Over the years we have found all sort of interesting life stories of local residents, although sadly the public only learns of their feats in an obituary notice.
That was the case of West Bay City resident Louis Reip, who was most likely the oldest man in the Saginaw Bay region at 105 years, who passed away May 3, 1903. We mark the 113th anniversary of his passing.
As a centenarian, Reip may have had any number of life stories and adventures to tell, but the one that might be the most interesting was as a teenage soldier he fought against French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo.
And he carried the scars to prove it.
Reip was born in Blessberg, located in Thuringia and part of the Kingdom of Prussia, on April 5, 1798. At 17, he joined the army just as Napoleon was moving his army east to fight the coalition of England and Prussia and other allies.
He was assigned to a fighting division under Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher and saw combat first at the Battle of Ligny on June 16, 1815 and two days later at the decisive Battle of Waterloo. It was there Reip suffered a severe wound to his right hand by a French saber, which rendered his hand nearly useless for the rest of his life.
Still, Reip stayed in the army for six years, also fighting with the division in Denmark. During a battle there, he musket ball struck him in the left leg and he was stranded on the field for nearly 12 hours among his fallen comrades. In fact, he was found alive by a crew sent out to bury the dead soldiers and was taken back to his unit for medical care.
He was married in 1842 and in 1852 moved his family to Canada where he worked as a shoemaker for many years. He relocated to West Bay City in 1887, most likely because two of his sons and a daughter lived here. He resided with his daughter’s family at 207 S. Park St. (S. Warner St.) and later with son Charles’ family at 315 S. Catherine St.
According to a news account, “Mr. Reip, who was a familiar figure on the streets, was up and out of doors Saturday, but was not feeling well, having suffered from two or three congestive chills.” He passed away in his bed later that night.
While his wife had passed away years earlier, Reip was survived by sons John Reip, of Flint; Charles and Henry Reip, of West Bay City; and Mrs. James Cass, of West Bay City; and Mrs. Murphy, of Chicago.
A funeral mass was held in St. Mary’s Catholic Church with burial in St. Patrick Cemetery.
Here’s a comment made by a certain public official:
“I don’t want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty. It makes no different whether he is an American citizen…”
One might think this was a quote from Donald Trump as he frothed at the mouth claiming all of the Muslims must be turned away from our country.
But no. The comment was attributed to Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, in charge of the military in the western U.S. after the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941.
He was commenting on setting up camps in which to move out all of the Japanese, American citizens or otherwise, from California.
To DeWitt, “a Jap is a Jap,” and he went even further. “…We must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map.”
The sentiment of the American public shifted quickly in his favor, no matter how absurd and shrill the statements and it became an episode in our history that is so baffling as to be unbelievable—yet, to our shame, it happened.
Not only that, but when the troops came to round up the Japanese families from their homes, all they could bring with them was what fit in a suitcase. Their personal property (even for American citizens) became forfeit and reverted to the government. Bank accounts were seized and the funds turned over to pay for the resettlement. Their personal belongings were stacked up on curbs for scavengers. These American citizens never got their property back nor were they compensated for the seizures.
But it shouldn’t have been surprising. America, despite its welcoming façade, has had a tradition of degrading outsiders because of religion, language, ethnicity, or political beliefs. The roots of our nation depended on the demeaning, swindling, and killing Native Americans who had tried to hold onto their land, or language, or spiritual beliefs.
We’ve heard this line before, right? “The only good injun is a dead injun.”
Plug in any other ethnic group to that statement and it applied to other episodes in our history.
Waves of new immigrants, legal and otherwise, began arriving in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. First came the Irish who were hated because they were Catholic and of the poor economic class. Signs went up in store fronts: “No dogs or Irish allowed.”
My mother was a little girl in Saginaw, Michigan who remembers seeing a sign on a grocer’s door, and asked her mother what it meant. She said she never forgot that, being unable to understand why she was hated because she was Irish.
Some historians have pointed out the numerous riots that broke out across the country against the Irish Catholics (much of it fomented by the Ku Klux Klan and other supremacist groups). Then came hatred of the Italians and Chinese, Eastern Europeans (mainly Polish) and Jews, and lately Hispanics.
