Mud Turtle Jack: Riverman, Poet, Grandfather

by Valerie Himick, first-time contributor to GTJ

Seek channels deep,
Avoid the bars –
We’ll have more fun
Than them in cars

Mason Herbert (Jack) Wallis.
Mason Herbert (Jack) Wallis.

My Grandfather, Mason Herbert Wallis, who preferred to be called Mud Turtle Jack, knew rivers, loved rivers and all bodies of water, and passed that love to the children he left too soon, and the grandchildren he never knew.

The son of George Herbert Wallis and Ellen Marie Wilson Wallis, he was born at Point Betsie on Lake Michigan near Frankfort, Michigan, in 1889 while his father was in the Lifesaving Service there.

His mother, Ellen, was the daughter of Charles Henry Wilson, a noted vaudeville actor of the time whose family settled in the Herring Lakes area.  Sadly, Ellen died of tuberculosis at an early age.

"From my window", Lake Michigan.
“From my window”, Lake Michigan.

Jack attended High School in  Manistee where he had a view of Lake Michigan from the window of his room.  His early writings from that time reflect his love of the waters.

This is from his Gloria Lacui ; Written in Manistee High School April 13, 1909.

Be mine the spot
Wherein my boyhood days were spent and there
Aux Bescies pours its gently moving stream.
An Indian village once o’er looked the lake
That marked the outlet of the little stream.
Marquette, as told by records of the French,
Here drew his birch ashore and on the mound
Which then the river mouth o’erlooked, he lay
Surrounded by his voyagers, and cease
His wanderings.

Ah, Frankfort, nestling there
Beside the tossing lake, recall me to
Thy former home and let me listen in
The quiet eve, to songs the lake is sending o’er
The hills.  Didst ever listen to the roar
Of penned up ocean’s force, confined in shells
From Indian island brought?  Tis but a dream,
From which you would awake to real life
By listening to the roar on Frankfort’s coast.
Where ivy, long, five-fingered, green, its arm
Has spread, and there o’er hung a quiet porch.
Twas mine to sit beside my father’s knee
And learn to love the music of the sea.

himick-captainjackwallis

In September of 1906 he wrote this about Lake Michigan

‘Tis there on your wild bounding surface,
Those grand old waters of ours,
That ships with music and laughter
Plunge on through your storms and your showers.

‘Tis there in your calm placid waters,
The fishes all bask in the sun,
Till ships rush madly upon them,
They wake before sleep is begun.

‘Tis there on your wild bounding surface,
That ships in agony strain
To reach some harbor of refuge,
‘Tis rest from the toils of your main.

‘Tis there in your cold deep oblivion
The forms of your sailors are laid;
Not all who dared brave your dangers
Returned to a welcoming glade.

‘Tis still on your calm gentle bosom
We float in a bark small and frail;
We wonder that calm will turn motion
And roar in a death-dealing gale.

Never content to be far from the water, he turned to canoeing the rivers with his friends in his beloved canoe.  He wrote long narrative poems describing the fun.

I knew the channel where the current ate
Away the muddy banks in deepest holes.
I knew where sandbars piled themselves in play
And caught at drifting stumps and such debris
As is picked up by the rivers in their course.
I knew the turtles by their given names
And they knew me, for when I’d pass them by,
‘Hey mister, where you goin’?’ they’d always say.

Jack Wallis serving as postman in Ann Arbor, ca. 1915.
Jack Wallis serving as postman in Ann Arbor, ca. 1915.

As a young man, Jack lived in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor where he worked as a shoe salesman and a mail carrier.  There, with his good friend, pharmacist Stan Smith, he created Stage Stuff, “a series of vaudeville playlets, – each one complete in one act, – yet all closely related, – and each one staged for the mere benefit and enjoyment of the actors, themselves, before an empty house.”

Stan Smith, friend of Jack Wallis and fellow  Stage Stuff performer.
Stan Smith, friend of Jack Wallis and fellow Stage Stuff performer.

“There is no description,
It’s our bunch of fun,-
Some set to music,
Some verse, and some slung
As random shot
Or analysis clear,-(clear as mud)
To explain some Big Time Stuff
That we hold most dear.”

However far removed, his early years in Frankfort were never far from his thoughts:

Then all the time I thought of my old dad
And how he’d spent his life on bigger boats,
For what he knew and taught to me of them
I modified and changed for my canoe.

So trained was I in waterlore that if
A gay procession of the boats in the whole world
Could pass before a judges’s stand to view
Their skill,-my dad would rise up from his grave
On Frankfort’s hill, and point me out and say,
“That’s
my kid there; I know him by the way
He grips the haft, and how his paddle cleaves
The water at his every stroke.  There now’s
The Loafing Stroke; they say the Injuns found
It for their light birch bark canoes, but we
Deep Water men would say its best when used
For dress parades and idle hours.  But look!
The Man of War Stroke!  It’s the same we used
To drive our surfboat to a wreak, and now
My kid had found it best for his canoe.
Just note the forward reach, the sudden pull,
The throwing of his weight as balanced by
His braced feet and dipping blade, the craft
Most leaves the water in its leap.
But lad,-
There is,- Ah, there you are, The Cruising Stroke
And with that steady pull you’ll drive that shell
All day; Why, when you were a kid in arms,
I’d put you in your little chair lashed in
My skiff, and pull out miles into the lake
With that same stroke.
And all the thousand
Little touches of the blade, – the One Hand Stroke,
The Overhead, the Submarine, the Brakes,
Reverse, and Backward scull,- like spur to horse-
The shell obeys thy will.  Ah, that’s my kid!
You cannot fool an old man when he sees
His youth again, performed by his own blood!” 

In the fall of 1929, now married and the father of three children, Stan, Marce, and my mother Joy, Jack became seriously ill with the same disease that claimed his mother’s life, tuberculosis. Eventually, he was forced to leave his family and live with his stepmother, Ada Bagley, in Muskegon. Confined to his bed, he wrote and sold stories to magazines to support his family.

"Stage Stuff" scrapbook by the cast from Ann Arbor.
“Stage Stuff” scrapbook by the cast from Ann Arbor.

Sadly, we have not been able to locate any of his published writings from that time.  In fact, we had no idea any of his writings had survived until my Aunt, Marce Forton, of Traverse City, called me a few years ago and asked me to take a box of things to my mother.  There in the box, under an old tablecloth and some clothes, I found treasure, a leather journal and an old photograph album – The Libraria of M.H. Jack Wallis, marked private, and the Stage Stuff photos.  Marce had kept it safe all these years. 

Valerie Himick is the author of two novels, Life is a Cabernet and The Birds & The Bees, set in the wine country of Old Mission Peninsula in Grand Traverse County. Like her grandfather, she finds inspiration for her writing in the natural beauty of the rivers and lakes of northern Michigan.

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