A Personal History Synopsis of R.J.
Synopsis of Interview by John Shack John R.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.