Ship Captain's Daughter: Growing Up on the Great Lakes

By Ann Lewis

Paperback: $14.95

ISBN: 978-0-87020-730-3

112 pages, 60 b&w photos, 5 1/2 x 8 1/2; E-Book Edition Available


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Ann Lewis's childhood was marked by an unusual rhythm. Each year the thawing and freezing of the Great Lakes signaled the beginning and end of the shipping season, months of waiting that were punctuated by brief trips to various ports to meet her father, the captain.

With lively storytelling and vivid details, Lewis captures the unusual life of shipping families whose days and weeks revolved around the shipping industry on the Great Lakes. She paints an intriguing and affectionate portrait of her father, a talented pianist whose summer job aboard an ore freighter led him to a life on the water. Working his way up from deckhand to ship captain, Willis Michler became the master of thirteen ships over a span of twenty-eight years. From the age of twelve, Ann accompanied the captain to the ports of Milwaukee, Chicago, Toledo, and Cleveland on the lower Great Lakes. She describes sailing through stormy weather and starry nights, visiting the engine room, dining at the captain's table, and wheeling the block-long ship with her father in the pilot house. Through her mother's stories and remarks, Lewis also reveals insights into the trials and rewards of being a ship captain's wife. The book is enhanced by the author's vintage snapshots, depicting this bygone lifestyle.

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Ann Michler Lewis grew up in Duluth, Minnesota, where she lived from 1944 to 1967. She graduated from the University of Minnesota-Duluth, and then taught English at Duluth East High School, her alma mater. Since 1972, she has lived with her family in Saint Paul, Minnesota, making periodic pilgrimages back "home" to Lake Superior. She has privately published a book of poems and sailing stories called "My Duluth," now out of print.

Why did you decide to write “A Ship Captain’s Daughter?”

The reasons are many, I guess.  And I will take the liberty to ramble as a way to sort out my own thoughts? The simplest and most obvious is that I thought it was a regional story that should be told. Many townspeople and tourists are romanced by the ships, but they have no insight as to what the lives of the sailors or their families are like. People would ask my mother questions like, “ Does he come home on the week ends?” It is also historic in terms of how much shipping has changed as to rotating crews to facilitate vacation time, updated equipment, lengthened ships, and ships that unload themselves and sail into January, and I thought this merited recording.

A part of my mission was also to convey the mystique and magnetic draw of the lake, of working with wind and water under a ceiling of constellations, suggesting that sailors not only frequented bars, but stood out on deck counting shooting stars. Shipping iron ore with its components of noise and dust also contains moments of elegance and romance and profundity, and even family quality time when together in close quarters. It has cosmic components as well as a cozy camaraderie of shared living and eating spaces floating all together against a vast back round—people and time floating on timelessness.  I wanted to share these impressions as well. I wanted to suggest that, “We are children of our landscape,” that regional boys would not probably have become sailors if born in Nebraska.

I also confess that I wanted to suggest that my father was unusual and represented the diversity amongst sailors. I think they are an interesting lot and that he represented this. I think his musical ability and strict German religious upbringing created a particular context for his sailing life—a respect for order, authority, hard work and purpose. Also, there was a sense of overture, middle movement, repetition of theme, and a grand finale. I think this was a lens through which he saw things, a pattern recognizable in every trip, every landing, every week, every year, and then summed up in his overall career.

I also probably had a bit of anger as to how one was forced to “steal” your life from the industry in a nervous fashion. There was no real provision for it. But, within that framework, good lives were “snatched,” and lived well. It had its exceptional features too.

