Preview Mode Links will not work in preview mode

Futility Closet

Dec 3, 2018

In the late 1800s Chicago families bought their Christmas trees from the decks of schooners that had ferried them across Lake Michigan. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll meet Herman Schuenemann, known as "Captain Santa," who brought Christmas to the city for 30 years until a fateful storm overtook him.

We'll also peruse some possums and puzzle over a darkening phone.


In 1991 a Yale physician proposed naming toes.

No one's quite sure how cats navigate.

Photo: Herman Schuenemann, center, with W.K. Vanaman, left, and a Mr. Colberg aboard a Christmas tree ship in the Chicago River, 1909. Sources for our story:

Fred Neuschel, Lives & Legends of the Christmas Tree Ships, 2007.

Larry Peterson, "The Legend of the Christmas Ship," Wisconsin Magazine of History 96:2 (Winter 2012/2013), 28-39.

Glenn V. Longacre, "The Christmas Tree Ship," Prologue 38:4 (Winter 2006), 6-12.

Shannon Marie Lange, Chicago Shipwrecks: Disasters and Their Impact on Maritime Law, dissertation, Southern New Hampshire University, 2017.

Fred Neuschel, "Sailors as Entrepreneurs in a Great Lakes Maritime Village," Northern Mariner 8 (1998), 65-82.

Fred Hollister, "Loss of the Christmas Tree Schooner," Sea Classics 39:5 (May 2006), 50-55.

Amy Meyer, "Rouse Simmons Mystery Still Relevant," [Manitowoc, Wis.] Herald Times Reporter, Nov. 1, 2015.

Kevin Collier, "Is 'Christmas Tree Ship' a Ghost of Christmas Past?" TCA Regional News, Dec. 22, 2014.

"Lake Michigan Almost Canceled Christmas," Battle Creek [Mich.] Enquirer, Nov. 30, 2014.

Doug Moe, "Film Tells Tale of Christmas Tree Ship," Wisconsin State Journal, Nov. 29, 2013.

John Gurda, "'Christmas Tree Ship' Went Down on the Lake 100 Years Ago," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Dec. 1, 2012.

Meg Jones, "Events Mark 100 Year Anniversary of Sinking of Christmas Tree Ship," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Nov. 22, 2012.

Jordan Tilkens, "Centennial Celebration Commemorates Sunken Ship," [Appleton, Wis.] Post-Crescent, Nov. 22, 2012.

Jordan Tilkens, "Two Rivers Museum Marks 100th Anniversary of 'Christmas Tree Ship' Sinking," Green Bay [Wis.] Press Gazette, Nov. 21, 2012.

Tony Trowbridge, "When the Christmas Spirit Foundered in Chicago," Chicago Tribune, Nov. 11, 2012.

Kristopher Wenn, "Smaller Stories Fill Christmas Tree Ship's History," [Manitowoc, Wis.] Herald Times, Nov. 18, 2007.

Dennis McCann, "Christmas Tree Ship Surfaces in Memory," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Nov. 12, 2006.

Mike Michaelson, "Algoma Remembers 19th-Century Christmas Tree Ships," [Arlington Heights, Ill.] Daily Herald, Nov. 21, 2004.

Susan Smith, "89 Years Later ... ; Legend of Famed But Ill-Fated Christmas Tree Ship Revived," Wisconsin State Journal, Dec. 2, 2001.

"Coast Guard Re-Enacts 'Christmas Tree' Voyages," Associated Press, Dec. 4, 2000.

David Young, "The Fir Trade Separating Fact From Legend in Loss of Christmas Tree Ship," Chicago Tribune, Dec. 26, 1999.

David Young, "A Tall Order Milwaukee Schooner Being Built to Meet a Solid Heritage," Chicago Tribune, Oct. 4, 1998.

Margaret H. Plevak, "The Ship That Never Arrived Schooner Loaded With Yule Trees Vanished in Lake," Milwaukee Journal, Dec. 8, 1992.

"Large Christmas Tree Crop," Michigan Manufacturer & Financial Record 14:24 (Dec. 12, 1914), 27.

"Heart to Heart Talks," Successful Farming 12:12 (December 1913), 81.

"Chicago Notes," Horticulture 18:18 (Nov. 1, 1913), 611.

"Christmas Tree in Crepe; Mourning Recalls to Chicagoans Death of Lake Captain and Crew," New York Times, Dec. 26, 1912.

"Has Christmas Tree Widow; Chicago to Be Supplied with Firs, Despite Schooner's Wreck," New York Times, Dec. 11, 1912.

"Had Fifteen on Board," Lemmon [S.D.] Herald, Dec. 6, 1912.

"Christmas Tree Ship Lost; Wreckage of Old Schooner Washed Ashore in Lake Michigan," New York Times, Dec. 5, 1912.

"Vessel With 15 Men Lost," Rock Island [Ill.] Argus, Dec. 4, 1912.

"To Greet Santa Claus," Fruit Trade Journal and Produce Record 46:10 (Dec. 9, 1911), 6.

"Notes," American Florist 35:1174 (Dec. 3, 1910), 937.

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, "Opossum" (accessed Nov. 21, 2018).

Wikipedia, "Powhatan Language" (accessed Nov. 21, 2018).

Ann Gibbons, "Why 536 Was 'The Worst Year to Be Alive,'" Science, Nov. 15, 2018.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days: The Standard of Truth: 1815–1846, 2018.

"Downing Street's Larry the Cat Gets a Helping Hand From Police," BBC News, Nov. 20, 2018.

"Hilarious Moment Downing Street Policeman Knocks on Number 10 to Let Larry Cat In," Sun, Nov. 20, 2018.

This week's lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Scott Richards.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Google Podcasts, on Apple Podcasts, or via the RSS feed at

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet -- you can choose the amount you want to pledge, and we've set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at Thanks for listening!