Memories of a Menominee Wells

By Tom Wells

(In 2001, Tom Wells, son of Ralph and Frances Wells, wrote these notes about growing up in Menominee. Tom lived in Seattle much of his life and was an acclaimed painter of portraits of the “tall ships,” not unlike the early sailing ships that carried J. W. Wells Lumber Company product on the Great Lakes. — BW)

There were 21 sawmills on the Menominee River before John Walter Wells arrived. Mr. Wells joined Mr. Crawford in forming the Crawford Wells Lumber Co. Mr. Wells married Isabella Crawford. They had six children – four boys and two girls.

John Walter Wells became a very wealthy man in the lumber business. My dad, Ralph Wells, told me that they only paid the loggers one dollar a day. The loggers and mill hands did not ask for more, so everybody was satisfied. My Dad said the mill often made a 100 percent profit or more. Taxes were not high at that time. It must have been a golden era.

On April 18, 1932, the J.W. Wells Lumber Co. burned to the ground… [Actually, he has the date wrong. — B.W.]
When J.W.’s children were of age, some in college, he bought a sailing yacht to teach them more about the sea. The vessel was a 50-foot sloop. She was gaff rigged and carried a lot of sail. The vessel’s name was the “Hattie Bradwell.” The name came with the sloop, no relation to any of the family (it is bad luck to change a ship’s name). The family all learned to sail together, and my father Ralph obviously passed it on to me.

The “Hattie Bradwell’s” main boom was 50 feet long and she carried a captain and a cook who were employed full-time. The vessel had no power other than the wind.

One time when out sailing with family and friends, they were about to conclude and come along side the mill dock. Alf Wells went aft to set up the boom jacks. He tripped over the boom jack stedding line and fell overboard. Everybody had a big laugh, but Alf did not come up. He drowned right then and there. Some say he hit a piling on the head and knocked himself out. Nobody knows even today. Alf was a good swimmer, and rowed for the Cornell crew team.

The children were all well educated and all the boys except Ralph attended Hamilton College in upstate New York. I do not remember where or if the daughters went to college.

In order of age I now list the children: Daniel, Florence, Artemus, Edna, Alf, and finally Ralph.

Ralph, my dad, was very tall. Ralph did not go to college. He was the tallest in the family, 6 feet 4 inches, a giant in those days. Because of his height, long arms and legs he was a little clumsy. In Ralph’s senior year in high school, he fell down the Menominee High School stairs, a long fall, and broke his leg. After healing, his father, J.W., decided to send him up to Blind River, Canada, where the Wells Mill was logging. Ralph stayed in the trade the rest of his working days.

It was up in Blind River that Ralph met Frances Winchester, and they later married around 1907 or 1908. Frances graduated from Vassar in 1904. She was visiting a classmate in Blind River when she met Ralph. Because my parents could not have children, two children, William (1914) and Thomas (1916), were both adopted – Bill from Boston and Tom from Chicago.

We were all fascinated with Uncle Dan, I think the oldest in the J. W. family. Dan was the maverick among the J.W. children. He went into the Spanish-American War. He was a Captain in the Army when Douglas MacArthur was but a lieutenant. Uncle Dan won the Silver Star in the Philippines leading a company of soldiers across a river (a friend of mine asked, “Which way?” – joke). You must have most of your grandfather’s stuff, so I won’t elaborate on him too much. Uncle Dan was our family warrior, because none of the other brothers went into the service. Dan was too old for World War I but he went anyway as an ambulance driver.

Did you know that your grandfather bought Wright Brothers airplane stock? I once had or saw a photocopy of the certificate (they did not have Xerox then). Who has the certificate now? I do not know who has the defunct document now but it would be worth a lot of money. Try to find it.

I told you that J.W. made a lot of money in his day. He gave a lot of it away to his children before he died. For example, he would write to my Aunt Edna and send her a big check, saying, “Here is a little something so you won’t have to take in laundry.” He would send checks to the other children saying something similar. J.W. died not too long after.

The IRS socked each of the five children income tax on the amount they received, and they had to return a lot. The Depression soon came along, and a lawyer in Cleveland who was low on jobs read about the case. This lawyer was looking for work. He wrote the family and said, “I don’t think you have to pay tax on that money. I’ll take the case to the Supreme Court [I think, of Michigan]. If I win, my fee is so much, if I lose, it will not cost you a cent.” The Wells family agreed. The lawyer won, in 1933, and all the children of J.W. got their money back plus interest. Time goes on, and Uncle Dan lost all of his in real estate. The rest of the kids decided to bail Dan out. They would each put in (I think) $100,000, place it in a trust fund, and Grandpa Dan and June could live off the interest. They could not touch the capital. Uncle Art, the richest of J.W. children, did not want to go for the idea. I think they finally got him to pitch in.

Artemus was the richest of the children of J.W. Wells because he married into the Stephenson Lumber money.

I don’t know if I am talking out of school or what. These are stories my Dad would tell me, whether we were sitting on a dock, driving, or walking through the woods.

On April 18, 1932, the J.W. Wells Lumber Co. burned to the ground. It was one of the largest fires in the U.S.A. that year. Had the wind changed, it could have wiped out the town of Menominee (population 10,000). The fire was set up on purpose, by whom we do not know, but it was always felt it was set by somebody who had it in for A.C. Wells.

Our big home in Menominee is right next to the lumberyard. I was in the ninth grade, fast asleep. My brother Bill was away in boarding school. My Mother and Father were visiting in Chicago. I was awakened by “Gusty,” our live-in housekeeper. We looked out a north window and saw large orange flames coming out of the lumber piles off to the west where the sun normally would come down at that time of year. The sky was orange-red and it was midnight. I hastily dressed and ran out, joining many in the streets. “Gusty” (Agusta-Paul) stayed home to guard the home. I joined many of my classmate friends only to watch the fire grow. On the fire went until morning, schools and the town were closed. Fire engines came from towns around, even Green Bay. Mid-morning the wind changed and blew back over what it had burned, which was a life-saver for our home and the town. Two days more before all was out. The heat curled railroad tracks.

With the help of insurance, the mill did rebuild, but never to its former size. (After the fire, back where it started, they found wads of newspaper and straw partly burned in lumber piles that did not burn. The wads lit by match did not take.)

IN the later ’30s, hardwood floors were not in demand (J.W. Wells’ prime product). They were beaten out by “Armstrong” and other types of plastic component floors. Hardwood floors were only used by gymnasiums, basketball courts, and churches. How are you going to make a living on only that?

My Dad, Ralph, had long sold out. A.C. (Art) died. Sam, his son, tried to carry on, but it all failed. Multi-acres of land are now covered with homes and waterfront condos.

Menominee, Michigan, is still a beautiful little waterfront town of 10,000 population. They say that the reason why is, every time a young girl gets pregnant, a fellow leaves town.