Elsie and Harry Poulsen
Elsie and Harry Poulsen

Harry Oscar Poulsen knew how to build a successful career. He was an apprentice carpenter at the tender age of 16.Two years later he was job foreman. Four years after that he was involved in the building and contracting business, a remarkable leap for a young man who had been in the carpentry trade for only six years.

But a love for the trade and with a fierce determination to perform well in the industry, he became a land developer and real estate agent who plotted large land holdings and built attractive homes in subdivisions. He eventually moved his skills in the building trades to Menominee in 1949.

In 1909, Mr. Poulsen married Elsie Christine Jensen, a native of Denmark, in Chicago. Elsie worked for a time at the former Chicago Herald Examiner and later was employed as a cooking instructor at a department store chain.

Poulsen was a self-taught structural engineer who left his handprints on several landmarks in Chicago-the International Amphitheater, the downtown post office, park district administration building, and the sanitary district water works at Navy Pier.

Poulsen learned about the quieter way of life in Menominee County after meeting Oscar Wall from Wallace during World War II in 1914. When Wall advised Poulsen that he had a farm for sale, the Chicagoan decided to take it off the market. The Poulsens spent their summers at the Wallace farm while getting acquainted with the area.

In 1949, Harry and Elsie Poulsen sold their home in Chicago and headed for the peaceful countryside style of living in Menominee County. They acquired a piece of land at Arthur Bay on M-35. Elsie stayed at home and tended to her garden from spring until fall while Harry accepted engineering jobs in the Chicago area. He returned to the Arthur Bay hideaway on weekends.

Mr. Poulsen made substantial investments in the City of Menominee as well. He purchased more than 80 acres of land in the northwest section of the city and subdivided the property. He was lauded by the Menominee City Council for offering to finance the entire cost for laying water line extensions for developing a residential district. The development became known as the “Poulsen Addition” and the “Maplewood Addition.”

Poulsen loved to test the waters of Green Bay for fish. One Friday afternoon in September of 1960 he nearly lost his life.  

Robert G. Murphy, city editor at the Herald-Leader and one of my mentors in my novice years at the newspaper, wrote a regular column called “Memo.” The column appeared a couple of times each week. Murphy wrote an interesting column on Mr. Poulsen’s “Rendezvous With Death.” 

Poulsen had a 250-pound stainless steel outboard motor boat for his fishing expeditions on the bay. He claimed it would “ride out anything” the bay had to offer. For an unknown reason, Poulsen decided to use his smaller boat, a 12-foot magnesium steel outboard that weighed only 79 pounds. The bay was calm when he embarked. A few hours later the weather turned ugly. 

He dropped anchor about three-quarters of a mile from shore and began fishing. The wind started to kick up about 30 minutes later and Poulsen decided to pull anchor and head for home. He was lifting the anchor when a wave slammed into his small boat so fast he had no chance to position himself. Within seconds he was tossed overboard. 

The 52-year-old man, an expert swimmer since his days on the Lake Michigan beaches of Chicago’s North side, swam to his capsized boat and righted it. The boat was taking on water and Poulsen had nothing to bail it out. He turned the boat upside down to gain an air pocket underneath the boat and hopefully keep it afloat. Then the long night began. 

The wind was snapping at a brisk pace and had the boat pointed in the direction of Chambers Island. He hoped to reach the island before dark where he knew his chances of being rescued would be good. He didn’t panic. 

He figured his chances were better if he drifted with the boat in piggy-back mode. He clung to the splash rails for support. As the waves swelled, Poulsen was forced to roll from one side to the other to keep the craft balanced. As he did so, his strength began to weaken. 

He was still about two miles from Chambers Island when the anchor became wedged in some rocks on a reef. The waves intensified and darkness set in. The choppy sea continued and the wind kept shifting the boat in different directions. He decided to drop the motor to lighten the load. 

Imagine the situation for this man. The wind kicked up, the wave action became brutal and he was hanging onto the boat with one hand and using the other hand to free the motor. With the motor gone, the boat started to thrash around and threatened to pitch Poulsen into the angry bay. By now he was facing the Menominee shore and knew that a search was underway. He could see cars with their headlights focused on the bay. 

His despair turned to hope when he spotted a search boat approaching his position with spotlights pivoting in all directions. Then the search boat changed course and trained its lights closer to shore between Arthur Bay and Cedar River. In the meantime, the anchor dislodged itself from the reef and Poulsen found himself drifting about seven miles from shore. 

It was a long night for Poulsen. Fatigue set in, but he couldn’t sleep. The waves wouldn’t let him. The torture had drained what energy he had left and his body was getting numb. 

Poulsen’s spirits lifted when dawn arrived. He spotted a Coast Guard boat about 100 yards away, but the crew didn’t see him. More anguish. Then he spotted a rescue plane from the Twin City Squadron Civil Air Patrol. The plane was piloted by veteran Clarence Kass with Curtis Folstad serving as spotter. The plane had no radio. 

Kass flew the plane toward the Coast Guard cutter, dove to about 300 feet from the ship and then headed back toward Poulsen’s location. The Coast Guardsmen picked up steam and followed. They had the signal from Kass figured out. Sailors from the ship rendered first aid as the ship headed for shore. A doctor and medical-aid person were dockside when the ship reached shore. He was taken to the Sturgeon Bay hospital.

The physician, who happened to be a pilot, flew Poulsen home two days later. He took a nurse with him to make sure the patient was in good hands. 

When Mr. Murphy, an astute newsman, went to interview Mr. Poulsen for his column, the man who cheated death was swathed in bandages from head to foot. 

“I put my trust in God,” Poulsen told Murphy during the interview. Murphy was convinced of that.