Book Review: ‘Memories of the American Girl’

Memories of the American Girl, the title of a slim book by Washington Island resident Jim Anderson, might suggest to some mainlanders the memoir of an all-American woman looking back on her life. And in a metaphorical way, that thought would be correct. But in this case the American girl is no lady, rather a freighting boat now nearing her 100th birthday, and the memories are those of the Anderson family freighting business begun by John “Jack” Anderson.

Born on Washington Island in 1886, young Jack began sailing and hauling freight, first becoming a partner with Al Shellswick who co-owned the 65-foot hooker Diana, and then operating his own vessel, the Agnes H, bringing his sons Ervin, Cecil (Jim’s father), and Jackie into the business that for a time included his grandson Jim, the author of this book.

In 1947 the Anderson family replaced the Agnes H with the purchase of the American Girl, the heroine of this story, adding the companion tanker barge the Oil Queen in 1949.

The boy Jim began working part time on the American Girl when he was 12, full time after his high school graduation in 1961, and after his five years of military service ended in 1967, from then until 1971 when the family business sold both the American Girl and the Oil Queen.

Jim Anderson continued to live on Washington Island but left the shipping business for owning and managing until his retirement the Island Outpost, a retail gift and sporting goods store located near the ferry dock in Detroit Harbor.

His Memories of the American Girl recalls both his experiences on the boat and the stories told by his family. In a larger sense, the book preserves through tales recounted and relevant research a part of the maritime history of Door County. The memoir is brought to life through the inclusion of many vintage photographs of the family, their boats, and their work.

Rather than a sustained narrative, the stories of the family business are retold like memories, not always bound to a chronology. But their cumulative effect is a recreation for the reader of lifetimes spent on Green Bay and Lake Michigan.

The book is filled with stories of good times, the camaraderie of the men in the family working together on the boat, Grandfather Jack preparing meals in the galley, all of them taking shifts at the wheel and sleeping in the bunks. And for young Jim, the experience was one of wonder and discovery.

The trip from Washington Island to Green Bay was an all-day journey, and the return, all-night, hauling Island fish, grain and produce to Green Bay and bringing back groceries, petroleum products, and miscellaneous items. When the American Girl moored at the city dock in Green Bay the men interacted with the friends they had made and sometimes enjoyed movies and other pleasures of the big city.

But the length of the trip, the unpredictability of the weather, and the occasional necessity to travel regardless of conditions because of perishable commodities all put the sailors and their vessels at risk. Anderson includes harrowing tales of survival, and of family members who were lost at sea.

While the American Girl did not offer passenger service, on occasion the crew reluctantly allowed someone to ride with them, once an old Island farmer who had a doctor’s appointment in Green Bay. The rough seas kept the man leaning over the rail for most of the trip, once so violently ill that he lost his false teeth in the waters of Green Bay. Upon his arrival in the city, he vowed never to ride the boat again and took a bus home.

Another time a friendly policeman from Green Bay persisted in his request to join them on their return voyage and eventually the family agreed. Once they arrived on the Island, the policeman insisted that he be allowed to prepare his own meal in the galley kitchen and sleep in a bunk on the boat. The next morning when the American Girl left for Green Bay, the man was still asleep and the men left him undisturbed until they approached rough waters and thought he might roll out of his bunk. Uncle Jackie tried to awaken him without success, and when Jim’s father also failed to rouse him, they came to the realization that the policeman had passed away in his sleep, but apparently he had died a happy man, having succeeded in his long-time goal of sailing on the American Girl.

While Grandpa Jack, Cecil (Dad), Uncle Jackie, and young Jim are the principals in the memoir, the American Girl becomes a fifth character. She was built in 1922 by Defoe Boat and Motor Works of Bay City, Michigan, and from 1947 until 1971 was a “member” of the Anderson family. Presently she is owned by Fogg Towing and Marine LLC of St. James, Michigan. Like aging actresses, she has had “work,” her engine upgraded a couple of times during her service. But if you look at the photo taken of her in May of 2016, she looks good for a 94-year-old, and barring an unforeseen event, will undoubtedly be around to celebrate her 100th birthday.


Memories of the American Girl by Jim Anderson / 87 pages, publisher/editor Richard Purinton, Island Bayou Press, 2016

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