.  Locals put their ice fishing shanties on the island for storage in the summer.  Steve and I would pretend we were pirates looking for buried treasure on the island's sandy banks.

We were surrounded by nature at our house.  My mother had a bird feeding station outside the dining room window which attracted chickadees and nuthatches.  We'd also see cardinals, blue jays, robins, red-winged blackbirds, woodpeckers, starlings, Baltimore orioles, and dozens of other species in our front and back yards.  Chipmunks and red and gray squirrels frequented the front lawn, gathering up acorns and seeds; frogs, toads, and dragonflies occupied the river bank.  Pine snakes, which grew up to six feet long, lived under the house, and we'd capture garter snakes in the stone wall bordering the field next door.  Every so often Mike would corner a porcupine in the rear of the house, and he'd wind up with a nose full of quills which would require a trip to Dr. Seidl’s office.

The river froze over every December.  We'd take an axe  out on the ice and chop a hole to determine its thickness.  Once the ice was six inches thick, we were allowed to cross the river to Pig Island.  One spring when the ice began to melt our family dog Mike fell through into the freezing water about ten yards from shore.  My mother was home alone with the kids at the time.  She put on her coat, forbade us from leaving the house, crawled out on the ice to the hole, and pulled our freezing, water-logged, seventy-pound dog out of the water and to safety.  We children watched from the living room window, terrorized.   

The ice would go out on the river every year on a single day in late March.  It was an endless flow of ice chunks and fragments headed eastward toward the river's mouth, and it made a tinkling sound that led my parents to name it "Chinese Bells Day."  Each year we carved the date of Chinese Bells Day on the door frame between our living room and dining room.  The rapidly flowing, powerful river would snatch up items along the shoreline, and we'd sometimes see a canoe or a portion of a dock, as well as miscellaneous smaller items, e.g., a bucket or a rubber boot.  We'd put on my grandfather’s hip-high waders and stand in the freezing water near the river's edge with bamboo fishing poles, trying the corral the valuable objects  which were floating by.
Our road was called Riverside Boulevard, though that was a misnomer.  It wasn't anything close to a boulevard, but rather a two-lane gravel/dirt road with a ditch full of weeds on each side.  Winter storms would sometimes make the road impassable.  Because we were initially the only family who lived on Riverside Boulevard, it was low priority for county plowing, and we could count on a vacation from school whenever we got a good snowstorm.  In the spring all the snow melted, and the road turned to mud.  Cars dug deep ruts, and the road was impassable for days at a time.  When I was about 14, the county black-topped Riverside Boulevard.  We were thrilled because it was a great boon for bike-riding, our primary mode of transportation.  However, it also meant the end of our snow and mud vacation days from school.

Once I reached high school I rode my bike to and from school each day, as well as making excursions into town in the evening to get a soft serve cone on Ogden Avenue.  It was three miles from our house to Electric Square, and I’d do that in about twenty minutes.  The city dump was up the road from our house on Riverside Boulevard, and sometimes I’d stop by and look around for things that people had discarded in their trash.  There was lots of valuable stuff there.  Riding home after dark was frightening because I had to travel mere feet away from the gravestones in Riverside Cemetery.  Even though I knew it wasn’t true, I always was on edge about seeing a ghost or a ghoul, and I pedaled like a Tour de France racer.

One of the benefits of living in the country is that we had lots of opportunity to go camping.  When I was eleven, my dad was a boy scout leader, and I and my peers learned the rudiments of camping in outings to Jean Worth’s hunting camp at Cedar River.  Mason Park was a mile and a half west of our house on Little River, a tributary of the Menominee, and Steve and I and other friends, sometimes Frankie St. Peter or Sammy Wells, would go on overnight outings there.  I would hook up a red wagon to the back of my bike, load it with my grandfather’s 1930’s canvas tent, my cook kit, food and water, and other gear, and set out up the road.  Mason Park had about half a dozen campsites, but we never saw any other campers there.  Someone had hung an automobile tire on a rope from a tree branch extending over Little River, and we’d swing out and belly flop into the water.  At night we’d sit around the camp fire, sing songs (e.g., “She’ll be coming round the mountain” or “99 bottles of beer on the wall”), and tell ghost stories that we had learned at YMCA camp.  It was exhilarating to be free of parental surveillance and in charge of our own lives and world.  

Once my friends and I turned 16 and had access to family cars, our “gang” started visiting our house for swimming parties on sunny afternoons.  My friend Bob A. brought over four empty oil drums, and we built a sturdy raft with a canvas cover that was a dramatic improvement over the log rafts that we’d assembled in childhood.  Sometimes we’d cook hot dogs and roast marshmallows at the outdoor fireplace.  My parents were welcoming hosts, and our house became a popular gathering place for each of my sibling’s friendship  groups in turn.  

I left for college at age 18, and, though I came home regularly during vacations, that ended my year-round life on the river.  About twelve years later my parents renovated a nineteenth-century log cabin farmhouse at Birch Creek north of Menominee, and they decided to sell our family home on Riverside Boulevard.  They offered it to each of their young adult children first, but we were scattered across the country, and no one was a taker.  Frankly, the loss of our home on the river was crushing.  It was such a fantastic location and held so many memories.  Years later someone cut the house in two and transported it to the Green Bay shore.  My siblings and I visited it there about fifteen years ago.  We were sad that our house had moved from the river but also happy that it was living on in its new location.  


  1. I confess to tears in my eyes as I read this memoir which is yours, David, but in many ways also mine. But where is the weeping willow tree on the river bank?

  2. Thanks, Terry. Teary to write it too. The weeping willow is just outside the picture frame at the left, near the very edge of the front lawn.

  3. I confess to tears in my eyes as I read your memoir, David, which is yours but also in many ways mine. But where is the weeping willow on the river bank?