The hate was highlighted in 1939 when a ship, the SS St. Louis, with nearly 1,000 Jewish passengers escaping the Nazis, tried to dock in Havana, Cuba while the people were awaiting approval for American visas. The Cuban government refused and the ship sailed to Miami where it again was refused permission to dock. The ship returned to Europe and about half of the passengers disappeared into the Nazi death camps, although some had managed to find asylum in England.
So the anti-Japanese sentiment was not a great departure from America’s past.
Now we have the same feelings expressed again, the emotions whipped up by Donald Trump and his pals because they have discovered a way of advancing themselves politically by quashing the hopes of the terrorized refugees.
Trump could be using his billions to help humanity, but he has chosen to use his dough to do some play-acting as a presidential candidate. It is a great lark for him to put on this charade for the rest of the political world. He is doing exactly what Ronald Reagan did in 1980—portraying a political figure, a sort-of caricature of a serious person while an odd assortment of underlings actually ran the country after the election.
Trump’s ideas embrace xenophobia as classic Americana. This is reality TV at its ultimate level, a joke on America’s way of life (real life) of which Richie-Rich Trump really knows little.
If Trump got his way with his plans, it would be no surprise if the next step would be “resettling” all American Muslims into “relocation centers,” as part of Homeland Security. It has happened in the past, as we know, including the 1,000-mile death march of Cherokee to desert lands in Oklahoma labeled the Trail of Tears. The Japanese internment was just another in the long list, all with the blessings of many Americans.
Hitler did the same with the Jews and other “undesirables” in Germany that led to the extermination of over 12 million people. Besides Jews, the gas chambers ended the lives of Gypsies, the mentally ill, physically handicapped, homosexuals, Slavs, Russian soldiers and civilians, and an untold number of orphaned children.
These things were always couched in the guise of German national security and so the people went along with it until was too late to stop it which meant a World War was required to put an end to the madness, at least for a while.
Make no mistake. That’s the path we are on right now and the only way off it before it is too late is for true Americans to rise up and denounce and reject any politicians espousing this line of action.
Now that the election cycle truly is underway for 2016 based on the vitriol the candidates are spewing, I am going to be commenting in the next few weeks on today’s politics as viewed through the lens of history.
Some of you won’t like it.
I’ve already heard some disparaging remarks when I suggested television news was show biz not journalism.
So here’s another one: we say we live in a democracy, but history shows us otherwise.
Just going back to the foundation of the “United States” of America when there were 13 colonies lashed together in a common cause, freedom from English rule. Through grit and determination, and more than a little help from our friends French King Louis XVI and others of the French nobility, we broke free from the tyranny of the English throne.
In fact, when the Revolutionary War ended and a new government was contemplated, it was assumed there would be a monarchy established here. But after a decade-long debate under a loosely governed conglomerate of “sovereign” states, it was decided that there would be a parliamentary government minus the noble titles.
The unopposed election of George Washington as president and not king laid the groundwork for modifications to the U.S. Constitution, which were euphemistically-labeled the “Bill of Rights.”
Despite all of our breast-beating, misty-eyed reverence to The Constitution, if one bothered to read the document, it excludes nearly everyone but the rich from having any rights. Women have no rights at all. They can’t own property, can’t vote, can’t enter into contracts, and on and on.
Same is true for any man who didn’t own property. He can’t vote either, nor can he hold office. Only white property-owning men have what we would call “rights.”
Under the original Constitution, slavery is the law of the land and encouraged as a property issue. A majority of those who signed the Declaration of Independence and later took part in the Constitutional Convention were slave holders. Two of our most revered Presidents were slavers—George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Surprisingly, and shamefully true, 13 presidents owned slaves, most even as they served as president. Before the Civil War, even Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant were slave-holders.
In the Civil War, more than 300,000 Union soldiers died fighting against slavery, but 300,000 Southerners died defending it. That may sound simplistic, but the outcome is the reality.
And servitude didn’t end with the 14th Amendment, only changed form. For the past 150 years or so, we have replaced chains with economic bondage. The masses are beholding to the oligarchs for every aspect of their existence—if the moneyed gentry withdraw their sustenance, those dependent on it become destitute.
The democracy we cherish is an illusion because it goes against everything the rich power brokers desire. They certainly don’t want us, the unwashed masses to sully their struggle to control the universe. Our ideals of fairness, equality, and justice are not sustainable accomplishments if the billionaires don’t want it.
