information provided below is a partial excerpt from the book THE HISTORIC CHRISTMAS TREE SHIP: A True Story of Faith, Hope and Love by Rochelle Pennington.
The 325-page book details the extraordinary story of the Christmas Tree
Ship from every angle and includes over 60 photographs along with
hundreds of newspaper citations spanning a period of 140 years.
The Schuenemann Family
“The captain always had a kind word or friendly wave to spare.”
Upper Peninsula Sunday Times
December 24, 1978
“Herman Schuenemann was an experienced sailor and was respected as a veteran captain, an honest trader, and a good family man.”
A MostSuperiorLand, 1983
Michigan Natural Resources Magazine
the center of the Christmas Tree Ship legend beats the heart of Captain
Herman Schuenemann, the “gallant skipper” who delivered evergreens to Chicago in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.
in 1865 to German immigrants, Herman lived in a little house beside the
water. His eyes were blue, like the sea he loved, and they witnessed
many hardships in those early years. Yet despite a childhood lived amid
poverty and disease, the trials of his early life became the tool by
which his adulthood would be shaped into one of compassion, generosity,
it was destiny that Herman was born to a family surnamed “Schuenemann”
– a German word meaning “wonderful man” – for more than a name, these
words became Herman Schuenemann’s legacy.
Each Christmas, Captain Schuenemann sailed from Chicago to northern Michigan where he picked up a load of freshly cut evergreens. He loved Christmas, and he loved sailing his Yuletide cargo back to Chicago where the city was waiting. There he would dock his old schooner near the ClarkStreetBridge and, once anchored, crowds would come aboard to find the perfect tree for Christmas. Year after year, the people of Chicago crowded in await of the captain’s arrival.
Starrett, a Chicago newspaper journalist who personally knew Captain
Schuenemann in the early 1900’s, reported that “the Christmas season
didn’t really arrive until the Christmas Tree Ship tied up at Clark Street.” And according to the Chicago Tribune of December 22, 1974, Captain Herman and his boat became “as much a part of Chicago’s Christmas as Santa Claus.”
the Schuenemann legacy rests primarily on Captain Herman and his
family, the tradition actually began with two men, not one.
August Schuenemann, Herman’s oldest brother, was the first Schuenemann
to ship Christmas cargos, beginning in 1876. He continued the tradition
until November of 1898 when his ship went down in a terrible November
storm. All on board were lost. Captain August, nicknamed “Christmas
Tree Schuenemann,” was bringing a load of trees to Chicago when the gale hit.
was a heartbreaking loss for Herman who stared across the waters,
waiting. But the brother he loved so much was not coming home.
fate would have it, Herman was not on board his brother’s ship when it
sunk because he was home caring for his wife and newly born twin
daughters. The joyous news of birth was accompanied by the tragic news
of death in 1898.
Herman now needed to make a decision whether to continue the Schuenemann tradition, or to call it quits.
despite his brother’s death, and despite the ever-present danger of
sailing November’s storm-tossed waters, Captain Herman summoned the
courage to load another cargo of evergreens that very same year and
sail it to Chicago so the city would have their trees by Christmas. Although his partnership with August had been severed by the fury of Lake Michigan, the lake could not destroy the determination of this family to carry on despite its punishing blows.
In December of 1898, the year of Captain August’s tragedy, a church newsletter in Chicago announced Captain Herman’s arrival:“We
want to draw our readers’ attention to the largest and best store of
Christmas trees, garlands, wreaths, and similar items that is to be
found in Chicago. It is at the southwest corner of the ClarkStreetBridge
where Captain Herman Schuenemann has docked two big ships which
together contain more than 11,000 trees. You should visit Captain
Schuenemann and give him kind regards from St. Pauls…”
Rudolph A. John, pastor of St. Pauls in the late 1800’s and early
1900’s, recorded an entry in 1897 that read: “Our old sea dog, Captain
Schuenemann, is back again safe and sound from his long voyage to the
northern woods of Michigan.
This summer he bought one of the most beautiful and best ships, a
vessel he is properly very proud of. After a long trip he is back in
the local harbor with a cargo load of the most beautiful Christmas
trees. The Mary Collins is docked at the southwest corner of the ClarkStreetBridge
and is visited by thousands every day, who buy their trees and garlands
from the always friendly captain. The giant Christmas tree, which shone
during the bazaar in the [church] gymnasium, was brought to Chicago
by Captain Schuenemann especially for the ladies, and is undoubtedly
the largest and most beautiful tree which has ever been brought to Chicago for Christmas.”
language chosen to announce Captain Herman’s arrival in 1897 was “safe
and sound.” The risk the Schuenemann brothers faced was well
understood. Captain August’s ship, the S. Thal, would
succumb to the waves only one short year after this article was
written, and then two years later, Captain Herman’s vessel, the Mary Collins, would also be lost when it crashed into a shoreline in Upper Michigan. (Since the vessel sunk in shallower waters, all on board were rescued…)
…Fourteen years after Captain August perished, the Schuenemann family faced yet another tragedy when Captain Herman’s ship, the Rouse Simmons, went down on November 23, 1912. Everyone on board drowned…
is here, with the loss of Captain Herman, that the story takes a
curious turn. With both brothers now gone, only women remained.
