November Christmas Trees in Copper Harbor


Randy wasn’t looking forward to Christmas this year of 1930 in Copper Harbor, Michigan. Miss Bergstrom, his fifth grade teacher told him and his classmates that something called the Depression covered the entire United States and that’s why the mills and the mines had shut down.

Randy knew from firsthand experience that the Depression had snatched Pa’s job in the mine away from him.  He knew that from firsthand experience that the Depression forced Ma to make him shirts out of flour sacks to wear to school and it forced her to pack blueberry jelly sandwiches in his lunch.

“Trade you one of your sandwiches for one of mine,” Randy’s pal Ben said one day at school in late November 1930.

“What have you got?” Randy said.

“A bacon grease sandwich. Ma made it just this morning,” Ben said proudly.

“I’ll trade you half for half,” Randy bartered. “I’ll give you half a blueberry for half a bacon grease.”

“Done,” Ben said, handing Randy half a sandwich. “What are you asking for Christmas?”

Randy didn’t even have to think about his answer. He forced a bleak, hopeless answer:  “Nothing.”

“Why don’t we go to the lighthouse after school?” Audrey said as she slid beside them on the wooden seat. “Ouch! I got a splinter!” she said, rubbing her leg and working it out with her fingernails. “Got it!” she said.

Randy stared at her. “You are really a dumb sister. Why should we go to the lighthouse?”

Audrey stared back. “You are really a dumb brother. We should go to the lighthouse to ask Dr.  Vaughn for a job so we can buy Christmas presents this year.”

“Let’s go!” Ben said.

They went to the Copper Harbor Lighthouse after school.

“This is stupid,” Ben complained. “It’s Christmas time. Dr. Vaughn won’t be around now. He’ll be back in Chicago where it’s about twenty degrees warmer than 20 below zero.”

“Dr. Vaughn has a caretaker and his name is Grandpa Cramer,” Audrey said.

“You mean old Grandpa Cramer? What does he know that we don’t?” Randy said.

“He knows a lot. He knows about the lighthouse and he knows about Douglass Houghton,” Audrey argued.

“Everybody knows about Douglass Houghton. He discovered the copper here. So what else is new?” Ben muttered.

“We need a job and Grandpa Cramer can give us one. That’s what else is new,” Audrey told him.

“Well, here’s the lighthouse. Are you going to be the one to knock on the door?” Randy said.

“Why do they call him Grandpa Cramer?” Ben asked.

“Because his Grandma used to be the caretaker here before he took over,” Audrey said.

“Why don’t people call him Grandchild Cramer, then? Randy wondered.

“Stop being a smart aleck and knock on the door,” Audrey said.

Ben had just raised his hand to knock when Grandpa Cramer flung open the door in their faces.

“Gotta run, have an emergency in the harbor!” Grandpa Cramer exclaimed. “Come back later.”

He hurried past them and ran down the dirt path that led down to the harbor.

“What kind of emergency?” Audrey shouted after him.

“Christmas trees,” Grandpa Cramer shouted back.

Audrey, Randy, and Ben followed him down to the harbor that led out into the vast inland ocean of Lake Superior.  As they reached the harbor, sure enough they saw an army of Christmas trees bobbing up and down like summer swimmers soldiering in Lake Superior’s chilly water.  Several of them washed up on the beach and Ben ran over and pulled one of them further up the beach so it wouldn’t wash back out into the lake.

Grandpa Cramer pulled several trees out of the surf and Randy ran to help him. Audrey ran over and stood in front of another batch of Christmas trees that washed up onto the beach.  “Leave them alone she shouted above the pounding of the surf. They don’t belong to us.”

Grandpa Cramer kept hauling in trees and so did Randy. Ben was the only one that stopped and listened to Audrey. “Who do they belong to then?” Ben shouted at Audrey.

“They belong to Lake Superior!” she shouted back. “They belong to a ship and the people that bought and loaded them on the ship.”

