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Winter on the Johnny Smoker

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

My mother and father were reasonably generous and just as parents go, and as kind as possible for Norwegian Americans, but when I was eleven, they did something I still have trouble forgiving: They refused to sell our home on Boxelder Street and move to a steamboat.

My older cousin, Christine, had just given me a new book for Christmas: Winter on the Johnny Smoker, by Mildred Comfort. I stayed in my room the next day and read the book to the end. It was the first book I couldn’t put down.

Here was the Dustin family of Read's Landing, where the Chippewa River meets the Mississippi. Captain Dustin, his wife, Permilia, and their six children. The heroine of the story was ten-year-old Rella Dustin.

Captain Dustin had just bought his very own, small steamboat, the "Johnny Smoker." He had a contract to cut a timber tract thirty miles below Read's Landing. So that November, the whole family moved onto the boat, steamed down to a cove near the timber tract, and let the boat freeze in for the winter.

And what a cozy and romantic winter that was for this happy family. Their first meal in their new home was fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, rutabaga, and hot buttered biscuits—my favorites, except for the rutabaga. Breakfast was usually thick pancakes and sausage. The Dustins picked berries for pie, shot deer and ducks for meat.

While Captain Dustin and the older boys cut wood, Permelia home schooled the young children. At recess, they made snow angels. Sundays, they sang hymns and read the 23rd Psalm by the warm kitchen stove, while it was below zero outside.

There was even a mystery to solve; you'll have to read the book to find out what it is.

But my folks would have none of it. They were deaf to my pleas to buy a boat. I grew up in a plain old house and grew up to become a plain old schoolteacher.

But even now, on some late evenings when the wind is still, I swear I hear the whistle of the “Johnny Smoker” passing Rock Island, but by the time I get down to the levee, it's already gone.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.