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Interview with Russ Bailey

Int. by J.P. Leary

AO&SS Building, Madison, WI

12 August, 2003

Leary> Talk a little about when and where you were born and where you grew up and some of your experiences in that area and some weather Stories.

Bailey> The rest of my family, or my older two brothers and sisters were born in Chicago and things were pretty tough down there. My mom moved back to Port Wing and that’s where my younger brother and I were born. We lived out in the country and my dad still worked on the drill boats. Our blasting boats out of Lake Erie and some of those places. I think it was fourth grade my dad had a heart attack and died, so my ma had to raise us five kids and this was way out in the country, you know, it was on our old homestead farm. So that was pretty tough on her but she was a pretty tough woman.

And then of course I had four uncles that sort of kept an eye on us as well all the time. We obviously were taught to start work when we were pretty young because it was tough for my mom to raise all of us kids. My uncle had a farm and we would do all of the farming. Then there was another old guy, after my dad had died, there was an old bachelor that lived about a half a mile away. He pretty much took me in, because I went over there and did all of his chores. He had berries, and I picked his strawberries; I milked all his cows for him.

Choking Herring

Back then, everybody in our town was nicknamed herring-chokers. All of the other communities, I mean you come in from the Finnish community of Oulu and we’d go to school and they’d nicknamed us herring-chokers. Just because everybody who lived in Port Wing prior to this had to work in the herring sheds and they got the name herring-choker that meant that they came in with so many herring during the thirties, forties, and fifties. Of course they didn’t eat the herring back then, they were all used for mink food. But they didn’t care how rough the lake was, they’d come right in with the fish right in the nets and they would pull right up to the sheds. And that’s the reason the fish sheds were built right on the dock, because the boats would pull up, and they had those little square holds. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen those before. And what they would do, even in November and December they would pull the nets right in from the boat right in through that hole into the building where it was heated. And everybody in the town obviously would get paid and they would come down there and they would pick the fish out of the nets. They’d actually have to choke them, you have to squeeze them real tight around the belly because their air bladders would hold out and have an awl, which is like a sharp nail, and you would stick it in their eyes and pull the fish through and throw them in baskets. And this is where everybody made their Christmas money and paid their taxes and all of that. These were gill nets. So that is pretty much what everybody used back then, especially around our area of Port Wing.

Hanging Fish

When we got old enough in age around 15 years old, all of the boys in Port Wing went to work for Everett’s Fisheries. And we didn’t fish right on the lake at that time but what we’d hang fish in the morning, and that is where I got my nickname. I think somebody knows my nickname- Ichabod. There was an old timer who used to smoke the fish, and I was a young kid, too. So at four o’clock in the morning, of course my mom would wake us up at three-thirty, because we’d have to get downtown. Before we got our licenses, she used to drive us downtown all the time, and go back down. And we would hang fish. When I say hang fish I mean we used to have to take the brine fish and put them on sticks that had two little nails coming up and we’d have to put them on and clean out their bellies and make sure there was nothing in it and they’d have these racks and the racks were fairly low so when I’d walk in there, being so tall and dark in the morning, just going back and forth I’d hit my head on it. And this guy knew a little history so he’d always sing, you know, he had a certain song he would sing to me all the time, and he nicknamed me Ichabod, which stuck with me all the time. Even when I got my commercial fishing license, or when I got done with college, I worked research for the DNR, and they knew my nickname and when I got my commercial fishing license in nineteen eighty-four or eighty-three I came back from the state of Wisconsin, it says “Dear Ichabod.” And I still have that at home, it says you happen to be the lucky person because there are a lot of different people, a lot of fisherman, fishing companies out of Lake Michigan that applied for that license amongst a whole bunch of other people and I was lucky enough to get it.

Sleeping in a Snowstorm

When you think of weather related stories, I can think of one when we were packing fish in November or December. I can’t remember, but it was pretty bad weather. When I say packing, when the commercial fisherman would come in during the day with all their fish, we would have to pack the fish. We would put them in boxes and we’d put this Norwegian seaweed stuff on them. It was called Protangelatin, which preserved them when they put them in the freezer. And I had bought a snowmobile- I think I was fifteen. I got out at ten-thirty at night and we hadn’t even looked outside the old block, that is this old building where Everett’s Fishery was, and the snow was probably about two feet high, and it was really whistling. So we figured we’d take that snowmobile home.

