An informative, fascinating and heartwarming holiday program! (This program can be tailored to an age-appropriate audience for school visits.)
All aboard the Christmas Tree Ship!
Author Rochelle Pennington has written two books detailing one of the most well-known shipwrecks of the Great Lakes, Lake Michigan's Christmas Tree Ship, which delivered holiday evergreens to the citizens of Chicago each Christmas season before it was caught in the "Great Storm of 1912" and subsequently went to the bottom of the lake fully loaded with trees. The captain’s wife, Barbara, along with their three daughters, then carried on for over twenty years afterward in honor of “Captain Santa” and in the spirit of everything he believed in. The ship is still loaded with its cargo today and is a popular Great Lakes dive site.
"It is a story which exemplifies the best of humanity," said Pennington. "At its heart we find courage, love, generosity, heroism, and the importance of family. The moment I first heard the story of the Christmas Tree Ship, I understood why it had endeared itself to so many people over the years and was still being shared a century later."
"The ship's final voyage was not to the bottom of the lake," added Pennington, "but into the pages of history." The true account of Captain Schuenemann and his schooner is considered the “most loved story of the Great Lakes” over the past century. The story has inspired paintings, poems, six different Christmas Tree Ship songs, television programs, a musical performed all over the country titled “The Christmas Schooner,” and a “new” Christmas Tree Ship sailed by the Great Lakes Coast Guard each holiday season as a living memorial. Pennington's initial book on the ship,The Christmas Tree Ship: The Story of Captain Santa, is an "all-age" summary of the story and includes vintage photographs complemented by the nautical artwork of famed painter Charles Vickery. Pennington's follow-up documentary book, The Historic Christmas Tree Ship: A True Story of Faith, Hope and Love, is a 325-page expansion of the story and examines the legendary shipfrom every angle. The book includes more than 60 photographs, along with hundreds of citations from century-old newspaper clippings spanning a period of 140 years.
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Pennington's research was used to create a television program on The Weather Channel's Storm Stories. The program airs nationally each December (since 2004). The author is interviewed repeatedly during the documentary.
The author is available for speaking engagements at schools, libraries, museums, historical societies, and for civic organizations. Her power-point presentationincludes many of the century-old photographs of Captain "Santa" Schuenemann, his family, and his ship. In addition, she brings several artifacts along with her to share with the audience, including an axe used to chop trees down, dishes, a medicine bottle, a spittoon, a clay pipe, an ornament carved from one of the first Christmas trees raised from the ship in 1971 when the vessel was discovered, and an actual Christmas tree from the cargo. Underwater photos of the ship with its trees still visible in the cargo area are included with the program as well.
Pennington's verbal presentation focuses on many of the little-known facts surrounding the story, including the ship's mysterious disappearance, clues washed ashore in the decades following the vessel's demise, ghost ship sightings of the phantom schooner, and mysterious omens believed to have cursed the ship immediately before it set sail on its final voyage on November 22, 1912.
Pennington was an educational presenter at the National Archives – Great Lakes Region (Photo courtesy of the National Archives)
Patrons of the Thomas St. Angelo Public Library spilled into every available inch of space as they listened to Pennington’s gripping account of the Christmas Tree Ship.
Rochelle Pennington visited Clayton Elementary School December 2010
Pennington served as an educational presenter for the Pier Wisconsin
“Floating Classroom” series which featured live satellite teachings to
The above photograph was taken on the set used for the Christmas Tree Ship presentations.
(Photo courtesy of the Pier Wisconsin Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin)
100th Anniversary Celebrations in 2012
Rochelle Pennington was the featured speaker in the photo above at the St. Paul’s “Schuenemann Celebration” in 2004 to honor Captain and Mrs. Schuenemann, longtime members of the Chicago congregation, and she will be returning to St. Paul’s again this year for their 100th anniversary community event, open to the public, on November 17, 2012 which will include a German feast and a musical as part of the day’s festivities. The church staff of St. Paul’s kept meticulous records (dating back to the late 1800s) of the Schuenmann’s participation in the congregation, as well as their noted generosity.
“The Historic Christmas Tree Ship is the most comprehensive book to ever come out on the Rouse Simmons and is loaded with photography. It is a great book for the season, and is a wonderful piece on the famous ship. (Rochelle first wrote a children’s book on the subject, and with that book’s overwhelming success, she decided to write a more historic book about one of the Great Lakes’ greatest legends.)”
Sturgeon Bay Advocate, Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin December 18, 2004
“Rochelle Pennington’s short story, The Christmas Tree Ship, is a wonderful introduction to this enchanting part of Chicago lore, and her new follow-up book, The Historic Christmas Tree Ship, is a treasure trove of details about the legend. It is the definitive history of the Christmas Tree Ship.”
The Clipper Ship Gallery La Grange, Illinois
“We invited author Rochelle Pennington to our town hall on October 23, 2004, for a book signing/program. Rochelle is an accomplished speaker and kept the audience’s attention as she took us back in time when Thompson was a thriving lumber village. It was thoroughly enjoyed by all!”
Thompson Township newsletter, Thompson, Michigan December 2004
“Rochelle Pennington has engaged in a labor of love in recent years. She has a heart of gold and a simultaneous flair for literary genius. She wrote what has become a nationally recognized 325-page documentary about the amazing Christmas Tree Ship. It’s a story for the ages. It’s danger, it’s excitement, it’s romance, and it’s love. Pennington has not only kept the spirit alive with her book, but she now has important disciples. The Weather Channel produced a masterpiece holiday documentary inspired by Rochelle’s work. Rochelle will also be appearing on television Channels 4 and 6 the week after Christmas.”
