GENOT “WINTER ELK” PICOR for THE STORYKEEPERS PROJECT
Thursday, November 1, 1935 was a somber day in the little village above the straits. Most of the residents dressed in black when they attended the day’s church services. Pipi, who could find humor in just about any situation was quiet and subdued. Mimi was especially distant. She murmured to herself, her whispering lips reciting prayers in French as she slipped the beads on her rosary through her fingers.
“Je vous salue Marie pleine de grâce, le Seigneur est avec vous…”
Even though the day was regarded as “All Saints Day,” Fr. La Forest’s Mass was offered for the men and women who had lost their lives on the Great Lakes. November had come to be known as the most deadly month of the shipping season. Twenty-two years earlier, November 7-10, 1913 had seen the greatest loss of life on the mighty lakes; more than 235 dead, with 19 ships destroyed and several others damaged during a tempest that became known by a few different names: “The Big Blow,” “Freshwater Fury” or “The White Hurricane.” Regardless of their denomination, the townspeople sought divine protection for their friends or loved ones who traversed those expansive bodies of water. Church bells tolled at different times that morning in remembrance of the dead.
Mimi, Pipi, Claire-Marie, Gilbert and their children filed into the social hall, along with other families from St. Ignatius. The cooks served up pancakes, eggs, ham and fried potatoes. In the corner, a man sat by himself. His weathered face and pale blue eyes stared down at his coffee from under a cocked blue mariner’s cap. His finger continually circled the rim of his porcelain cup in counterclockwise repetitions.
Mimi couldn’t take her eyes off the man.
“May I have some syrup?” asked little Rosanne, Mimi’s granddaughter.
“Hmmm? Oh, yes of course ma petite. How are your pancakes?” asked Mimi.
“They’re ok,” replied the girl.
Once again, Mimi’s eyes were drawn back to the stranger. Daring to introduce herself, Mimi rose from her seat and approached the man.
“Martin Gagné, c’est bien toi??”
The man looked up from his coffee. A smile spread across his broad face. His eyes gave way to the astonished joy of the moment.
“Louise Cadotte? Oui, c’est moi ! “
He rose from his seat and the two old friends embraced. Pipi had never seen this man before, and he was rightfully curious. Mimi invited Martin to join them at their table. She introduced him to her family as an old friend from her youth. Before he sat, he retrieved his coffee and breakfast plate.
“Such a reunion,” extolled Mimi. “It must be at least thirty years or more since we’ve seen each other. What brings you back to town?”
“Oh, I’ve been drifting a bit, here and there,” he replied. “I wanted to set eyes on my old digs. I don’t know if I’ll pass this way again.”
Perhaps Martin had no real place to call home, so Mimi avoided asking him where he’d been staying. She might embarrass him so early in their conversation. He could, after all, be staying in some flophouse since many men drifted here and there looking for work.
“I lived in Marquette for a while and worked the iron ore docks. Spent some time in Ontario as a fishing guide north of Wawa. I’d been working the Ashland rails when the Depression hit. Since then, I been finding odd jobs here and there.”
“How come you’re wearing a mariner’s cap?” asked Paul-André, Mimi’s grandson.
“Oh, I did that too for a time when I was a young sprout. I quit the lakes after the storm of 1913,” he replied. “I wore it today for the memorial.”
“Oh yeah?” said Gilbert with a mouth full of pancake. “Lost your edge did ya?”
Martin looked down at his plate and swirled his scrambled eggs with a fork trembling in his right hand. He raised his head, steeled his gaze and gave his reply. Mimi sensed Martin took exception to Gilbert’s question.
“In my young life, all I wanted to do was sail the lakes. I’d sit on the bluffs over-looking the straits and watch the lakers slip by, trying to make out the name on the bow or stern. The pilots seemed to ply their way through those rough waters and cross-winds with nothin’ but grit and skill.”
“A mariner’s pay was good soze I been told and the work was steady throughout the shipping season. I’d save some money and rest during the winter…do some hunting and ice fishing. Not a bad life a ‘tall. When the ice began flowing in the spring, I’d scout around for a boat that needed deckhands and sign on.”
“I was a deckhand aboard the Edwin F. Holmes in nineteen-naught-five (1905) during the November 28 Mataafa Storm. By that time, I’d been sailin’ about five years and had been in my share of storms. We was upbound on Lake Huron with a load of coal as the storm gained her strength over Superior. We locked on through the Soo, plowed our way to Duluth into the teeth of that gale, and limped into port on December 1, overdue. We glided past the wreck of the Mataafa. What a sight that was. It was from that ship’s fate that the storm got its name.”
Those who were listening to Martin’s story nodded silently.
“While we was out at sea, I’ll never forget the howling sound of that wind or the waves slamming into the side of the boat. Deafening it was and never-ending. After we made it into port, we learned some folks thought we went missing. We was lucky I s’pose. That was quite a storm. The pilot house on our sister ship, the Umbria was so badly damaged, the skipper had to navigate ‘er from the emergency steering station behind what was left of the smokestack. ”
“ I used to think I was invincible, like most young folks I guess, but after hearing the story of how those mariners from the Mataafa died, I started to question my own existence. So sad to lose your life so close to shore.”
“Some years passed and I continued working the lakes, but the memory of the Mataafa always lingered fresh in my mind. In the spring of 1913, I signed on with the crew of the Howard M. Hanna, Jr., and boarded her in the Soo. We had a good run through the summer. Our skipper, Captain Hagen as I recall his name, was under some pressure from the home office in Cleveland to complete another run before the end of the season. What happened in nineteen-naught-five was nuthin’ compared to the ‘White Hurricane of 1913.’”
