A Personal History Synopsis of R.J. Peterson



Synopsis of Interview by John Shack John R. Shack



The Early Years

R.J. was born on December 31, 1926, between third, fourth and Grant streets in Gary Indiana. Gary, a planned U.S. Steel Corporation community, was only about 20 years old at the time.  Founded by U.S. Steel Corporation in 1906, Gary grew quickly and attracted a heterogeneous population. U.S. Steel actively imported its workers directly from ethnic areas abroad to live in company houses and providing easy transportation to the mill. 


R. J. recalls the huge sand dunes north of town which he reports outsized all others on the western shore of Lake Michigan before the sand was shipped away by rail for the construction of Chicago’s Outer Drive.  Wetlands, mostly now filled-in, ran along the entire south coast of the big lake behind these imposing dunes.


When R.J. was age two, the Peterson family moved to nearby to Aetna, a community annexed to Gary where gun cotton was manufactured for WWI.  This town of about 45 families then was built deep in the sand dunes designed to buffer potential explosions from the gun cotton factory. 


R.J. reported having had an extraordinary scholastic foundation in the Gary public schools. The Gary public school system was developed by William A. Wirt from 1907 to 1938.   (*Wirt created an illustrious example of a progressive system with a diversified elementary curriculum, a flexible schedule and improved facilities.  This paved the way for his selection as Gary's first professional superintendent.  Heavily influenced by the ideas of the American philosopher and educator John Dewey, as well as his own rural, Protestant background, Wirt believed that public schools should provide salvation for the children as well as the community.)


During R.J.’s 10th year, the family moved a short distance to Miller Beach, which was “mostly sand dunes with outdoor toilets and artists”.   Sand was everywhere, until finally stabilized by dune grasses planted by the residents, and water recreation was the norm.


During the Great Depression, R. J’s father worked in an experimental shop of US Steel. In this capacity he became a co-patenter of a steel cleaning process still in use.  He earned some money from this patent and also from a side line production of spun copper pots which he sold to Marshall Fields in Chicago to supplement his salary and help the family survive lean times.  Recreation centered on water activities, which stimulated R.E. Peterson’s construction of a propeller-driven hydroplane and canvas covered wood frame kayaks.


Around 1936 R.E. Peterson helped to start and eventually become president of the Gary Boat Club.  Built by volunteer labor at Burns Ditch on Highway 12, the club was backed by US Steel, the executives from whom were club members along with other local notables.  R. J. bought is first sailboat from the mayor of Gary who provided him with sailing instruction.  He recalled 1938 when he began to visit Saugatuck by boat during the Great Depression when it was the only non-industrial harbor on the west shore.  Over the years he would boat up the coast and visit the


R.J. reports becoming proficient in playing the clarinet and later the baritone saxophone in a band.  In his home numerous musical instruments are evident.


 R J was in high school when WWII broke out and he signed up out of high school for a special Navy program that provided training in radar technology.  Eventually, he entered Purdue University to study mechanical engineering, finished four years but left before completing his degree when he became bored after beginning a business making model airplane parts.


Early manufacturing ventures with his father lead to the design and building of the River Queen, the first stock house boat. Eventually 5000 of these boats in different sizes were sold around the world. 


The Douglas River Queen manufacturing branch of the Gary factory took over the Harding Hotel property on the south end of Lake Kalamazoo and began making the 38’ model.  Eventually US Industries became interested in buying the boat manufacturing company.  RJ was hired as president (making 1.2 M bonus his first year and quickly losing it in the stock market). The same recession ended the life of River Queen manufacturing.


R.J threw himself into the Keewatin project and a failed attempt to purchase and bring a guppy class submarine to exhibit in Douglas.  He discusses his relationship with Frank Dennison and their common interest in keeping the area from being over developed. 


A subsequent meeting in the riverside extension of his home was an introduction to the extent and breadth of R.J.’s maritime and area historical interests.  This underground structure, an engineering curiosity, includes the entire Fruit Grower’s Bank vault and massive door that serves as R. J.s office.  This interview contains his look forward to what he wishes for the future of the area.  His ideas about a municipal marina developed from his present marina, the use of his property as a welcome center for transient boaters, and moderate development of the former Dennison property are some of the ideas covered.