Captain Santa

Captain Herman Schuenemann's ill-fated voyage to delivery Christmas trees to the people of Chicago is documented by Cottage Grove filmmaker Bob Leff. 

 

Cottage Grove filmmaker Bob Leff’s newest project is not only a great story for the Holidays, but also an interesting history lesson too. 

Leff, who began making documentary and instructional films in the mid-1990s, recently released “Chicago’s Christmas Tree Ship,” the story about Captain Herman Schuenemann and his ill-fated voyage to deliver Christmas trees to the people of Chicago in 1912. 

Leff was inspired to make a film about Schuenemann’s story after reading a feature article in the Wisconsin State Journal in August of 2012, which was reprinted from the Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter. Scheueneman’s ship, a three-masted schooner called the Rouse Simmons, sank in the depths of Lake Michigan between Two Rivers and Kewaunee in November of 1912. 

Schuenemann and a rag-tag crew tried to make the journey from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Chicago with a full load of Christmas trees, only to be caught in one of the worst storms to hit Lake Michigan. Sadly, they never made it to Chicago. 

In November of last year, Two Rivers held a special commemoration to honor the 100th anniversary of Schuenemann’s brave voyage, which was previewed in the article that captured Leff’s imagination. 

“I saw that and I thought, ‘That looks real interesting, it sounds like it might be a little stretch for me, a little harder to make a film of than anything I’ve done before because how was I going to find footage of late 19th Century/early 20th Century schooners sailing on Lake Michigan, especially in a storm and with the problems this ship had?” Leff said. “But, even more important than that, I was going to need to document a suspenseful story, a melodramatic story, and my previous works hadn’t done that.” 

Leff said the only previous work he had done that came close to “Chicago’s Christmas Tree Ship” was “Gangster Holidays,” a film about Al Capone and John Dillinger’s hideouts in northern Wisconsin. After some reservations, Leff decided to tackle the story of the Christmas Tree Ship. He received help from Gregory Goodchild, executive director of the Rogers Street Museum in Two Rivers who did an excellent job of taking viewers through the history of Scheunemann’s journey. 

One of the film’s most interesting moments is when Goodchild tells the story of a bottle that was discovered on a beach in Port Washington, about 60 miles from where the Rouse Simmons went down. Inside, the bottle contained a note from Scheunemann. 

“He says, ‘We lost two men overboard last night, we lost the life boat, it’s all over for us now … God help us,” Leff said. 

With the impending storm, Scheunemann was warned not to set sail, but balked, saying, “the people of Chicago have to have their Christmas trees.” 

“He took a chance and the truth was he had no chance,” said Goodchild in Leff’s film. 

Also in the film, Leff interviewed Kent Bellrichard, a maritime explorer who, in 1971, discovered the wreckage of the Rouse Simmons. Bellrichard explains how he stumbled upon the wreckage, literally, in impeccable detail. 

After an extensive editing project, Leff completed his film this summer. The result is an excellent documentary that touches on not only the fabled voyage, but also the life of Scheunemann, who was known as Captain Santa to many Chicagoans. While his tree delivery business served as a major source of income, Scheunemann also donated trees to poor families who couldn’t afford one. 

Despite his tragic death in 1912, Chicago has carried on Scheunemann’s tradition. Last year, 1,300 Christmas trees were delivered to needy families to celebrate the Holiday season. 

Leff’s film, about an hour in length, offers great detail, strong writing and dramatic description from narrator Steve Rudolph. 

For more information on “Chicago’s Christmas Tree Ship” contact Leff at 608-873-5784 or at vapbob@juno.com. More information about Leff’s work can be found at www.vapfilms.com. The film cost $24, which includes tax. 

 

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