Monday, April 13, 2015

ISLAND WATERFRONT - Then and Now - Richter Years Begin - Part XVI

Loading fish boxes aboard the little Welcome, in 1930s.  Believed
to be in the East Channel, with Detroit Island in background,
where the Welcome, along with other boats,
often anchored to the ice in winter.

Washington Island, Wisconsin -

Saturday, April 11th, marked the 75th year of Richter ferry service, a business owned and operated by Carl and Arni Richter, father and son, since 1940.   Not to be forgotten in this endeavor were Maggie (Gudmundsen) Richter, and Mary (Cornell), who were also willing to support this new family venture in its early days, before it could support them.

Why did Capt. William Jepson choose to sell to the Richters when he did?  We know he had considered a new and longer ferry route, the 20-mile run between Sturgeon Bay and Marinette-Menominee.  And, according to Arni, he and Carl had a preliminary design for a new ferry and planned to compete with Jepson.  Arni believed that word of their plan was a factor in Jepson's decision to sell.  We don't know how or if the build-up of U. S. industry to help European allies in their war effort came into play, but if timing was ever right to sell his Island ferry business and move on, for Jepson this may have seemed his best opportunity.

For the Richters, starting up a competing ferry operation from scratch would be difficult:  raising the capital for a new ferry; modifying Island and mainland piers for landing purposes;  and providing a schedule of service with a single vessel that would gain public support.  All this when it was questionable there be enough business volume to support two competing ferry operations.

Buying Jepson's ferry operation made more sense to the Richters.  For one thing, they would take over an established and progressive business.  Besides having the right boats, equipment and docks, there was also the recently dredged West Channel into Detroit Harbor (thanks, in large part, to Bill Jepson's urging) that made navigation to and from the Island safer than ever before.

Photo taken in Kenosha or Waukegan, when Arni was a young man
of perhaps 19 or 20.  He called this photo, "The three Arnis."  Shown are
Arni Paulson, with the Icelandic consulate
in Chicago;  his grandfather, Arni Gudmundsen, and Arni Richter.
The April 30, 1930 Advocate reported:  "Arni Richter arrived home
Monday and wil fish with his father, C. G. Richter, this summer."

The Richters weren't without experience when they decided to go fully into the ferry business, although Carl was really the one with past water experience.

In Arni's words, from Over and Back (WIFL - 1990):

Dad had sailed as a young boy on several schooners, the Walhalla, Iris, Madonna and the Flotilla among them. He was sixteen when he got his first job as a cook's helper aboard one of the sailboats which called frequently in Detroit Harbor. His mother instructed him how to make bread in the one hour he had before the boat departed, while he packed his "turkey," as he called his sea bag.  He also spent several seasons sailing the lakes on ore boats of the day, and later fished commercially, mostly from the St. Ignace area.  …The Shine On was getting sort of old, and Dad was looking for a different boat around 1930.  I was buying fish at the time but also doing some fishing.  We bought the little Welcome from the Hansen brothers, Art and Hans.  She was 40 feet long, and ironed off.

This series of photos from the Richter album shows the little Welcome, sawed free
from the ice,  then towed by truck on bobsled runners to the East Channel, the beginning
of freighting operations for Carl and Arni Richter in 1931.

During the season, the fishermen could ship their fish with Mr. Jepson's ferries, the Welcome, built in 1929, or the North Shore, built in 1931.  But in the winter, they had to take a day from fishing to transport their fish to the mainland as there was no winter ferry.

They asked me if we would haul the fish with the little Welcome.  At the time, it was frozen in the west channel in Detroit Harbor, not far from what is now the Island Outpost dock, the Cornell dock back then.  I talked to George Hanson, and asked what he thought about skidding it over the ice to the east channel, where there was open water.  Thinking it would not be too difficult, we sawed her out, pulled her up onto the ice with trucks, and got sections of a bobsled under her.  We towed her across the ice to the east channel (off what is now the Shipyard Marina), and waited until the fish boats came in for the day.  They broke the ice around her and she floated right up.  From there, we made the winter trips, hauling fish and whatever else needed to be hauled, mostly fresh produce, as the stores stocked up in the late fall with canned goods.  There wasn't a lot of fresh produce in those days, either.  Besides fish, there was a lot of cheese being shipped from the Island cheese factory, sometimes as much as a ton a and a half, in ten or fifteen pound horns,.  It was a very good cheddar cheese, and many places in Green Bay and the area used to give them as holiday gifts.

In 1931, we got our first mail contract. In those days it was a four-year contract.  That was a year around contract.  At times, when we couldn't take the Welcome because of ice, we could go over the ice, which was actually a faster trip most days.

In the thirties, we didn't have a good dock on the other side for winter.  Gills Rock was our landing spot in summer, but we'd go into Europe Bay and anchor the Welcome in winter, and take our rowboat ashore, tying up to the ice banks.  I remember as many as 112 boxes of fish on the Welcome (about 115 pounds apiece with ice, plus fish, over six tons!).  On some occasions, boxes were put on the upper deck. But quite commonly, there would be 50 or 75 boxes.  I was handling thirty-five accounts in those days, there were so many making a living fishing.  It was a real trick sometimes to row ashore, twelve fish boxes or so in the rowboat, and throw the boxes up on to the ice banks where a truck was waiting to pick them up.

Ted Jessen once described Carl Richter (1871-1962) as
"snappy," in terms of his wit and personality.
In this photo taken in Oct. 1941, he's snappy
in appearance, too, posing in the wheelhouse
of the ferry Welcome.