Well, I lived about three and a half miles from where I worked out to the house out there. And we made it about a quarter mile on the snowmobile in that snow and we were stuck about twenty different times and pretty soon the snowmobile wouldn’t go anymore. So I told my buddy Mike, I said we’re going to have to walk this one, so we started walking and it was horrible, the snow was about up to our waists. We got about a mile from my ma’s house and Mike says, “Let’s lay down for a little bit.” And I tell this story when we get into hypothermia in my classroom. So we lay down, and boy, first of all it was cold, but after a while it felt so warm.

Both of us, I don’t know if we fell asleep, but I looked over at him and his whole face was solid snow; I couldn’t even see him. And I looked up and I said “Oh, boy.” I knew enough that something really bad was happening. And I had a really hard time waking him up. I did finally get him up and we have what is called a straightaway before we get to our house in the Flag River bridge, so we had about a mile to go and I can remember when we finally got down to my ma’s driveway coming up to the yardlight that was on, she was sitting in the downstairs just waiting for us to get home, you know, nervous as hell just wondering if we’d ever get home. That was a pretty bad storm.

But, of course back then we did pretty much everything too, you know, like you mentioned earlier, we fielded pulp for the summers, but the biggest thing is all through high school we worked for Everett’s fisheries.

Family History

Leary> You mentioned your Mom and Dad. You didn’t mention their names and how they got to be in Chicago.

Bailey> Well, my Dad was Irish- Bailey, and my Mom was Norwegian. My Grandma, she came from Norway with the oldest boy. And it’s one of these stories where Grandpa’s loading them on the boat and says, “Well we’re coming on the next boat.” Well you can pretty much guess what happened! Grandpa didn’t follow through.

So Grandma got to Ellis Island over there and at that time a lot of people went to Black River Falls here in Wisconsin, and she was a maid for a real wealthy farmer or businessman- I’m not sure if he was a farmer. He had four boys, and his wife died and married Grandma, the maid, and there was quite an age difference. His kids were already grown up, so they went to Bethany, North Dakota. And that town no longer exists. He was going to make more money in the farming business, and he lost everything. He had four more children, which would be my uncles and of course my ma.

When things got so bad there, they came to Duluth where they got on the ship, I believe it was called the America and had a cow and a calf. The boats used to come down and there was an area that was fairly shallow inside of the bay, and they would just kick the cows and the calves off, and they had to swim to shore, then they went and homesteaded up in the Flag River Valley like most of them did at the time. So they went and established a farm up there. The thing back then, is when the woman got eighteen years old, they all went to Chicago. That’s where they seek work, that’s where they met their husbands, that’s where my mom met my dad, like I said, who worked on the boats and that kind of stuff. My ma couldn’t take raising children in Chicago so they moved back to Port Wing.

Leary> What was your mother’s name?

Bailey> My ma’s name, maiden name, was Elifson. Anne Elifson. She died six years ago, so she was eighty-one. My dad’s name was William Bailey- Old Bill Bailey. He was born in Asterville, Ohio. He had very few relatives in his family, and all of his, mother and father, they died when they were in their fifties. So he died when he was fifty years old. He worked on Lake Erie, and he moved all around, up by Buffalo and all of those big cities, you know. So he was gone even when we were little, up to fourth grade, you know, I remember very little, not very much about him.

Learning from Conrad “Connie” Johnson

Leary> You mentioned this old bachelor. Could you tell us a little bit about him?

Bailey> Yeah, now if I get a little sad here you have to stop me here. His name was Conrad Johnson, he was an old guy, and he always had strawberries and raspberries and a big garden. Of course I used to go up there and go pick them and he would pay us and he had other people there. I would stay and milk his cows and then we’d go inside and play cards and he would always give us a little glass of his homemade wine, then he would send us on our way home so there was no more than a little glass of wine.