The phenomenon of an elderly Jewish East Coast liberal vying for the Democrat Party’s nomination for President of the United States reminds one of another campaign a few years back—well, more than a few.
Eugene McCarthy, the senator from Minnesota, though non-Jewish, and non-Easterner, captured the imagination of the liberals in 1968 by challenging the powerful President Lyndon B. Johnson in an energetic anti-war campaign.
Almost overnight, McCarthy won the hearts and minds of America’s youthful voters—some, as I, voting for the first time in a presidential election. I liked the way McCarthy stood up to the powers that had cranked up the war in Southeast Asia, primarily Vietnam, creating a mountain of body bags of American soldiers.
The war was problematic from the beginning, and using conscripted teenagers as fodder in a quagmire-style war, was ill-advised to say the least. Vietnam meant nothing to America except a place to exercise what President Eisenhower warned against—the military industrial complex.
In fact, war profiteers were everywhere, sucking the millions of dollars from the treasury on top of the bodies of young American men. The war was proving nothing and the world could see it.
McCarthy railed against the war and he was right. However, a one-issue candidate rarely, if ever, can sustain enough support across the wide-spectrum of the American public’s needs and wants.
For example, McCarthy wanted to solve the problem of racial inequality in housing, by forcing the removal of black families from their neighborhoods into white neighborhoods, although how that could be done never quite got explained. Of course, that issue alone raised all kinds of problems. Would white people have to move out of their homes to make room for black families? Would the government buy homes for black people in white neighborhoods and give them to the families? And so on.
McCarthy also advised that he would not be opposed to having Communists incorporated into the South Vietnamese government as part of a coalition of political parties. This was said in the era of the Cold War when our very existence depended on standing up to the Russian Soviet Communists who had nuclear missiles aimed at all of our major cities. It was Russia who was backing North Vietnam. It was a Communist army killing American kids.
We are faced with a similar problem today in the Middle East with the challenge of ISIS and other militant armies.
Bernie Sanders is repeating some of the conversation of Eugene McCarthy—which isn’t a bad thing, but it is not a winning message. He says things that will get everyone cheering (much like Donald Trump does at the other end of the scale). However, none of Sanders’ proposals would win approval in Congress as it is now constituted.
Even with a Democratic Congress, it is unlikely his ideas would survive what would be a heated debate. Once again, his proposals are not bad and in fact they are quite “progressive” but change comes slowly. If he had a Democratic Congress, he might be able to get the health care issue changed over to the originally-fine idea of a one-payer system like Medicare. Of course, Hillary Clinton would do the same.
McCarthy’s failure was his total lack of ability on foreign policy issues. At that time in our history, keeping the world from falling into a nuclear holocaust was essential. The U.S. was faced with challenges in Europe, Asia, Southeast Asia, and Latin America.
At home we had challenges in the civil rights for minorities and women. Don’t forget, it was a decade when large cities, including Detroit, erupted in rioting and violence. We are at that point again.
While Eugene McCarthy would have lost the Democratic nomination to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in the convention, once Kennedy was assassinated, the challenge was filled by the Vice-President and fellow Minnesotan, Hubert Humphrey.
Humphrey was a good man who thought his upbeat personality would be useful in the Johnson administration, but he was shuffled aside most of the time until Johnson decided not to seek reelection. Even then, he didn’t want to run, but when Kennedy was killed, he became the only man who could reunite the party.
He almost did it, too. His problem was running against both the foreign policy disastrous legacy of Johnson and the devious and conniving rhetoric of Richard Nixon. Even at that, had the election been held three weeks later, Humphrey would have won. Instead, we were stuck with Tricky Dick, an extended war and Watergate.
(This column includes corrected information from its earlier publication on construction of the ships.)
Fire was the ever-present fear for those who owned or worked in the scores of sawmills up and down the Saginaw River in the 19th century.
With thousands of machines and saw blades whirling and whining, any spark could ignite the tons of sawdust that accumulated in mountainous stacks. Some fires became major disasters as the one in 1892 that engulfed nearly 50 square blocks of the South End killing one resident and leaving hundreds of families homeless.