Alan Eisenberg, host of “The Alan Eisenberg Show”
“Pennington’s book, The Historic Christmas Tree Ship, is a heftier paperback intended for mature readers who are interested in the history of the ship, the exact records, in-depth discussions of the storm, the lifesaving efforts and much more. Pennington spent hours in libraries and historical societies, pursuing decades-old documents and newspaper articles. She conducted many personal interviews, tapping into the memories of people who knew the Captain Schuenemann of the Christmas Tree Ship or were descended from those who did.”
Resorter Reporter November 23, 2004
“Pennington has become a noted authority on the colorful, tragic, yet heartwarming story of the Schuenemann family.”
Shipwreck Society News, Paradise, Michigan Summer 2005
“Inspirational writer Rochelle Pennington will appear on the ‘Leap of Faith’ television show, Fox-11. Rochelle is so gifted as a writer, but the greatest thing about her is she’s probably one of the sweetest people you’ll ever meet.”
Steve Rose, host of the “Leap of Faith” television show
“On her first trip to Arizona, Rochelle Pennington hopes to bring her love of the historical Christmas Tree Ship to West Valley residents. Theater Works’ CEO, Jack Lytle, is thrilled that the author is willing to share her expertise on the ship with his patrons. ‘It’s a wonderful, wonderful story,’ Lytle said. ‘It’s the kind of story that is passed down from generation to generation. I’m excited to get her out here and have her share some of that with the rest of the community.”
Northwest Valley News, Peoria, Arizona December 2, 2005
“We had a full house for the Christmas Tree Ship program! Rochelle Pennington, author of two books on the ill-fated Christmas Tree Ship, brought us this most loved legend of the Great Lakes on November 2, 2005. This lovely story of sailing, and giving away Christmas trees in Chicago, held the audience, age 10 to 98, spellbound. After her enchanting program, attendees kept Rochelle busy autographing copies of her books for over an hour.”
Wind Point Lighthouse newsletter, Racine, Wisconsin, Winter 2005
Author Rochelle Pennington shares a handshake with a student at Jackson Elementary School in 2004
On December 15, 2012, Pennington presented the Christmas Tree Ship program to a sold-out audience at the Greendale Visitor Center, formerly the Reiman Center, publisher of the national bestselling Reminisce magazine. The Center is also home to the Taste of Home magazine test kitchen and is a popular tour bus stop. The Greendale village is a "Norman Rockwell" community.
All Aboard the Christmas Tree Ship!
“The moment I first heard about the Christmas Tree Ship,” said Rochelle Pennington, author of two books on the historic ship, “I understood why it had endeared itself to so many people and was still being shared a hundred years later. The ship’s final voyage was not to the bottom of Lake Michigan, but into the pages of history.” At the center of the Christmas Tree Ship story beats the heart of Captain Herman Schuenemann, a man whose eyes were blue like the sea he loved. The gallant skipper, known as “Captain Santa” because of his generous spirit, lived in Chicago and delivered his majestic cargoes of Yuletide cheer to families who waited for him at the Clark Street Bridge in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Schuenemann’s trees were harvested in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, but kiddies preferred to believe that Captain Santa brought them from the North Pole. Many of the trees were donated to churches, orphanages, and poor families. If you couldn’t afford to purchase a tree, you were gifted one by the captain, who couldn’t bear the thought of a house not having a Christmas tree. After Captain Schuenemann’s passing, stories of his kind deeds were kept alive by poets, painters, songwriters, and storytellers. These were the guardians who continued to breathe life into what is called the “most loved legend of the Great Lakes.” Vincent Starrett, a Chicago newspaper journalist who personally knew Captain Schuenemann in the early 1900s, reported: “The Christmas season didn’t really arrive in Chicago until the Christmas Tree Ship tied up at the Clark Street Bridge.” And according to the Chicago Tribune, Captain Herman and his boat became “as much a part of Chicago’s Christmas as Santa Claus.” The captain continued in his tradition for over twenty-five years until his ship mysteriously disappeared in a November gale in 1912, the year it “just wasn’t Christmas” in Chicago. When the tragic news of the Christmas Tree Ship’s sinking spread after the ship’s disappearance, many believed the legacy of the vessel had come to an end, but little did they know that everything Captain Schuenemann believed in would stay alive shore. The captain’s wife, Barbara, and the couple’s three daughters carried on for over twenty years after in honor of the captain and in the spirit of everything he had believed in. The Chicago Daily News interviewed Mrs. Schuenemann on November 28, 1913 after she returned to Chicago for her first Christmas without her husband, and she had this to say: “It was splendid up there in the big woods. I was there for eight weeks and it seemed like one long holiday for me. Perhaps it was because I felt that somehow my husband was there with me. That’s where he would have been had he been alive, and I felt somehow he was there anyway. And the smell of the pines was good, and the clear, starry nights, and the sound of the chopping all day long. I shall never miss it. Every year I shall go to the northwoods, and after I am gone, there will be others to carry on the work.” The Schuenemann family served the citizens of Chicago long and well, for over fifty dedicated years, and they left their impress upon the city. Their story has been retold for generations because it exemplifies the best of humanity; within it, we find determination, devotion, generosity, and the importance of family. Every time the captain’s memory is recalled, he lives on in the breaths that speak his name, and thus, in the end, it is life—not death—that has had the final word on Captain Schuenemann, a man whose last voyage was not to the bottom of the lake, but into the pages of history.