He was a really unique fellow, of course not remembering my dad, he probably just took his place. But he allowed me at eight years old to drive the tractor and at nine year old I’d go put up the hay and milk his cows. Like I said at that same time, we used to play cards all the time in the house together and as soon as it got dark he’d send me home.

I guess I was a freshman, and I came home from basketball practice, and I told my ma, I said, “Hey Connie’s light’s not on.” She said “Well you better run over there and see what’s going on.” So I jumped in my snowmobile and I went over there and I knew right away something was wrong. There was fresh snow and there was no tracks by the barn, so I opened up the door. He had two dogs there, one was Penny and one was Pal, both Collies. They were running in circles like crazy. He slept downstairs there in the pullout bed and electric blanket. So he was laying there in bed in this perfect, hands on his chest. He had died; he had a heart attack the night before. That was pretty tough.

Then the worst part was I tried to call my ma, and she called his brother, and all he said was “Ah, go out there and milk the cows and wait there, the coroner would be coming later.” I think I waited there until two in the morning, and the coroner never came. Pretty soon I just walked home, which was about a mile from there.

That was sort of sad but there are a lot of great memories from him. He taught me a lot of things, you know, hunting and fishing, violating (laugh). You know back then that was one of the only ways we could survive. Those were one of those things where if we even shot anything you know Ma would get mad but she would take care of it and that’s all we could live on, pretty much off the wild, you know.

Weather Sayings & Lore

Leary> Were there any weather-related sayings or observations that came out of that whole thing?

Bailey> Yeah. There are tons of different things that were always said because my uncle was a real avid…

When you had a real bad storm it was always called a gagger. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard that. Especially on the lake or something like that, you’re in a real gagger. I’m not really sure, I imagine it came from if it got so bad and someone started getting sick or something like that, I don’t know. So I’m thinking that’s where that term came from.

I had an uncle who got lost and spent the night over in the snowstorm and had to build a fire and the whole town was out looking for him, but it was so bad, so severe. But he made it, you know, coming in in the morning.

To us, this is common knowledge. When you see deer feeding heavy and early you know there is a storm coming. I often wondered if that had to do with the fact that they are covered with so much hair and they can feel the difference in atmospheric pressure. They must have that ability. You know, whenever there is a storm coming, the animals deer feed. You always see deer out all the time, you know, you know darn well there is storm coming.

You know, that phrase you said earlier, the red sky at night, that is as true as can be. Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning, red sky at night, sailors delight. I’ve never seen that not true. Especially where we live on Lake Superior up there.

We had a bunch of other things. When I was young I’d help my uncle butcher all the time. And of course, even after twenty, I started to butcher. Of course, you know, I’m pretty much the local butcher, I’ve got what they call a mobile slaughter license and I go around in everyplace. I had a bunch of old mentors, and we’d look at things like, when we butchered pigs we’d look at the spleen. If the spleen was long and narrow, we knew it was going to be a hard winter. And that, I don’t think it’s a joke because every time we’ve done this, and all pigs are pretty much the same, and sometime the pigs’ spleens aren’t quite as elongated as that, but you can pretty much tell its fairly true.

I just think animals know and I also skin deer and I guide for bears, and on an average cape seventeen or eighteen bears a fall. And I can tell when I cape them, by the amount of fat that’s on them, what the winter is going to be like. Like last year there was very little fat on the bears, which is uncommon, typically on a bear you’re going to get a lot of fat if there is going to be any kind of winter at all. And you can see where they den up. If the den is on the south side, and don’t ask me how the bears know this, because many times you’re walking in the woods and you see a tree down where the stump is up, and they’re not even in a den. They’re just laying on the south side of the tree stump. And when you see that you know darn well its going to be a mild winter. And it typically is a mild winter when that happens. There is a lot of other ones I just can’t think of right now.

Hotter Than a Newborn Calf

Leary> You mentioned earlier something about a newborn calf?

Bailey> Hotter than a newborn calf? That phrase came from when I was butchering. I don’t know, I was over in Iron River butchering, and I had heard it. It probably came from a farmer’s thing who probably had to extract the calf out of a cow or something like that and felt it, which we’ve all had to do, you know, tie the string on the back hooves, and pull the calf out because it wouldn’t come out on its own. So that’s pretty much where that came from.