Each month, it seemed, fires big and small tasked the fire departments on both sides of the river to their limits, and it was with extreme bravery that the firemen were able to limit the damage and loss of life.
Besides the lumber industry, West Bay City, the community opposite its big brother on the east side of the river, was home to the largest shipbuilding operations in Michigan. Between the two major shipbuilders, Wheeler and Davidson, most of the best and larges Great Lakes ore and freight carriers plying the waters were constructed here.
Tons of lumber were needed to construct the ship’s superstructure and interior, from pilot house on down to the sub-decks and frame. Davidson’s yard produced some of the largest wooden ships ever built on the Great Lakes.
To plane and cut the lumber to size required a major supply of raw-cut wood, sawyers, and planing mill operators. So the possibility of fire also was a danger in the shipyards.
One hundred twenty years ago this month, the Davidson shipyard could have disappeared in smoke and flames except for the extraordinary efforts of local firefighters.
Shortly after noon on April 21, 1896 flames ignited near one of the kilns being operated to treat the wood ribs and quickly spread, engulfing two kilns and then the planing mill itself. According to news accounts, a general fire alarm was sounded and three West Bay City fire companies responded.
Two of the hose companies arrived first to put water on the growing conflagration with the other minutes later, and then two more companies from Bay City responded to assist.
One of the ships under construction, a schooner identified only as “No. 73” had been due for launching and stood on the stocks within 30 feet of the burning mill. The framework of the 285-foot keel caught fire, but firefighters quickly doused the flames limiting the damage.
Officials said the repairs could be made including scraping of the hull and the delayed launch would take place.
An investigation was ordered to determine the exact cause of the fire. Damages were sizeable, estimated to be $20,000.
Shipbuilding had been one of Bay City’s most lucrative industries next to the lumbering business, and local residents certainly have heard the names Davidson, Wheeler, and Defoe.
While these were major local shipbuilding magnates, another name of a pioneer some might not recognize is George F. Williams.
According to an 1893 biographical sketch in a book on the history of Saginaw and Bay Counties, Williams was an accomplished shipbuilder, having worked in all phases of the construction process in the Buffalo, N.Y. area. He was born on Sept. 27, 1835, the son of a cooper in Cazenovia, N.Y., Williams received his education in Rochester.
He first worked as a ship carpenter, hiring on a crew in 1851 in Buffalo. He worked his way up over the following 15 years to assistant superintendent of the Union Dry Docks, a firm that had flourished from the days of the War of 1812.
In 1886, Williams relocated to West Bay City, the local shipbuilding center, and became a partner of F. W. Wheeler who had a large shipbuilding concern northeast of the railroad yards in the West Bay City “Banks” district.
He also convinced Wheeler to expand his business but to gain more contracts capital had to be raised, so he urged a stock company be formed. That occurred in 1888 with Wheeler as president, and Williams as vice-president and superintendent of the yards. Other officers were F. L. Gilbert, secretary, and John R. Goodfellow, treasurer.
The restructuring meant Williams was in charge of actually constructing the ships, ordering materials, hiring construction crews, and overseeing the projects to the finished product, while Wheeler was the lead businessman, meeting with potential customers including government agencies, securing and signing contracts, designing specifications, and arranging the delivery of the ships.
The normal number of men employed in the Wheeler yards was 500 to 600, making it one of the larger employers in the Bay Cities, but during peak construction work, the number doubled to as many as 1,200.
Williams also established the company’s large dry-dock facility, allowing the firm to repair river and Great Lake vessels, large and small, further increasing the company’s bottom line. The firm secured numerous government contracts such as one in 1892 in which four light ships were constructed.
That same year, the company built a large wooden freighter and several steamers.
It was the driving force of Williams prolonging the life of the shipbuilding company for more than decade after joining the partnership.
He was married to Jane Tripp, of Rochester, N.Y. in 1863, and they had one son, George Jr. who later went to work for his father in Wheeler’s steel department.
They resided in a comfortable home at 211 King St. in West Bay City, and were members of the Presbyterian Church. Williams also was a member of the DeMolay Lodge 498, F. & A. M. of Buffalo.
Mrs. Williams died in 1901, while he survived her until 1908. They are buried in Brookside Cemetery in Watertown, N.Y.