August’s wife, Rose, was yet living, as was Captain Herman’s wife,
Barbara. Rose Schuenemann stood steadfastly beside her sister-in-law in
the dark hours of 1912 (along with another sister-in-law, Bertha),
caring for in her grief, waiting with her during the painful hours when
details of the tragedy drifted in slowly. If there was anyone who
understood the ache in Barbara’s heart, it was Rose…
…These were difficult days for Captain Herman’s wife, Barbara, and their three daughters, Elsie, Pearl,
and Hazel, the apples of Captain Herman’s eye. Yet Barbara Schuenemann
was determined to see her husband’s purpose through to the end – not
only his end, but hers. Nothing would block her path from making sure
everything her husband believed in would yet live – not fear, and not
despair.In her hands Captain Herman’s memory was in safe keeping.
The Chicago Daily News of November 28, 1913,
interviewed Barbara Schuenemann just prior to her schooner being loaded
with Christmas trees one year after her husband’s death. She had this
to say: “We’ll load the trees on it and tie up at the old dock, and our
customers will come to us as they have in former years. They know where
to find us. The Rouse is gone, and her captain is gone, and the crew is gone – but Christmas will find the survivors still on deck, and Chicago will have her Christmas trees as long as the Schuenemanns last.”
to her word, the captain’s bride continued in her loving task until she
breathed her last. Prior to her passing, Pastor Jacob Pister wrote the
following acknowledgment of Barbara Schuenemann’s very last Christmas
in 1932, her final goodbye to Chicago:
“She is here to help bring joy this year like never before. She
dispenses Christmas trees. You all know her. It is good Mother
Schuenemann, the widow of ill-fated Captain Schuenemann, the Christmas
ship man, who never returned to the shores, but with his great cargo of
Christmas trees went down into the deep in that terrible night of
storm. And since then Mother Schunemann has felt the urge to carry on.
The Chicago Tribune never fails to pay her a tribute of respect and honor...”
Schuenemann was a hearty soul who not only stayed the course in
carrying on her husband’s Christmas tree business, but who stayed the
course in continuing on in her husband’s commitment to the poor.
Although Captain Schuenemann was a Christmas tree merchant who sold
thousands of trees to Chicago
families each year, he also gave generously from his heart to churches,
orphanages, and poor families, as did his wife and daughters after he
...The Schuenemann family had served the citizens of Chicago
well, from the least to the greatest, during approximately fifty
dedicated years, and the friendships forged lasted generations. Chicago’s Mayor Harrison was a regular patron of the Schuenemanns, as were many persons of poverty, known to few.
Harry Hansen, a reporter for the Chicago Daily News
in the early 1900’s, wrote that Captain Herman Schuenemann was “a
jovial man, with a very ruddy complexion and laughing wrinkles around
his blue eyes, and everybody liked him.”“Everyone” included the rich, the poor, the young, the old.
From one end of Lake Michigan to the other, Captain Schuenemann was surrounded by life’s greatest asset: friends.The Manistique Pioneer-Tribune, published in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (where Captain Schuenemann loaded his Christmas trees), reported on December 6, 1912:“The
captain had many friends here who regret the disaster that has befallen
him.” If there is one word that reveals itself more than any other in
the Schuenemann story, it is the word “friend.”
In 1912, the year Captain Herman’s ship went missing, the ChicagoInterOcean newspaper interviewed the captain’s oldest daughter, Elsie, on December 11, 1912. She was on board the schooner, Oneida,
where she was selling Christmas trees while news of her papa’s
disappearance was still coming in. Elsie was quoted as saying, “Our
friends have been very, very kind to us. It is not exaggerating to say
that 500 persons have called here and at our home to offer aid…”
Schuenemann legacy lived on for many reasons, not the least of which is
that the story exemplifies the best of humanity: faith, hope, love,
devotion, courage. The Schuenemann lives were those of giving – and
living – the message of “Goodwill Toward Men” - despite emotional
difficulties, and despite financial.
the Schuenemanns experienced the financial ebbs and flows of life as
all families do, they were basically people of modest means. Yet
despite their comfort level - some years meager and other years more -
their generosity towards those in need never wavered. They understood
poverty, and they understood the pain that came with it.