Uncle Carl Elifson

Leary> You mentioned your uncle a couple of times. Could you tell me a little bit about him?

Bailey> Well, the oldest uncle, the one who came across, I guess he would be a half-uncle which we didn’t know until recently. He had only one arm. The other one he lost when he was eighteen sawing firewood up on the Flag where we lived. On the saw rig, it took it off someplace right up in there. I remember they had to haul him all the way up to Ashland, which was like thirty-five miles away, to take care of it. They put on one of those old claws that are connected up here. It was a real hard type of material. It had cables that ran up here and connected to his muscles. It gave him a lot of mechanical advantage. Actually, when I talk to my kids about mechanical advantage I talk about that. When he used to take us fishing, and he had flat pieces like that that were waffle shaped, he could squeeze sinkers real good with that. (laugh) He was really super with that. He was the kindest man in the world. They said that everybody in town still talks about how he used to run the roller skating, and he used to take all the kids on hikes up camping, he used to play baseball. Just last weekend, someone said he could hit a baseball with that one hand as good as anybody could.

Leary> What was his name?

Bailey> Carl Elifson. Actually, his wife is still living; she lives in Racine. She’s almost ninety-six. She’s almost blind.


Leary> You mentioned a story about being on a fishing boat when you were young.

Bailey> One story, on my boat, again, it was a real gagger out there. It had been blowing for two days. My brother Jim was fishing with me, and we had to get the nets up. I had whitefish and trout nets which you start those at fifteen fathoms, which is ninety feet. You go out there, and it’s on a sharp bank, all the fisherman know where it is at. That’s where the fishing is the best.

And we went out there to start lifting, it was blowing, and the waves were, I don’t know, twice as high as the boat. When it’s like that, you have to keep the boat in gear because you have your nets that go down. What happens is the wind catches the boat if you can’t lift your nets fast enough, you start dragging the bottom. And when you start dragging the bottom, you get everything that is possibly on the bottom. You know, trees, sticks, logs. And, we picked up something else. So we got the net up and we had a tree, and oh it dropped back down and it was ripping my nets. And these nets are probably around fifteen hundred a piece. And this one tree kept, it just kept getting to the top where I thought I could get it tied off where I could back out of the tree and it would break loose and go all the way down so far to where the buoyancy would hold up the tree again.

Pretty soon we got that out, and the boat had slid, and all of a sudden I looked at my brother and said “Uh, oh. Here come some chalk.” What commercial fisherman call chalk on Lake Superior is anything that’s dead. Dead fish, or if you pick up a dead deer, or if you pick up something that has gone out in the water. And it is white as white can be and it stays in the solid form under water just due to Lake Superior’s pressure and temperature. But as soon as you take it out of water, it’s like you pour a glass of old milk out in the water. It just turns… and the smell! I guarantee it there wouldn’t be a person in here that could take the smell. Even a dead fish that is chalk.

Well, prior to this, all of a sudden I said, “Look at that, Old T.” That is my brother’s nickname, Old T. We come up with, and I don’t know what order these came up. We came up with an old belt buckle in the net. So we took the belt buckle and threw it in the front deck. Then we’d come up with a broom; then we’d come up with the bottom of an old boot. Then we’d come up with a pair of old glasses. And all of these were fairly close together. Then I said, “Holy Christ.” (That’s probably not the word I used.) My brother came around the picnic table. Ninety-nine percent sure it must have been a human that had drowned in who-knows-when in history or when in time, that was down in there. You know, you couldn’t tell any physical features, all you could see was this huge blob of white chalk.

So I got close to water and I tried to drop my nets to shake it loose you know so it wouldn’t come out in the water. Well, that wouldn’t happen, it just stayed together and pretty soon I had to take it, so I lifted it up out of the water. You have to understand these are fifteen foot waves, you know, we’re in and I’m trying to keep the boat in clutch forward, and we had sticks and fish and stuff that were thrown all over and trying to keep the net out of the wheel because it was swinging around and the net gets behind it and it can get into the wheel and then we’re, you know, literally screwed then. Finally got it up, and let me tell you, that smell is just horrific and I sat there and dropped it back and forth as many times as I safely could do without getting the net under the wheel and we pulled it in. But I always carry two big boxes of soap and dish soap and I covered up everything as much as I could and we just kept running water over it.

