The Life and Times of Captain Alfred Parker – Fall 2009

The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

as told to John Borman

Capt. Alfred Parker. Collection of the Great Lakes Historical Society

Alfred Parker was born in 1910 on a grape farm on the South Shore of South Bass Island (Put-in-Bay). By the age of eight, he could harness horses for vineyard work.  For additional income, the men would camp on Starve Island for several days at a time so they could fish the waters adjacent to the island. Upon arriving, they would clear an area of sea gull eggs; these eggs would become omelets for the campers’ breakfast the next morning. If the women folks needed them at home, they would signal the men by hanging a lantern in the window. Alfred attended Put-in-Bay school. However, it was necessary to drop out after the eighth grade to help support the family. His father was not in good health and his support was needed. He went to work for Rittman’s Market which was owned by a relative. He was the best worker they ever had. He bragged about how fast he could kill and dress chickens. By the time the Depression hit, Alfred was doing most of the management duties as well as the work. The owner and his son Raymond spent a lot of their time in the saloons. Parker recalled they would milk the cash register so hard that sometimes it was difficult for him to pay the bills. To add insult to injury, they told him that due to the Depression, they were going to cut his pay in half. He thought they were joking and continued to work. At the end of the pay period the check was in the cash drawer for half the amount. He locked up the store and played baseball. The owner and his son were on a good toot and the store was closed for several days before they realized that Alfred had quit.

Parker’s period of unemployment did not last long. Pop Miller, the owner of Miller Boat Livery and father of Lee Miller, heard Parker was out of work and looked him up … Miller needed a good strong man to deliver ice to the homes and cottages around the island. This was before the days of modern refrigeration. It was customary for the customers to leave a tip consisting of a shot in the ice compartment. Despite the fact that Parker was in his prime, he told me that it was sometimes difficult to make it through the day!

Pop Miller took a liking to him and assigned Alfred as skipper on one of his fishing party boats. Parker was a good fisherman and soon became one of their best guides.

Miller transferred Alfred to his large wooden freight boat named the Avon, which also pulled scows. The net result was a big decrease in pay as his tips had been as much as his pay. He asked for a raise and Pop Miller was agreeable. However, his son Lee vetoed it. Alfred quit and went to work for Newman Boat Line as the skipper of the Mascot from Sandusky. This was in 1940.

In addition to the Mascot, Newman Boat Line had a sister ship named the Messenger. Both were getting old and showing signs of age. I remember that the Messenger had her rounded stern section cut off, which made her transom flat. Otherwise the boats were identical. San­dusky was the homeport and they served the islands of Kelleys, Middle Bass, and North Bass in addition to South Bass, where they landed at Dollers Dock in Put-in-Bay. The boat that Alfred ran stayed overnight at Put-in-Bay while the other one docked in Sandusky. This made it possible for them to provide maximum service.

Newmans had the majority of the passenger and freight business. While they had no service to Port Clinton, they did serve Catawba. However, there were no services in Catawba, no stores, gas stations, etc., and, at that time, very few islanders owned mainland cars. Also, the one boat did not have the capacity or number of trips that are available today.

Therefore, almost all of the island passenger traffic was to San­dusky and the downtown area where there was the shopping mall, doc­tors, dentists, gas stations, etc. I remember trips on this line when my sister would get very seasick as the boats could really roll. She was so bad that she could not get to the rail in time. Due to this, my mother carried paper bags with her. Little brother thought it was funny!

Alfred told me about the worst crewman he ever had. His name was Gayous Hallock. In the late fall, Alfred was coming out of Sandusky with a full load of freight. The wooden hull was leaking and he could feel her getting unsteady. He instructed Gayous to start the bilge pump. By accident, Gayous opened a sea cock. Alfred felt her getting worse and stuck her nose into an ice floe to steady her. He then had to go underwater in the engine room to close the valve. He wanted to fire Gayous but the Newman family would not allow it.

The next spring Alfred had a scow in tow coming into Sandusky. When a tow boat slows up, the scow takes longer to slow down. Due to this, a crew member must stay alert to take in the extra line. However, Gayous got distracted by a pretty girl, and the line got caught in the wheel. The whole mess drifted into a dock. Using Newman’s diving helmet and hand pump, Alfred went overboard in his undershorts to un­wind the line from the wheel. You guessed it! Gayous quit pumping! Alfred told me, “I chased that kid clear down Market Street but I could not catch him. However, he never came back to the boat.” It’s a good thing he got away as it most likely kept Alfred out of jail.

The captains and crews worked very hard in the old days. All the freight was loaded and unloaded by hand. Due to the design of the boats, only limited use could be made of the two wheelers, and they were considered a high-tech material handling device at the time. Those were the good old days of wooden boats and iron men. The crews of today are just traffic directors.

Near the end of World War II, the E & K Wine Company of Sandusky purchased a large amount of vineyard land on South Bass Island. All of it needed replanting. Due to his vineyard experience as a young lad, coupled with his experience in directing people, Alfred Parker was offered the job of foreman. He worked for E & K from 1944 until 1953. By then all of the vineyards were planted and producing, but E & K was not doing as well in the wine business as they had projected and they no longer needed Alfred.

Parker told me he was on his way to Cleveland to ship out on a freighter when he decided to stop in Sandusky to tip a few with his old friend Harold Newman. Harold told him that the Erie Isle Ferry Company had a new boat built in Cleveland which was laying in Sandusky in need of a skipper.

The Erie Isle Ferry Company had previously owned the Mystic Isle. In excess of 100 feet, the Mystic Isle required a large crew with a lot of licensed people, which made her very expensive to operate. She was built in 1941 and originally ran to Catawba. When the Catawba dock came up for sale, the owners offered it to the Erie Isle Ferry Company. When they grew tired of waiting for a response, they accepted an offer from Lee Miller. Miller built the South Shore which was under 65 feet and economical to operate. This boat took enough business away from the Mystic Isle to make her unprofitable. Due to this, the company moved its mainland operation to Port Clinton. They still did not do well and the Mystic Isle was sold to the state of New York in 1952 to operate on Long Island Sound.