All writing starts with a lump in the throat says Emily Dickinson. In the end, the strongest reason was probably an emotional lump. After he died, when I opened the black bag that he carried throughout his life, (visible in his departure picture,) it contained not only the tools of his trade, compass and star chart, but the important benchmarks of his life. He had recorded and saved them–Journal entries, lists of his ships, a record of his first command, his earnings, a commendation from the company initiated by his chief engineer, amidst pictures of his family and dog, and a poignant newspaper article regarding a young boy who was a promising pianist but had to go to work at sixteen.  Interestingly, this was President Truman. Along with stories I had saved, it said to me, write about this. In the writing, however, I found I could not write about my father’s life with authority, there were too many gaps—too many things I did not know of his young man’s story for instance, as indicated by his seemingly uncharacteristic tattoo. I could only write about my experience, I decided, and how I knew him and this life, as “the ship captain’s daughter.”

One image that speaks to you and captures your experience. 

Looking up at the stars at night from aboard ship, with perhaps a few lights twinkling from a distant shore, captures the magic of this life—the draw and lure of it. I think a sailor must experience this lure in some form in order to choose and endure this life. There must be some value of an intimate relationship with the natural world that's hard to duplicate. Though perhaps exaggerated, the bottom line is that you are working with the major forces of the universe–moon cycles, sunset, wind and waves, seasons etc.

What do you want readers to take away?

I want them to catch the magic, the unforeseen or unexpected perhaps, poetry, but I also actually want them to learn some of the particulars of this life–loading, going through the Soo, what the pilothouse is/was like, going down the rivers, as well as our family life the moods and flavors, the anticipations and disappointments, the things that made it distinctive. Maritime families have always had their own culture, and those who haven't lived it might like to take a look "inside."

But, in addition to insights and information, I also want them to have a lump in their own throats at the end, think of their own dreams, family lives, their own life cycles. I want them to note my father’s perfect day, that there can be one, that whatever your life, there are moments to be had in most lives that have rich and satisfying dimensions, that you can catch them, or you can create them with the resources that you have. “Give me health and a day and I will make the pomp of emperors seem ridiculous,” is my sermon … and Emerson’s.

What do you find most fascinating about Lake Superior?

That it is like Oz: “The Great and The Terrible.” One day it is calm and beautiful, your friend, and the next it is a raging tempest. That it is seductive, that it lures people out on it. Its power is magnetic and fearsome, thrilling and terrifying. And that its greatest threat is not that it will take your life, but that its endless featureless expanses of “nothing” will take your soul.

How can this book serve as a guide to Lake Superior? 

Not to trust it. To admire and love it, it’s beauty and power, but to be wary of it.  It will grant you occasional favors, but it is not dependable.

The shipping industry? If you are going to be involved in it, to know its demands, and then to know, too, how far it has come in accommodating fair employment conditions such as vacations and medical and family leaves.

What did you learn that was surprising?

In my father’s journal, he recorded that if you put all the time together, he had spent 27 years on the water. That’s a lot of time away from land and human interaction. It made me sad. The price of this life was high.

I also learned interesting facts. I had forgotten that there is an up bound and a down bound channel in the St. Mary's River, that the river is 75 miles long, longer than the Panama Canal, and that a captain has to be on duty in the river 2 times a week, going down and coming up. That’s a lot of time to be in the pilothouse with unrelieved duty and responsibility, with ship traffic and natural hazards.

How is this a uniquely Wisconsin story? 

It is the story of how one of its residents made a life in connection with one of its natural resources. The state borders Lake Superior and Lake Michigan, which are major contributors to its economy and the nation’s. It is also the story of the life of a Wisconsin German immigrant family. Immigrants left unfortunate circumstances for the most part with a hope that their descendants would find work and a decent life. This is the story of a Wisconsin immigrant “son.”

The Midwest is defined by its water routes. They provide a huge contribution to the national economy in terms of trade. Two-thirds of the ore to make ammunitions and ships and tanks for the world wars came from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan iron ranges.  Both the mining and the shipping industries on the Great Lakes were major contributors to winning the war and remain essential to domestic industry, the production of cars, steel for bridges and buildings, our national infrastructure.

Are there any photos you wished were included?