My students love that story, I tell you. And what do you do, you know, we know back in 1942 back in that same area there was a commercial boat that started on fire. I’m not sure what year this was, I believe the forties, there was three guys out on a herring boat out there. Actually they weren’t in too deep of water, and they had a fire on the boat. The one guy, he panicked, and jumped off the boat. This other guy, Ole Johnson, actually the guy who was smoking the fish at the fish house, you know, after he quit fishing back then he went into smoking. He had a hold of his hand, he said, twice. They got the fire out, obviously, but they never did… that was in November or December. It gets pretty ugly out there that time of year. Almost anything can happen.

Late Season Storms

Leary> How do you decide whether to get on the lake or off the lake?

Bailey> Well, it is just like the movie “The Perfect Storm.” Did you ever watch that movie? You see how they wanted to get out there and make that money and stuff like that? That’s as true a feeling as you can believe because, you know, things are tough and when it comes to November or December before lay up, you have to make enough money to make your payments, you have to have enough money to put food on the table and all of those things, so you take those chances.

I think it was in ‘93, I was fishing herring nets yet in my own boat, and there was four boats going out of Port Wing and I was the first one to go down and look at it first thing in the morning and the waves were just too much. I said “Nope, I’m not going off.” Pretty soon one of the bigger boats- mine is only eighteen ton, and it was thirty-six feet long. And that bigger boat says, “Oh we’re going to go out there.” And this other guy says “Come on, you goddamn cream puffs, you gotta get on that lake.” I said, “No, I’m smarter than that.” So pretty soon I got shamed into it.

So we all went out and there was one right after the other, and we couldn’t see, we weren’t even a hundred yards apart and we couldn’t see each other. Then there was the bigger boats, they know already it was too rough when they got outside of the point. You know, outside of the point where the Northeaster was coming in. We have a little bit of what’s called a Newxxx point that protects us but once you get out, it’s like a whole different world. It’s like you’re in a different lake. And we got out into there, and now you have to try to turn the boat around. You got the wind blowing hard, you got the waves blowing at you, and if you put her on the side, she’ll, you know. My boat had an old cabin on it, so I was leery if I got in too big, if I took the cabin off then she would go under. But we were able to get her turned around, but once you start lifting nets, if it’s not too drastic, then you have to make that decision. And we’ve been caught into some storms.

A Tornado Coming Up Around Duluth

One time my son and I were out there. He was my youngest one. My daughter fished with me, and she was an excellent fisherman. She fished great, rough water didn’t bother her. My second son, rough water didn’t bother him. My youngest didn’t like it. But he was fishing out there and we could hear out there on the radio that there was a tornado coming up around Duluth up there and it was moving at fifty miles an hour. I was at the end of a chub game in about three hundred feet of water and I was about eight miles from him. I said “We’ll get her, Matt.”

And, just as fast as I could, and all of a sudden the wind picked up and the wind caught us out there. The change in temperature caused the lake to just turn foggy; I couldn’t see from here to the end of that wall. It didn’t get real bad until we just- I didn’t have all the electronics that the other boats. But I had a good- I fished like the old timers, you know. I had the RPMs and I went by my time and direction.

And it was just like God appeared and all of a sudden the sun came out and it just lightened up and there was a hole and I could see the pier and it blew the hatch off the top of the boat when I tried to- and the rain was coming in so hard I couldn’t see. Matt had grabbed my survival suit; I had three survival suits and he was crying laying on the back. I felt so bad for him. He was just bawling. It was so bad I was just going to run the boat on the shore, which you know would have been bad. But I made a corner and there are two places to park my boat and I was going to try to put it on the one side but there was a pleasure craft on the other side. And of course we couldn’t afford insurance on those boats because it is just tremendous obviously because it’s one of the worst occupations there is. So then luckily one of the other fisherman was fishing down by the islands and he was hiding in the islands so I took his spot. That was pretty horrendous.


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