While having another boat built, the ferry company was out of business for a year. The cabin was still a bare shell when Alfred applied for, and got, the job as her skipper. Alfred secured the money to complete the boat, and he hired some carpenters and designed and finished the interior.

Erie Isle. Collection of the Great Lakes Historical Society

In the old days the island ball field was where Mr. Ed’s Motel and Bar is now. We were playing ball at recess when the Erie Isle came in from Sandusky for the first time. We all ran to Fox’s Dock to see the new boat. Alfred told us that he was making his first trip to Port Clinton in the afternoon and invited us to come along. In the entire school of around 70 students in 12 grades, only a couple of first graders didn’t get the word. The rest of us were on the maiden voyage with Alfred the Pied Piper. As luck would have it, the county superintendent picked that afternoon to inspect the school. He was not amused and we heard about it.

As mentioned above, Alfred was only the paid skipper the first year. He collected the money from the passengers, and each evening he gave it to a woman the ferry company had hired for this purpose. Alfred also kept a record of the amounts turned over. To his surprise a large amount of the money was missing when the ferry company’s annual report came out. He talked it over with his wife and they decided to try to lease the company. They made an offer which was accepted.

The Erie Isle was a very poorly designed boat. Almost half of the main deck was covered by the pilothouse and cabin. She was under powered which caused many engine problems. Her hull design caused her to leave a large wake, and to make matters worse, she was bow heavy, even when fully loaded. Due to this, it took a very strong, determined man to make her pay.

By working long hours and giving good service, Alfred Parker made her pay. He started running when the ice broke up in the spring and stayed on the lake until it froze in the late fall. In the meantime, he purchased as much stock in the company as he could, obtaining most of his shares at bargain prices. Within a few years he was able to dissolve the ferry company and replace it with the Parker Boat Line.

After Parker had the company paid for, he realized that he had a serious capacity problem, he needed another boat. He located a used one in Fort Meyers, Florida. It was only a few years old but was being replaced by a bridge to Sanibel Island. He sent his son, Bill, and Bill’s wife by car to pick up the boat and bring her back to the Bay. Parker recalled, “The owner of this boat was a Florida Cracker. He previously had a wood boat that needed replacing. He called Blount up in Rhode Island and asked him to come down. When Blount arrived, he told him he wanted ‘something similar to that old cypress SOB over there.’ Blount took some measurements and went back home. About six weeks later Blount called and asked what he wanted to name it … the boat was almost done and ready for delivery. The buyer told him that he made a lot of money clipping Yankees. Blount suggested Yankee Clipper, which she became.”

By running almost day and night, Bill managed to get the boat to the island in 10 days. Alfred told him, “I am proud of you, Son, how about making my next trip to Port Clinton for me.” Bill told him no and went home for some much-needed sleep.

The Clipper was only 65 feet and not a very good sea boat. Due to this, in 1982, Parker had her cut in two and had 33 feet added. This made her a good boat, she went faster with the same power and burned less fuel. Even more important to Alfred, he had beat Miller Boat Line as Parker now ran the first 100-footer.

Even working 100 plus hour weeks, Parker still found time for politics. He served as a township trustee for 32 years, most of that time as President. He made sure that the needy were supplied with food baskets, and that regular visits were made to the County Home. He accomplished a great deal with very little money. In his honor, his successors named a park after him on the west side of the island.

One of the better Alfred stories took place in the late winter. His brother, who ran the local gas station, ran low on fuel.  To help him out, Alfred prepared to make his first trip of the year to Port Clinton which would require busting a little ice on the way. However, Parker did not yet have a tanker license. When he arrived at the dock, the Coast Guard was waiting! Someone must have turned him in. Following a Coast Guard inspection, it was determined that the only piece of equipment the boat needed was a fire extinguisher. Although he made trips to both Toledo and Sandusky, he was unable to purchase one. In the meantime, there was a Mexican standoff back at the dock. By late afternoon, the Coast Guard was tired of watching Alfred’s crew play cards and decided to go out to eat. They left strict instructions that the fuel trucks had better be “on the dock” when they returned. When they came back, the boat was gone and the trucks were still on the dock – empty! (The fuel had been put in a couple of the water tight compartments.)

Parker has been described as a benevolent bull … he trained a lot of people – including some that no one else wanted. It was widely known that after a man had worked for Alfred a couple of years, anyone would hire him – even Lee Miller. At one time, the majority of the Miller Boat Line crew were ex-Parker men. If any of his crew had problems, he would do his best to help them. If it was financial, he would take out his wallet.  If a young man came to him and really needed a job, he would hire him and then find something for him to do.

One of his last hires was an island boy who had been caught stealing gas on his dock. The po­lice came to Parker and asked if he was going to press charges. He said, “Not, unless he won’t come to work for me.” The lad is now a Miller Boat Line skipper.

Alfred had a heart attack and passed away in July of 1986. The lake was very rough the morning of his funeral, and they ran both boats together with guests. When the hearse was unloaded, everyone half expected him to jump out and direct traffic. And it was said, a couple of old ladies looked like they needed the coffin worse than Parker did.

Appropriately, Alfred Parker’s epitaph reads, “HE LOVED THE LAKE.”

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About the Author: John Borman was born and raised on Put-in-Bay and knew Captain Parker all his life. John even helped raise three of Captain Parker’s grandchildren and wrote, “I am very proud of them!” Borman has many fond memories of riding alongside Parker in his wheelhouse.

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