I think there should have been a map of the Great Lakes. I do not believe the majority of the general public has a vision of how the lakes connect and how the St. Mary’s river is pivotal to the whole industry, or maybe I just speak for myself and how I had to review that. The ships must go through it and if coming from Superior, Wisconsin, for instance, essentially you turn right to go to Lake Michigan and Chicago or left to go to Lake Erie and Toledo etc.

I wish the picture I have of the ladies auxiliary could have been in the book–with the ladies wearing hats and listing one of them as in charge of card playing. It’s a great period piece. These were ladies who wore dresses and were in church circles and then met ships on gravely, dangerous and dirty ore docks and climbed ladders to get on those ships and visit their husbands. I know it was not of the best quality, but it sent a message.

My Dad’s Christmas tree. I thought it showed both his artistic and meticulous side. Beauty was important to him.

And most of all, the picture of my father and me on the deck with “the men.” We were having a visit and Oscar was shaving in Plein Air in his cut off shorts. He was an iconic sailor of that era. He had fought in the war and told war stories and was the ship’s cobbler, turning over the soles of worn out shoes and re sewing them.

How was this a personal experience?

When you write, you get to relive what you are writing. The bridges afforded vivid memories. Waiting for the Interstate Bridge to open was more than memorable: it seemed to epitomize a life dictated by timetables and cargo and how we lived in little moments, in intense vignettes, so to speak. Entering the harbor through the Aeriel Bridge afforded a sense triumph, signaled a safe return, a re-entry, i.e. the culmination of my father’s profession and of our family pride. It carried a dash of prestige—we had all "arrived," in every meaningful sense.

My favorite season is and was winter. It’s when we were a family like other families, when we did what other families do—go to church, visit with friends, go to movies, parties, go on Sunday drives, have a fire in the fireplace. We lived for Christmas and winter. It was cozy, safe, and prized. The sense that it was short lived made it very special.  I still love it, and fall, which signals that it is coming. There is a sense of sadness and danger with the memory of fall storms and bleakness, but of excitement at the same time.

What two additional questions would you ask and answer?

I don’t think this is coming from the right angle, but the biggest question for me, having reflected on the life my father chose to live was this: Would he choose it again? I played with having him look down at his tattoo and wistfully saying, “I would if I were sixteen.” It would have changed the whole story, of course, maybe made it more profound. Then again, if he had said that, it might have made his life seem like a mistake, a tragedy, a regret.

In any case, it is a case in point that every choice we make opens some doors and closes others. He was born to lead, to do something grand. I wanted to render and recognize a little of the grandeur of the life he did lead. And in the ending piece, I wanted to show that there are still young men who respond to that same urge… through sailing.

The fact that he had been a gifted pianist as a youth was always there as the road not taken.  His repertoire of classical music stayed with him his whole life, though he took no lessons after age 16. In the book I wanted to suggest how that keen aesthetic side could manifest itself in a life at sea.

My second question comes from the other end of the spectrum, from the mechanics of the industry. The lives of the men who owned and own the company are very different from their sailors. Yet I sense that these men have a mutual respect for each other based on the recognition of what each does to keep the industry alive. I wonder what the relationship between these men is like in the fleet today.

Captains and crew and owners all work with the water, as a commodity, so to speak, as economic resource, but also as mystery. One has a primary relationship with it, and the other profits from that but shares it in a secondary way. The owners name their ships after their wives and fathers, and these names in a sense commission the sailors to bear the family pride and represent their stories. I know my father felt very close to the Pickands  to Mather management. There were pictures available, and recorded histories and ships bearing the names of the founders Colonel Henry Pickands and Mr. Samuel Mather. There was a kind of loyalty and pride that went with that. Perhaps in this fleet, it invited a different kind of loyalty than an industry name like U. S. Steel.  I don’t know. I have no real sense of what the fleet is like today.

It’s interesting to posit that the sea binds the different classes of men together in an interestingly fraternal way. There is something about the water that is “home” to all of us.