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History Lives Here Text

Gumwood

By James E.Sheridan courtesy of Jack Sheridan

One summer morning ill 1926, notlong after the sun had streaked the eastern sky with the first warning lightand brought the short July night to an end, three men who had been prompted to risefrom their beds with the dawn, gathered together, as was the habit of such men,on rickety chairs in front of the ferry shanty.

 

Red Bolton had come there notbecause he sought company or conversation, but because his bad stomach, and thesnoring of Mrs. Bolton sent him roaming at each daybreak.Elmer Haselgren, known as Whistling Bill, whether itwas early or late, was there due to a desire of company. The third man was Gubby Gleason, an ambitious and gregarious soul, a spinnerof tall tales, who loved an audience. On a nearby bench lounged the ferryman,young Jim Sheridan, winding up the last stretch of his night shift.

 

A gray pot of coffee seeped on theone burner kerosene stove. The talk was garrulous, in keeping with the hour andthe mood of men who had not yet breakfasted. The ferryman was silent asbefitted a fellow in the presence of his elders. This day a discussion grewabout the qualities of various woods. It was agreed that there were few speciesof trees which produced anything as excellent for most purposes as the whitepine. There was a lesser mutual point of view concerning certain types of oak,of cedar, mahogany and redwood. The short-comings of yellow pine, spruce andcypress were debated. Eventually speculations were offered over which was the most useless wood.

 

"Now you take gumwood," said Gubby. "Amore worthless type of stuff was never grooved. A feller gave me a batch of itone time and I figgered I might make out with it if lcould get the job done and painted before a heavy dew fell on it. " He paused and shook his head as he contemplated this unforgivable errorin judgment on his part. "Lordy, how it does warp!"

 

Bill nodded supportive agreement and evenRed nodded in the affirmative.

"I was just about to nail up the last plank,"Gubby continued, "when the dad-blasted piece slipped out ofmy hand and bounced into the river. Right there, I shouldaknowed enough to let her go but I fished her out andslung her up on the bank. Well, the sun was hot, yes sir, it was mighty hot. Aminute or two later I took a look at her and I'll be dog-boned if l didn't seeher quiver from end to end!"

 

The speaker looked withspeculation at his audience as if to measure credence, or the lack of it, inthe faces around him. As usual, Bolton wasexpressionless, except he stroked his gut with a gnarled hand. The ferrymanwinced slightly. Whistling Bill scratched an area between his legs and leanedforward in eager anticipation of the denouncement of this tale. Satisfied withthe reception, Gubby returned to his story.

 

"Then I came right over by that plank and I watched her like a hawk. Thenext thing I see was that one of the edges was a startin'to curl. She curled up and up until that cussed board looked like a stripe on abarber pole."

 

Red Bolton cleared his throat asif to speak, while a faint grimace crossed his face, but then he settled backin his chair without committing himself.

 

Gubby's voice rose a bit, "Andthen - wham - she flopped clean over on her other side!"The ferryman turned away smiling and spat toward the river.

 

"Your right, " said whistling Bill with satisfaction, "thatgumwood ain't worth nothing."

 

This tare was recorded by the ferrymanJim Sheridan. The others are real Saugatuck people. GubbyGleason ran a beach launch for many years, Whistlin'Bill was well known as a downtown benchsitter, andRed Bolton, a Chicago gangster who eventually died in a broad daylight shootoutin the city, had a cottage in Douglas, and his mother lived on the hill in Saugatuck.