Henry & Sara Wheeler Family

The Henry and Sarah Wheeler family, year unknown. (Image: Tom Wheeler)

The Greased Indian

During the summertime it was Father’s custom to run a mill on Howard’s Pocket. Sometimes he would move his family to a little house on Connor’s Point near the mill, and other seasons he would come home Saturday nights and spend Sunday with the family, living across near the mill by himself. One summer, when the family was with him, the Indians held a pow-wow on the end of Connor’s Point. Early in the morning, about 2:00 am, Father was awakened by the noise of the door opening and heard someone enter. He lighted the lamp and found an Indian, dressed only in his headgear and breech cloth, with his body shining with grease that they used in these pow-wows. Fearing that the redskin might have imbibed fire water and that he might attempt to start a fire, Father thought that he’d better put him out. After a considerable scuffle, the redskin was pushed through the door and made to understand that he must find some other place in which to get warm. This experience was very similar to catching a greased pig on the 4th of July.

Crossing the Bay in a Northeaster

Late on Saturday afternoon, Father and my oldest brother Mart, who was then 12 years old, left Howard’s Pocket in a very small flat-bottom rowboat, the sides of which were not more than 8 or 10 inches high. An old-fashioned Northeaster had been blowing for several days, but the next day was Sunday and Mother was at Oneota alone with the smaller children and with the livestock to take care of. It was necessary to cross the bay. Father took his place at the oars and Mart was seated in the stern with a long edge on with which to steer and the two started across the angry waves. The youngster was somewhat frightened, but his father took the occasion to say, that God could take care of folks just as well on the water as on land and as long as they were in the line of duty they need not fear, so they went on through the waves. Folks stood on the bank at Oneota and watched the boat as it rose and fell between the waves and often held their breath, thinking that the little skiff would not appear again, but they landed in safety and out of the experience, Mart Wheeler obtained a coolness and fearlessness that made him later one of the best navigators on Lake Superior.

Susie’s Rescue

In the old days, the question of a market for the lumber of the sawmill at Oneota was an important one. Frequently a scow load of lumber would be taken across the bay to Superior for sale. On one of these trips, my father took his little two-year-old girl Susie and her older sister Elizabeth, who later became the wife of Commissioner Leonidas Merritt. When the scow was out in the middle of the bay, the little girl fell off into the water. Immediately her older sister jumped in after her and managed to keep her afloat until a pike pole was thrust down beside her and the little girl and her sister were lifted back on the scow without any harm coming to either. Elizabeth was 12 or 13 years old when she made this rescue.

Saving a Drunkard

Late one fall, the bay froze over then the tug Amethyst was at Fond du Lac. She had not been ironed, hence Mart Wheeler decided to come down through the ice with a scow in front of the tug. They reached St. Louis Bay late in the afternoon after dark. One of the men who had been loading the scow, obtained a bottle and was partly under the influence of liquor. In an attempt to walk from the bow of the tug to the stern, he slipped off of the icy rail in the waters of the bay. Sam Harris, who was on the tug, immediately put the painter of the rowboat, thinking that the man would swim to it and climb in. A cry of a “man overboard” came to the ears of the captain and he at once stopped the engine, ran to the stern of the tug and saw the rowboat 30 or 40 feet in the rear of the tug and the man struggling in the broken ice and water close by, without hesitation he plunged head first into the icy water, swam to the boat, climbed into it, pushed it alongside of the men, pulled him in and paddled back to the tug and laid the form of the unconscious man before the furnace fire. Both the captain and the drunk came out of this experience none the worse for wear.

Saved by a Jacknife

The early pioneers made much use of an axe and a cross-cut saw, but they simply could not live without a jackknife. This statement is proven by the experience of my brother John Wheeler in the fall of ’88 or ’89. The bay had just barely frozen over, the ice thin and glossy. Skating with tremendous speed over the thin ice, he ran into an air hole and was unable to get out. He attempted over and over again to crawl, out on the ice, but there was no rough place where he could obtain any hold; each time the buttons on his mackinaw would catch on the ice and prevent him from getting out. He was fast becoming numb with the cold. He thought of his jackknife and knew that if he could get it out of his pocket and open it, he could cut holes in the inch-thick ice through which he could get his fingers, and in that way, get out. With John, to think was to act. He immediately put his hand in pocket and, of course, commenced to sink. He almost immediately went to the bottom in 10 feet of water, and lying there on his back. He took his jackknife out of his pocket, opened it and came to the top. It was the work of but a moment to cut the holes in the ice, climb out and skate swiftly home.

Frozen Mittens

In the early days, it was the custom of many people in Oneota to cut ice from the bay in the winter time, cover it with sawdust and keep it for summer use. When this was done, a fence was put up around the open place in the bay, as soon as the ice had been taken out. Either through carelessness or through some misunderstanding, no fence was placed about the open hole in the water one winter when Mart Wheeler came walking home from Superior across the Bay. In the darkness of the night he walked directly into this hole and the slippery ice made it impossible for him to get out. Taking off his mittens and wetting them, he placed them about a foot from the edge and remained in the water while the mittens froze fast. When they were solid, he obtained a hold and pulled himself out of the Bay and proceeded home.

Some Material Accomplishments

Henry W. Wheeler owned a half-interest in the dredge that dug the ship canal through Minnesota point about 1870. He brought the tug Agate to the Head of the lakes in 1869 under a charter, and purchased the tug Amethyst in 1870. One of the stories my father enjoyed telling and one to which I certainly rejoiced to listen was the story of the saving of the tug Bob Anderson during the big storm of 1872. The canal had been dug but the piers had not been built. A breakwater had been made projecting south from 4th Ave. East and several docks and elevators had been built on the lakeshore inside the breakwater.

A terrible northeast storm came up in November. Our tug Amethyst was anchored inside the canal. The Bob Anderson was moored to the dock outside, about one block south of the railroad tracks on 1st Ave. East. At dusk, about 5:00 pm, Father and Mart Wheeler, my oldest brother, who was 22 or 23 years old and the pilot on the Amethyst, walked across the Point from the bay side to the lakeside to see whether or not the breakwater was holding against the big waves.

As they looked, a section of the break water gave way and the Bob Anderson felt the full force of the waves. The tug rose, fell and surged at her moorings. Mart said, “What a pity to let a fine tug like that be pounded to pieces on the dock.” Father replied, “If she were ours we’d take her in.” just then, a larger wave hurled the boat high in the air and broke the bow line. Mart said, “I’m going to take her in,” and ran down to the dock where the fireman was just climbing off and said, “Come on, we’ll take her inside.” Mart grabbed an axe and cut the stern line, the tug was free, the fireman handled the engine, and with Mart at the wheel, she steamed out into the open lake.

The waves were mountain-high, darkness was almost upon them, snow flurries dimmed the little light that was left and there were no canal lights for there were no piers at the canal. Father had a lantern in his hand; he found a pike pole and, fastening the light at its end, placed it as near the north side of the canal as he could go. The tug went out into the lake, turned and came straight for the canal, but the darkness and snow made it impossible to see, so almost in the breakers the young pilot turned again to the open lake and, with wonderful skill, managed to turn and head again for the canal. This time the clouds cleared somewhat and he saw the outline of the hills back of West Duluth and found the range he had often used to steer through the canal at night. He brought her safely through on two huge waves and now he carries a solid gold watch and chain given him by the citizens of Duluth for heroic action in time of danger. The captain of the steamer St. Paul attempted to do the same thing, but succeeded in beaching his boat.

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Story by Tony Dierckins. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Tony Dierckins.