“They belong to the people that pull them out of the water,” Randy said.

“Tell him, Grandpa Cramer,” Audrey said.

“They belong to us. It’s the law of Lake Superior,” Grandpa Cramer grunted and kept pulling Christmas trees out of the water. 

Audrey turned around and ran from the harbor to the schoolhouse that stood a few blocks away from the lighthouse. Miss Bergstrom was still there washing the blackboards.

“Miss Bergstrom, “what are you supposed to do with things that wash up on the shore of Lake Superior? she asked. “

Miss Bergstrom brushed a lock of her blonde hair away from her forehead and touched the wrinkles in her forehead thoughtfully. “The tradition says that anything that Lake Superior washes up can be claimed by the person who found it.”

“What about something like Christmas trees,” Audrey asked her.

Miss Bergstrom put down her washing rag with one hand and pulled her coat from the back of her chair with the other hand. “Oh dear,” she said. “It sounds like another Christmas tree ship has gone down. November is such a terrible time for Christmas trees on Lake Superior. Where are the Christmas trees?”

“Down at the harbor. Ben and Randy and Grandpa Cramer are watching them.”

“Let’s go rescue them,” Miss Bergstrom said. She didn’t say whether she meant Ben, Randy, and Grandpa Cramer or the Christmas trees.

Audrey and Miss Bergstrom hurried down to the harbor where Grandpa Cramer and Ben and Randy had collected a huge pile of Christmas trees. Some of them were wet, but most of them were light enough to float and soon the water that had collected on their branches froze in the cold air.

“Christmas trees with ready made icicles,” Miss Bergstrom said.

As soon as Grandpa Cramer saw Miss Bergstrom he said, “I claim these Christmas trees by beach comer’s law.”

“You can do that if you have to, Grandpa, but they probably came from a ship that’s still somewhere out in the lake. Maybe it’s still floating. What about the crew?  Are you going to take their cargo before you know if the Lake has taken them or not?”

“It’s getting dark,” Audrey said. “Why don’t we pile up some of the trees and see if we can get them to burn. Why don’t we make a bonfire to guide the sailor’s into shore?”

“You don’t even know that they’re out there,” Randy said.

“I can see the money that we can get for those trees better than I can see the sailors,” Ben said.

“I have four words to say to that,” Miss Bergstrom said. “Remember the Rouse Simmons?”

“That don’t apply to these trees. That ship sank on Lake Michigan and nobody from the crew came in alive. The only thing left alive were the Christmas trees.”

“Do you want the same thing to happen here?” Miss Bergstrom asked him.

Grandpa Cramer put down one of the trees. “Well…

Miss Bergstrom and Audrey glared at Ben and Randy. Together they said, “Do you?”

Ben and Randy started piling up Christmas trees. Miss Bergstrom glared at Grandpa Cramer. There’s a fire pot in the schoolhouse, Hezekiah.”

Audrey snickered. “Hezekiah??”

“Not now Audrey,” Miss Bergstrom said sternly. “We must get a fire going here. “You children pile Christmas trees.”

She turned and hurried behind Grandpa Cramer.  Audrey and Ben and Randy had built a mountain of Christmas trees by the time Miss Bergstrom and Grandpa Cramer returned with half of Copper Harbor with them. Some of the women carried blankets and others pots of hot soup and hot tea. The men carried grappling hooks and several lugged and tugged a skiff just in case the waves tamed down enough to allow them to launch it and rescue stranded sailors.

Miss Bergstrom searched the crowd with her eyes.” Hezekiah?” she said softly.

Grandpa Cramer appeared at her side with a firepot which was an iron pan with hot coals in it. Miss Bergstrom took the pan of coals and sat it directly under one of the tree branches. Then she put some small scraps of paper from her pocket on the coals and faced into the wind. The wind blew on the coals and the coals lit the paper. The wind blew the paper flames and fanned them into a strong, steady flame that caught the evergreen branches on fire and soon the pile of Christmas trees was a blazing mountain of fire.

