The Rouse Simmons
It’s a chilly early December evening in 1911. Snow falls gently over the city, blanketing the cobblestones of Clark Street and the decks of nearby ships. The sound of children laughing and the waves of Lake Michigan mix together in a joyful chorus and the smell of crispy evergreen tickles the nose. Amongst all this warm and bright bliss stands Captain H. Schuenemann or as he was known by the locals “Captain Santa Claus” welcoming you on board his ship the Rouse Simmons. The scene described above would be a very familiar one to the families of inner-city Chicago. Unfortunately, 1911 would be the last year such a scene would ever play out.
The Schuenemann Brothers
In the late 1800s Herman Schuenemann and his brother August Schuenemann purchased three Schooner ships. They did this with the intention of cashing in on what was becoming a bustling market along the Great Lakes. The rapid industrialization and growth of Chicago meant that rural areas were sparse. Without any forests or farms producing trees, the families of Chicago like many urban centers at the time, had to rely upon ships and the lakes to get their Christmas trees. In the 1880s the Schuenemann brothers began their business endeavor carrying shipments of evergreen trees from the thick and wild Wisconsin forests to the urban docks of Chicago. The trip usually took about two days and brought the brothers and their crew through some of the most treacherous weather on the lake. And, while they did make a pretty penny for their venture, these holiday trips were about so much more for the Schuenemann brothers. (Pictured right: 1909 photo of Captain Herman Schuenemann center, Courtesy of Chicago History Museum)
A New Way to sell Trees
The lack of access to these trees meant prices were often too high for the less privileged families of Chicago to afford. The cost accumulated between the cutting of the trees in Wisconsin, the transportation from woods to lake, then Wisconsin to Chicago and finally the docks of Chicago to inland shops and outdoor markets was substantial. The Schuenemann brothers wanted to do away with all that. They desired to find a way to make their trees more affordable. In 1890, the brothers decided to cut out the middle man and allow Chicago families on board their vessels to select and remove whichever trees they desired. The brothers would even decorate their vessels with candles, garlands and later on Christmas lights. The result was that a lot more families could afford these iconic symbols of holiday cheer.
Sadly, in 1898 August Schuenemann was killed when one of his Christmas tree Schooners sank off the coast of Glencoe, Wisconsin. His brother's passing did not deter Hermann from continuing the business but rather inspired him to work harder in his brother’s name. For fourteen years, Hermann continued the trips with his vessel the Rouse Simmons or as many Chicagoans knew it, “The Christmas Tree Ship”. The whole enterprise was so popular in fact that it earned Schuenemann the nickname “Captain Santa Claus”. In 1910, the American Florist published an article expressing the Rouse Simmons fame stating,
“The Schooner Rouse Simmons and Capt. H. Schuenemann has arrived at the Southwest corner of Clark Street Bridge, laden with Christmas trees, bouquet green and boughs. This is the thirty-second year the captain has gathered greens in the Lake Superior woods, for which he has found a good sale in this city.”
Tragically, the goodwill and holiday joy created by the Rouse Simmons was cut short when it too sank in a late November storm off the shore of Two Rivers, Wisconsin. The crew all perished in the wreck. And “Captain Santa Claus” himself, Herman Schuenemann, met the same fate as his late brother, August. The city was devastated. The Rouse Simmons held a particularly special place in the city’s heart and its loss was felt deeply. At Schuenemann's funeral Reverend Rudolph A. John stated,
“Schuenemann was a good man, sturdy, honest and faithful who sailed the waters of the Great Lakes, in summertime in the lumber trade and in November, braving many an angry storm and rough sea to bring great cargoes of trees and branches and red berries to make the children’s holidays brighter and happier. And this time he has not returned.”
(Pictured above: Wreck of the Rouse Simmons 2018, Courtesy of Milwaukee Independent.)
Captain Schuenemann’s Legacy
Schuenemann’s widow Barbara and their three daughters, Elsie, Pearl and Hazel knew that Captain Schuenemann would not want to be remembered for the tragic loss of his ship. They desired to ensure their loved one’s legacy remained and that it was one of holiday joy and love of family, not tragedy. They continued the business for many years after. In fact, in later years, the women began capitalizing on the rising efficiency of the railway rather than ships to deliver their trees. This continued until Barbara herself passed away. Today, the Chicago Boating company has taken up the torch. Each year to the delight of many native Chicagoan children, the ship Mackinaw sails into the exact place the Rouse Simmons did over a hundred years ago. The Mackinaw each year brings thousands of Evergreen trees to the city and gifts them to deserving families.
Although the story of the Rouse Simmons and Captains August and Herman Schuenemann ended tragically, I don’t believe this is a sad story. In the end with hard work, a dream and a little Christmas magic both August and Herman Schuenemann achieved what they sailed out to do. And their legacy will continue on in Chicago and along the Great Lakes making generations of children happy. (Pictured right: Portrait of Elsie Schenemann at wheel of Christmas tree schooner, courtesy of “Michigan in Pictures”.)
Research Assistant, Autumn 2021