In Bloodstoppers and Bearwalkers, Richard M. Dorson describes Sagamen:
"Sometimes a fluent storyteller launches into a stream of highly colored personal experiences that enthrall his audience as much or more than any folk tale. In his autobiographical sagas he plays an heroic role, overmastering the hazards and outwitting the dangers presented by vicious men, ferocious beasts, and implacable nature. These narratives rest on explicit factual detail, and yet they are strongly flavored with romance."
Since birth, I have been entertained and captivated by colorful yarns told to me by, perhaps, Grand Marais' last Sagaman. On May 6, 1977, when the opportunity to permanently record these stories presented itself, I readily drove to Grand Marais, Michigan. There, armed with my tape recorder, I settled in for two fascinating days, interviewing and enjoying the company of my grandmother's first cousin, Vercil Bugg.
Vercil spent most of his life as a commercial fisherman on Lake Superior. He had a keen memory, and never lacked for words to describe the men, the boats, the fish and the tragedies of an era which is rapidly closing behind us.
Born in Grand Marais, in 1903, during the height of the pine lumbering boom, Vercil recalled that his father, Beverly J. Bugg, moved there from Saline, near Ann Arbor, in the late 1890's. An uncle was already there, braking on the Manistique Railway. Beverly Bugg's first job was as cook at the tie camp just south of town. After an accident severed on leg, he took up barbering with Charles DuVal, and then set up a shop of his own on the ground floor of the Carpenter House in East Town.
He married Mercy Carpenter - the daughter of my great-great-grandfather, Peter C. Carpenter of Grand Marais. Carpenter was the first Democratic sheriff of Alger County and, he and his brother A.C. Carpenter, owned and operated the hotel.
"A.C." was walking boss for the Chicago Lumber Co. The brothers built the hotel in 1890, anticipating the arrival of the railroad in 1893, and the boom which resulted. The Carpenter House had thirty-five rooms, a saloon, card room (and a jail while Peter was sheriff).
Later, Beverly Bugg built a new shop next door to the Carpenter House, near the Keating Knitting Factory, where he barbered until retirement.
Vercil quit school early, and started fishing when he was sixteen, firing the big steam tug "Friant" owned by Endress, Petipren and Masse (pronounced Moss in Grand Marais). Over the years, besides holding various other jobs in the then declining lumber industry, he worked for Larson and Kadeau, Frank Champion, Chambers Bros. and "Happy" Bethway, but most of the time was spent on the Endress tugs. At one time, Vercil owned the thirty-six foot tug, Nonesuch, built by Hector Barney.
Vercil could remember back when there were commercial fishing sailing craft, but during his younger days, the big steam tugs (the Friant was 120 feet, stem - stern) had come into their own. John Troden, Vercil's uncle and my great-grandfather, was probably one of the best known tug captains. Troden had "good papers", so he always got Endress' best boat. He discovered many reefs from Grand Marais to Caribou Island.
Vercil's commercial fishing days came to an end in 1953 when he suffered a heart attack while fishing on the Badger with Parmer Masse.
During the previous year, Vivian, his wife, had begun a bakery in East Town. In 1954 it was expanded into a restaurant, where, although Vercil "retired", he cooked, for his customers, hearty portions of "good, plain food."
In 1969, Vercil and Vivian sold the restaurant and retired to a new home, near Carpenter Creek, not far from where his father started the barbering business three-quarters of a century earlier. Vivian died in November 1975.
With the conclusion of the last tape, my visit ended and I began preparing for the trip home. I felt as though I had relived a time that would never come again. I was delighted that I had been able to make a permanent record of some of the colorful stories, related about Michigan's exciting past ... Told in a way that only a true sagaman can.
Vercil died in 1979 and was buried next to Vivian in Rose Hill cemetary. His passing marked the end of an era and I miss him.
Table of Contents
The Early Years
On The Lake
Dorson, Richard M., Bloodstoppers and Bearwalkers, Harvard University Press, 1952, p. 249.
Grand Marais Pilot and Pictured Rocks Review, Vol. IV, #15, 9/25/74.