“Anybody out there will see this,” Miss Bergstrom said.

“Nobody out there could have survived,” Grandpa Cramer said.

“Maybe somebody did,” Audrey said. “I think I hear something.” She ran to the edge of water straining to hear above the wind and the people sounds and the flames crackling in the Christmas trees.

“Be quiet everybody!” Audrey shouted. “Somebody’s calling for help.”

The people kept talking, the wind kept blowing, and the flames kept crackling in the Christmas trees.

Ben and Randy and Audrey all shouted together, “QUIET!”

The people stopped talking and moving around, but the wind still blew and the fire kept burning. Above the sounds of the wind and fire, Audrey and the rest of the people heard a faint cry. “Help!”

The men with the skiff hurried to the edge of the water with it and peered down the path that the flames made across the water.  Soon a huge wave swept a board raft carrying two men into the flame path. The men tried to paddle with their bare hands, but they were so weak that they didn’t make much progress against the waves. The men on shore quickly launched the skiff and rowed out to the raft. They pulled the men into the skiff and battled the waves back to shore. Just as quickly, the women filled the rescued sailors with hot tea and soup and dried them out by the Christmas tree fire.

 Audrey faded into the shadows beyond the Christmas tree bonfire, but Ben and Randy stayed by the fire long enough to discover that the two men had left Houghton for Copper Harbor on the Abby, carrying a load of Christmas trees to sell in Copper Harbor. The Abby had filled with water and capsized and the two men had managed to climb onto a wooden door and stay afloat until the people from Copper Harbor had rescued them.

“We brought you a load of trees, but we didn’t imagine that you would have to use them this way,” one of the men said.

“I’m glad you used them this way, but I have to explain what happened to the Abby to my wife. The ship was named after her,” the other man said.

Some of the women took the two rescued sailors up to their houses for some clothes and a good night’s sleep before they went back to Houghton to explain what happened to the Abby.

Grandpa Cramer walked over to Ben and Randy. “What did you boys want to see me about?” he asked.

“We wanted a job to earn Christmas money, but you probably don’t have one now,” Randy said.

“I have more than one,” Grandpa Cramer said. “See those Christmas trees burning?

“They’re still burning,” Ben said.

“When the fire goes out we need to collect bucketfuls of ashes for the outhouses. You know ashes are necessary to keep the outhouses cleaned out,” Grandpa Cramer said.

“Yes, we use our ashes at home for the same thing,” Randy said.

“We’ll have enough ashes for the school and the post office and the lighthouse for a long time,” Grandpa Cramer said. “We just need to haul them off the beach.”

“There are still trees coming in,” Ben said.

“That’s another job,” Grandpa Cramer said. “We need to collect all of the trees that wash in and dry them out. Then we can give them back to their owners,” he said, looking at Miss Bergstrom out of the corner of his eye. “Then, maybe they will sell them to us.”

“I already talked to them about that and they said we could have all of them that we can rescue.” Audrey appeared from behind Miss Bergstrom. “They are very grateful to us for rescuing them and they want their trees to be rescued too.”

By Christmas time, one of the Abby’s trees stood in the center of the town square with decorations made and hung by the children of Copper Harbor. Many of the Abby’s trees decorated parlors and sheltered gaily wrapped packages underneath their boughs. At Ben’s house, the Abby tree ruled over the kitchen, its boughs strung with popcorn chains and paper ornaments. Randy’s Abby tree stood on the front porch with suet ornaments, cranberry chains, and birdseed bells. Randy’s mother and sisters wanted to help the birds survive the Depression, too.

Audrey’s Abbey tree had the strangest fate of all. She put up her Christmas tree by one of the Copper Harbor Lighthouse outbuildings. Audrey set up her tree by the outhouse with the children’s seat because she wanted them to remember the Abby trees when they grew up.  They did.

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