Fifty years on the river

WBM, June 1930.

In the photograph, taken in Quebec’s Grand Cascapedia River Valley in June, 1930, a sturdy fellow in baggy knickerbockers, matching vest, and jaunty slouch hat walks a dirt track through a field of wildflowers toward a waiting horse-drawn wagon. The caption is simply: WBM – the initials of William Butts Mershon (1856-1943), a prominent lumberman and businessman, avid sportsman, and early conservationist from Saginaw, Michigan.

William Mershon, known to his friends as “Captain Bill” features in dozens of pictures taken between 1924 and 1935 by my grandfather, Joseph B. Schlotman, and carefully captioned and pasted into a now-crumbling leather-bound album. Mershon, 26 years my grandfather’s senior, first went to the Grand Cascapedia in July 1886, lured by the river’s abundant Atlantic salmon – marvelous sporting and eating fish that could top 45 pounds or more. Over the years as his zeal for the sport grew, Mershon negotiated and acquired numerous leases for fishing rights from the provincial government and purchased land from local farmers, giving him unhindered access to lesser-known pools and vast beats of the main river – while making him a force to be reckoned with among the various private fishing interests on the fabled salmon river.

Mershon found in Joe Schlotman a gracious, kindred spirit from Detroit who shared similar values and passions for hunting, fishing, and wildlife preservation. They first met in 1914 through the Grayling Fish Hatchery Club, a partnership between the State of Michigan and private trout philanthropists intent on saving the endangered Grayling in the North Branch of the Au Sable River. In the early 1920s they fished for trout and went bird shooting in Michigan, and traveled to Mershon’s farm in Saskatchewan for duck hunting. Mershon obviously enjoyed my grandfather’s company and extended an invitation to join him in June 1924 for prime fishing time on the Cascapedia. On his first day on the river my grandfather caught a beautiful 31 lb salmon and was hooked. He joined Mershon every summer thereafter (except for 1928), always the courteous guest, paying for his share of the food, guides, and expenses. When Mershon’s ailing wife could no longer spend time in Quebec (she had decamped to the Huntington Hotel in Pasadena) and in the midst of the Great Depression, he decided it was time to sell; my grandfather and great uncle, Emory Leyden Ford, were well positioned and more than ready to buy. By early 1932 Mershon’s Grand Cascapedia holdings had been sold to the Schlotman and Ford families.

After years of Mershon’s hospitality, my grandfather quickly returned the favor by inviting Mershon to fish his former beats each of the following three summers. And as my grandfather’s photographs show, Mershon was right in the mix, both on the water and in camp wearing his trademark tweed knickerbockers, cigar in hand.

Until recently, there was little more to glean from the old pictures than these two friends, their fishing companions, and families enjoyed the sporting life on and off the river in this remote backwater. That is, until finding a box of the original 3”x4” negatives of the entire Cascapedia photo collection among others. Modern scans produced sharper, cleaner, more detailed images than the album prints, sparking in turn, a renewed interest in Captain Bill. The subsequent discovery of Mershon’s typewritten journal of “Fishing Trips” among his collected papers (online) as well as several years of their correspondence in the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library was literally, icing on the cake. Out of the blue, Mershon’s wonderful, detailed descriptions of days fishing, locations, fish taken, weights, and other background bring the pictures to life, especially one series of images from June 1934 documenting a festive outdoor luncheon celebrating Captain Bill’s “50 years on the river” and a cake with special frosting that was never visible in the original photographs.

This is how Mershon described his Wednesday, June 26, 1934:

“Sixty degrees at 7:00 a.m. Ernest told [Mershon’s sister] Elsie that he had prayed for a nice day and his prayer evidently sank in for it is a perfect day.

Cedar on the long table and woven in the spindles of the porch railing so as to make a green bower room of the north porch. People kept coming to see the wonderful cake with a frosted salmon in the center and 50 miniature candles, certainly a wonderful cake. The salmon boiled whole yesterday was placed on a board covered with big ferns and lettuce leaves in the center on which the fish was laid surrounded with hardboiled eggs alternating with a quartered lemon.

I put the [Mershon Woods] stew over the fire at 9.00 a. m. It was good but seemed to lack something, maybe it was potatoes to thicken it. All enjoyed it. Ice cream part custard; I never tasted better. We had cocktails and appetizers, sherry for those who did not want the cocktail. Finally coffee, port wine, and Stilton cheese spread on small crackers.

They came at 2:30. Mrs. John Hall Kelly brought a large bunch of gorgeous tulips, very large ones, good stems. Afterglow especially large. Very late for tulips. Mine were gone five or six weeks ago. Guests present commencing up river: Stanley McGraw, Wm (Billy) Beach, Mr. Finley. Jos. B. Schlotman, E. L. Ford, Emory Ford & Wife. Dr. [Henry] Varney, Mrs. [Amy] Guest, Miss Woods (Pittsburgh), George Bonbright, Jim Bonbright, Mrs. Jim Bonbright, Mr. Rose (Mrs. Jim’s father) John Hall Kelley, Mrs. Kelley, Elsie C. Mershon, W.B.M. Total 18.

In the evening a terrific thunderstorm broke. A gale for a few minutes that overturned chairs and tables and scattered our cedar decorations, and such a downpour. Still raining hard when I went to bed at 9.30.” 

Mershon thought 1934 would be his last year of salmon fishing in Quebec, but he returned the following year for a final summer as my grandparents’ guest, hobbled by failing knees, but still able to land several good-sized fish.

My grandfather kept up a correspondence with his old friend over the next seven years sharing news of the river Mershon had loved for half a century – salmon catches, log flows, the guides and their families, as well as detailed accounts of blooming flora and migrating fauna – and regularly sent him boxes of fresh Cascapedia salmon during the season.

In a June 1938 letter to my grandfather Captain Bill wrote:

“Well, I am not going back to the old days any more than it affects the memories of our pleasant trips to the Cascapedia. I was thinking on the first of June how I always managed to be ready to go at that time, many times you joined me, and what fine times we had in Montreal ending up down at the old cheese man’s place. It was not difficult to stock up with the liquors, and the next hardest was to make a list of groceries, etc. that was not way beyond our needs. Usually we could not help buying about everything that looked good. Then the cheese man, and how few of our guests cared for cheese the way we did. You will recall the time Mrs. Morley objected to my old Stilton and I had to keep it on the porch. Then when we got ready to go home, and I had dressed up in my newly shined tan shoes, and I had buried the remains of this old cheese in the asparagus bed, and then stepped in it. They were low shoes, and it even squirted up on my silk stockings, and there was only about an hour to train time. Well the 50 years I had on the glorious old river are chock-full of joyous memories and I have no business to find fault now because I can do no more fishing or traveling.”

A few years later, in one of his many letters to Mershon, my grandfather wrote: “Dear Capt. Bill, my first salmon of the season taken yesterday A.M. at Broken Tree, is going to you today. A fine maiden fish in perfect condition, and just the size you like – 21#.”

In his letter of thanks Mershon, now confined to a wheelchair, replied:

“The salmon came this Friday morning early, and notwithstanding it has been raining, Rolland has built a fire and we will soon have a good bed of coals outside, and two nice steaks will soon come on the supper table… It is a mighty pretty fish, and there was plenty of ice in the box when it arrived, as there always is. It was mighty good of you to send me your first fish… What a good time you and I used to have together. Well those days are past and gone for me….”

Captain Bill died alone in his large Saginaw house on July 12, 1943.