“Oh yeah, I ‘membuh dat ol’ storm! Who could forget it?” said Pipi. “Dat’s when de ol’ Pontiac run agroun’ off Simmon’s Reef in duh Straits. You wuz in dat storm Martin?”
Martin nodded his head and paused before continuing his story.
“Just like before, we was upbound on Lake Huron, this time with a load of coal, bound for Fort William, Ontario. We took extra care to make sure the boat was solid and water-tight. The cargo was flush with the hatch coamings. Everything was secure. We passed the Fort Gratiot Light early Sunday morning November 9 as we made our way out into Lake Huron. The wind was calm and temps was mild.”
“But right around 11:00 or 11:30, the wind changed and the temps dropped mighty quick. We had just passed Harbor Beach as I recollect. Snow flurries swirled into a heavy squall when we rounded the thumb near Pointe aux Barques. Then the wind picked up somethin’ fierce and seemed to blow every which-a-way. It was like nuthin’ I’d ever seen. Before long, that squall was now a white-out blizzard. The waves were rolling in one direction and the howling wind in another. The engineer kept the engines running full speed, but we made no head-way a ‘tall. Ya’ see, we got caught in the trough of them waves gettin’ hit one after another. They seemed to come in threes. Captain Hagen called them ‘the three sisters.’”
Martin slammed the palm of his right hand onto the side of his closed left fist three times….smack, smack, smack.
“And that’s when the damage started. Around 6:00 or 6:30, the starboard oiler’s door got smashed in. The windows and doors on the engine room were the next to go. Everything else went quickly after that…the cook’s room, the dining room, and then the pilot house got its top tore off. We was fillin’ fast with water and doing everything we could just to keep ‘er afloat.”
Everyone at the table sat motionless, listening intently to Martin’s account of the evening. Gilbert excused himself momentarily to use the men’s room as Martin continued.
“We could see the Port Austin light in the distance through the blizzard as we rolled helplessly in them seas. It was then Captain Hagen realized how close we was driftin’ toward the reef. As hard as we tried to keep ‘er head to the wind, we were powerless. The gale was just too much. We lost our smokestack just before we got thrown up on them reef-rocks. We was too far from shore to jump ship. All we could do was hunker down in our life jackets, wait for the storm to pass and pray we weren’t smashed into flotsam. I recollect by Monday afternoon, the weather had settled a bit, but we still kept gettin’ hammered in that icy-cold surf.”
“By early Tuesday, we all were able to assemble in the kitchen. The damage was worse than we knew. Like I said, the smokestack was gone and the top of the pilot house had been torn off. There weren’t no lifeboats, or so we thought. She was broke in two near the number seven hatch with a three inch crack and listed hard to starboard.”
Gilbert returned to the table.
“What’d I miss?” he asked.
Claire-Marie motioned for him to sit and be quiet.
“We later learned the Port Austin life station picked up our distress call Monday morning. They had already made one attempt to rescue us. Their surfboat had been buried in the sand after the waves crushed their dock house. They tried to reach us with their lifeboat, but had to turn back in the heavy seas. The crew had no other option but to dig out their buried surfboat, but after they’d dug ‘er out, they discovered she’d been damaged. They worked through the night to get ‘er patched up.”
“One of the fellas discovered the port-side lifeboat was barely hangin’ on. We cleared the ice and water out of the lifeboat and started to get a few of the crew off the Hanna. One of the other fellas came back and said the crack in the hull was now seven inches wide. We knew we had to hurry before she split in two.”
“Just about that time, the lifesavers from Port Austin arrived in their patched surfboat. Our steward’s wife was nearly dead from exposure. She was one of the first to be taken off the Hanna. My best mate’s name was Márk Szabo, a Hungarian immigrant from Lorain, Ohio. We were both shakin’ hard from the cold, but we managed to lower that good woman into the surfboat. She survived the ordeal.”
“Finally, all us poor wretches made it off the Hanna. The townspeople were waiting on shore with pails of hot coffee. They gave us food and shelter for the evening. Remercie Dieu, by the grace of God, not one of the Hanna’s crew or the rescuers perished. When all was said and done, the lifesavers from the Port Austin station had to take their surfboat back home on a sleigh!”
“The broken hull of the Hanna loomed off shore for a time, rockin’ back and forth in the surf. We was sure she would crack in two, but ‘lo and behold,’ she was salvaged and refitted. She was a tough ol’ girl. We all went our separate ways after that. Szabo went back to Lorain and found work in a steel mill. He once told me he falls asleep to the sound of new lake freighters being riveted together in the shipyard, and so time goes on.”
Martin once again looked Gilbert straight in the eyes.
“So yeah, I lost my edge. But by some miracle, I survived two of the worst storms to cross these waters. I guess the dear Lord has other plans for me, and since I’m not one to tempt fate, I’ll just have to wait and see what those plans might be.”
Martin downed his cold coffee, wiped his mouth with his kerchief and excused himself from the table. He embraced Mimi and exited the social hall for parts unknown. Outside, on this quiet November morning, the lake was shrouded in a mist, as smooth as glass. And it was into that mist that Martin disappeared like a ghost, never to be seen or heard from again.
Notes of the accounts of the Edwin Holmes and the Howard M. Hanna, Jr. were taken from “Freshwater Fury,” by Frank Barcus, 1960 and “The American Lakes Series: Lake Huron,” by Fred Landon, 1944
As told by Genot “Winter Elk” Picor From “Stories that Mimi and Pipi Told” © Genot Picor Printed with Permission.