Thursday, March 13, 2014

Richard (Dick) W. Uhlman and His Floating Supermarket

Today if you want to shop for groceries including meat, you generally hop in the car and drive to the nearest favorite market.  Or, to a farmers’ market where the vendors offers the various food product(s) you are needing.  Or perhaps you go to both, the store and the farmers market.  But in 1912 shopping for groceries wasn’t that easy or convenient, especially for the more isolated areas of the Gig Harbor Peninsula.

This difficulty was solved by Dick Uhlman in 1912 when he launched the “Butcher Boat”, or his floating supermarket.   He used this boat to carry groceries and meat to island and shore communities around Tacoma.  But let’s go back a little early in time and it will become clearer why this idea came to him and why it was such a success even though Butcher Boat only operated for 6 years, until 1918.

According to an article written by Erna Bence in The Tacoma Sunday Ledger, 1947, Dick was “alert to commuters’ needs”.  It doesn’t appear that Dick was influenced by Alfred Fuller (The Fuller Brush Man) and his door-to-door selling business in Connecticut started in 1906 and eventually spreading across the country.  No, what Dick kept noticing was the buying habits of his customers (those same commuters Erna Bence mentioned) living across Puget Sound from Tacoma’s Old Town where his meat market was located.  Also this customer base seemed to be growing.  Those customers would stock up on supplies which had to last several days without refrigeration.  He had opened is meat market in Tacoma’s Old Town in 1887 at age 23.  So he had plenty of opportunity during the following 25 years to notice the growth of the Gig Harbor Peninsula and its communities.  And in doing so, he saw the opportunity to grow his business.  

So in 1912 Dick started construction on his floating supermarket, more commonly known as The Butcher Boat.  Once completed he would take the groceries and meat to all those people living some distance from his meat market.

The Butcher Boat was 41 foot craft with a 9 foot beam.  Dick outfitted it just as you would a land based store.  On one side were shelves with the staples and other nonperishable grocery items.  The other side was fitted with the meat market, counter and chopping block.  The boat was a success; it was on May 28, 1912 that the Washington Department of Commerce & Labor granted Dick a license - not only to operate his floating supermarket but also to carry passengers.  During the 6 years Dick operated the Butcher Boat he is quoted as saying “on our best day, one clerk and I made $200.”  (Inflation Calculator 2014  $1.00 (1912) equals $24.39 (2014)

Dick had two separate alternating routes from Old Town Tacoma in order to serve all his customers.  One route took him along the east passage from Dash Point stopping at all the liftle communities as far north as Stone’s Landing (Redondo Beach).  The other route would go along the west passage to Vashon stopping at Burton, Dockton, Quartermaster Harbor, Mazanita and Magnolia, Harbor Heights and Spring beaches before crossing over to Pt. Defiance and then on to Day Island and to the communities of Hales Passage.  As soon as the whistle blew, the women would rush to the landing in order to be first in line for the choicest cuts of meat.  

Dick soon learned the ins and outs of the Sound, developing a fine sense of navigation in all kinds of weather including rough currents, wind and dense fog.  But even with all his skill there were times when even he had to layover.  It was on his layovers at Berg’s Landing on the shore of Cutthroat Bay (Wollochet Bay) that he met and became friends with blind John Skinshot.  This friendship eventually lead to Dick’s purchase of the 7 1/2 acres John owned.  Then even before Dick made a decision to stop operating the Butcher Boat, he started clearing the land, cutting timber, splitting shingles in order to build a stock barn and a 5 bedroom house.  Part of his land included an abandoned mill and dock.
Barge with freight car at Berg's Landing

Stacked Lumber at Sawmill at Berg's Landing

It was during this time that Dick became a leader in establishing a ferry service from Titlow Beach in Tacoma to Wollochet Bay.  He raised $1,000 in donations, labor and materials.  In 1918 Dick’s new store was built and the new ferry service started.  This was a perfect time to end the operation of the famous Butcher Boat.
Esther & Richard (Dick) Uhlman in front of their store at Berg's Landing

Esther & Richard (Dick) Uhlman

Despite Dick’s reputation as gruff and hard, he wasn’t, he was one of those people who always step forward to help someone with a hard luck story.  He had a large stack of unpaid bills for groceries that some people never paid.  

His grandson, Joe Uhlman recounted a lovely story in his history of his Grandfather.  “One Christmas after Grandmother and Grandfather had celebrated their 50th anniversary, they had gone to bed.  Grandfather heard the clock strike midnight.  He said, “Mother, did you hear that clock?”  “No”.  Grandmother had been rather hard of hearing lately.  “Well, I gave you that clock on the first Christmas after we married.  We have been together for 50 years and expect to be together for another 10 years until the clock stops.”  They did tick another ten years to celebrate their 60th Wedding Anniversary.  

DIck lived until December 18, 1956 when at age 92 he died.  Joe Uhlman goes on to say “He seemed to enjoy life until my Grandmother died.  He couldn’t reconcile her death and appreciate the fact that they had had so many happy years together and had accomplished so much.” 

Note:  Thanks to Both Joe Uhlman for his history of his Grandfather and to Erna Bence for her article in the Tacoma Sunday Ledger, 1947.

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