1912, the year of Captain Herman’s demise, the Schuenemann family
suffered a particularly difficult year financially. (Many lean years
followed the more prosperous years the family experienced in the late
penny the family owned in 1912 was invested in the cargo of evergreens
Captain Herman had harvested that season, and, thus, every penny went
to the bottom of Lake Michigan with the captain’s ship. It was an unspeakable loss.
this, Barbara Schuenemann, faced with certain financial ruin, made a
point to deliver a Christmas tree to St. Pauls in 1912 during the peak
of her grief.Recorded in the church records is
written: “We must not send out this review of our great Sunday School
work without adding a word about our Christmas celebrations. They were
occasions so successful and so rich in blessings that we shall long
remember them with a glow of satisfaction and gratitude. The big tree
for the church was kindly donated by Mrs. Herman Schuenemann, who in
the kindness of her heart positively refused pay for it.”
Schuenemann, every Christmas, gifted evergreens to churches, including
St. Pauls. In 1906, six short years before the captain’s death, St.
Pauls recorded the following entry: “Captain Schuenemann, the old
mariner, who gets within an ace of being shipwrecked every year when he
sails away to Santa Claus’ Land to get a big ship full of Christmas
trees, what did he do? Well, he sent a wagon load of trees, and
wreaths, and festoons to the church, the parsonage, and the Orphan
Asylum. And when a meek little man went down and asked for the bill,
Captain Schuenemann roared down Clark Street like a foghorn: ‘Blow the bill!’ So that’s what became of that bill. It’s blowed!”
the captain had been alive in 1912 he would have made sure a tree stood
tall and proud in the cathedral of St. Pauls, and his wife knew this.
So she did as he would have. The captain may have gone down with his
ship, but everything he believed in was yet alive on the shores. Other
hands became his hands, and they carried his memory forward…
…Christmas came again to Chicago
in 1913 and the city found the Schuenemanns as they had in Christmases
past - on the docks - greeting their customers, selling their trees,
weaving their wreaths, united in purpose, working shoulder-to-shoulder,
together. Barbara had chopped trees alongside her husband, and now she
would chop trees alongside her daughters.
The Schuenemann legacy is one of courage coupled with faith, a story of commitment to those we love, as well as to others.The
very idea of the Christmas message and the Christmas tree being at its
center – the symbol of everlasting life and everlasting hope –
encompasses who the Schuenemanns were, and what they believed. This is
their legacy, and it has lived on from one generation to the next, kept
alive by poets and painters, by songwriters and by storytellers. They
are the guardians who continue to breathe life into these lives long
Elsie Schuenemann continued to support her mother in the family
business until the mid-1930’s. She became the backbone of the operation
and would, too, acquire a nickname Chicago would come to know her by.(Mrs.
Barbara Schuenemann had been lovingly referred to as “Mother
Schuenemann” and her husband as “Captain Santa” because of his
generosity in giving free Christmas trees away to any family who
otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford one.) Miss Elsie was known
as “The Queen of Christmas Trees” according the following article
acknowledging her 1917 wedding: “This is not the end of the ‘Tale of
Christmas Trees’ – no. There’s another chapter and it has to do with
The Queen of Christmas Trees herself, the daughter of the doughty
captain who went down in the awful storm with the ship, laden to the
guards with trees for Chicago’s
children. Yes – you’ve guessed it – I knew you would, because you’ve
read in the papers of the girl who brings a ship down from the wilds of
Northern Michigan laden to the last
inch of space with trees for the children’s Christmas. And, you will
agree, that when Captain Elsie Schuenemann was married, it could only
be near a big Christmas tree. Well, so it was. She came to church in
the early dusk of the evening to the giant tree which she had brought
out of the northern woods. You saw it, did you? Top reached away up to
the organ loft. It was not quite dark in the great, still church, but
we turned the lights on so that the tree would shine and glitter and
glow in all its beauty for the girl who had brought it. The man who
came with her was Arthur E. Roberts… There came a few others with them
– the nearest and dearest on earth to them – and there in the glory of
the Christmas tree they were married. And their new ship sailed out
upon the wide sea, laden as heavily with hopes and plans and prayers as
the other one was with trees.”
The Schuenemanns. Their’s was a story of tragedy and triumph, of helplessness and of hope.
Two Rivers, Wisconsin, at the Rogers Street Fishing Village Museum, a
display sign commemorating the Schuenemann brothers reads: “Born in
Ahnapee, Wisconsin (present day Algoma), to parents who immigrated from
Mecklenburg, Germany, August and his younger brother Herman grew up
along the shores of Lake Michigan. It was on the lake that the brothers
were to make their living, and it was on the lake where each would meet
their death as a master of a Christmas tree ship.”
Schuenemann boys were born into this world beside the waters, and they
left it within. Each had perished, it is true. Yet it is life, not
death, that has the final word on this family. Every time their memory
is recalled, the captains live on in the breaths that speak their name.Their ships may lie at the bottom of the lake, but the essence of who they were is alive, alive, alive yet on shore.
is indeed a hard and heartbreaking task to write of Captain
Schuenemann, our good faithful brother, who for so many years has been
with us in our work and faith. For almost thirty years this good man,
sturdy, honest, faithful, has 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.”