Carl Richter, with Ford pulling bobsled, alongside
rough ice.  When they bought the Ferry Line
from Wm. Jepson in 1940, Carl was 68 and Arni was 29.   

If Arni seemed short on actual water experience when he started freighting with his dad on the little Welcome (he would have been 20 in 1931), he soon learned how to handle a boat and adjust to different situations.  He seemed to possess, however, a good business sense, along with an optimism for the future.

Carl and Arni continued using the little Welcome when the conditions allowed to carry freight and mail.  If an occasional passenger wanted to ride along, they were invited to sit on a fish box.  By 1939, they looked at making a substantial change.  

Early Ferry Line experiences were remembered in this interview with Arni Richter, published in Over and Back:

CROSSING THE DOOR ON ICE WITH SNOWMOBILE…early forties…as related by Arni Richter…

We bought the Ferry Line from Mr. William Jepson in 1940.  We had operated the little Welcome continuously since 1931, carrying mail, freight and passengers until April 11, 1940, at which time we bought the Line.  I sold Mary's (wife Mary Richter) new Ford V-8 automobile which she had just bought with her earnings as a teacher, to come up with some of the cash needed in the purchase.

Arni recalled when he and his dad first applied for a Coast Guard license
in 1940 in Milwaukee, soon after they purchased Jepson's passenger ferries.
 Carl was nervous and not used to taking exams, but he and
Steamboat Inspector Henry Erickson got along quite well after they
discovered they both had a background in sailing vessels.
Carl happily came away with his license to operate.
Shown here is the Feb. 1956 issue.
The deal included the ferries WELCOME, NORTH SHORE, and two snowmobiles, a model A and a Model T with tracks, the present Island dock property, and one half-ownership of the Northport property.  Roy Voight owned the other half.

When I think of some of the things we used to do as a matter of necessity…and no one ever thought anything of it, because that was the only way.

One time, in winter, we couldn't land at Northport.  Europe Bay was out (impossible to land), and Gills Rock was full of ice, near Ellstrom's bluff.  Dad stayed aboard, and I went ashore with the sleigh and the mail. On the way back, we had some passengers for Plum Island.  Among them were a young Coast guardsman and his wife with their newborn little baby.  In those days families lived on Plum Island, and the station was open year around.  On the way back to the WELCOME, I had the young mother by the arm.  Her husband was following with the baby in his arms.  As we were nearing the boat, I heard a crash and turned around to see him go down through the ice with the baby.  I got the mother aboard the WELCOME, then ran back and grabbed the baby from the father.  It was just luck he came back up in the same spot he went down.  I ran the baby to the mother, while someone else helped the young man out of the water.  When the baby's wet blankets were unwrapped, luckily the water hadn't penetrated through.        

[At the Ferry Line's 50th celebration, Rudy Bahlert came forward and told Arni that he was that baby rescued years ago.  His father served in the Plum Island Coast Guard at the time, and his family later lived in a home just south of Gills Rock.]

Walking over the ice wasn't too uncommon, and many times it had to be done to get ashore.  I recall a mainland basketball team leaving the Island.  We tied a rope from one boy to another, in case one boy went through.   Sure enough, one boy did break through the ice, but I wonder if he hadn't been fooling around and not paying attention.

Carl Richter and Lucien Boshka (who had also worked for Bill
Jepson's Ferry Line) exchange freight, including fish boxes.
Location appears to be near a low bluff on the Peninsula.

If we couldn't go by ferry, we'd take to the ice, using the snowmobile and a big bobsled we had built to haul freight.  One trip Dad and Lucien (Boshka) drove in the snowmobile, and I took my car, a 1941 two-door Chev, because of the passengers we had along.  We went into the mainland at Door Bluff, where we were usually met by a truck with mail and freight, saving us time.  On this occasion, with a strong southwest wind blowing, the trip to the mainland went fine.  But on the way back, with about a ton of feed on the bobsled, we noticed the whole field of ice was breaking loose from Door Bluff all the way to Lehman's on the west side of the Island.   A large crack had opened up with the strong southwest wind.  I scouted ahead with the car and found a spot where the two fields of ice were together, and I backed up, with my door open, just in case, to jump the crack.  I made it across that crack, all right, but I came down so hard on the other side that the ice broke under the weight of the car.  I made it up onto solid ice, but the back rims of the car were flattened, and the door was bent on its hinges.  I kept going toward the Island, near Denny's Bluff, and could see big ice shoves with cakes piled up in the air, but the field was starting to slow down, pressed against Washington Island.  I went back to where Dad and Lucien were.  We found a crack which wasn't too wide and built a bridge of logs and planks.  We had to disassemble the bobsled, and carry it and the feed, and whatever other freight we had that day, across the crack, then reassemble and reload the sleigh.  The snowmobile was the last thing to go across.  We wound up near Denny's Bluff as it was getting dark, and I don't think anyone had an idea where we were.

Those early Ferry Line times were often days with long hours, filled with uncertainties over whether the business would provide enough revenue to eventually plan for a new ferry.  The war years also delayed this venture by restricting travel for motorists, through gasoline and tire rationing, and by making ship materials scarce.   Building a new ferry of steel was still a goal, however, to replace the aging ferry Welcome and improve the safety of the winter operation.

This goal would not be met until 1946 with the building of the Griffin, but even then, obtaining the financial support for such a project proved difficult.

-  Dick Purinton

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