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Volunteers ready SS Meteor for summer

Volunteer Bob Brennan, 76, of Anaheim, Calif., cleans the brass on one of the SS Meteor’s many portholes during a volunteer workday Saturday for the whaleback ship in Superior. Brennan’s father worked as an able-bodied seaman on the ship in 1937, when it was named the SS South Park. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)2 / 4
Volunteer Jimmy Shaw, of Marshfield, Wis., uses a grinder with a wire brush to prepare a staircase on the SS Meteor for painting Saturday in Superior. See video at duluthnewstribune.com. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)3 / 4
The whaleback ship SS Meteor is seen at Barker's Island in Superior. The ship was launched 119 years ago, on April 25, 1896. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)4 / 4

Before it was named the SS Meteor, before it became a museum open to tourists, Bob Brennan’s father sailed on the whaleback freighter now permanently berthed at Barker’s Island in Superior.

Brennan was among the 40 volunteers readying the ship for summer tours Saturday, walking in the places his father walked in the 1930s when it was named the South Park. It was renamed the SS Meteor in 1943.

He noted the irony of a trip to the area 15 years ago, before he knew Barker’s Island was the ship’s final resting place.

“I probably drove right by it,” he said.

He recently found a photo of his father, who also was named Bob Brennan, standing at the helm of the South Park — but he didn’t know the ship still existed until he looked it up on the Internet and learned that it had been renamed, he said.

After connecting with the Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society, he traveled from his home in Anaheim, Calif., to help with the society’s annual SS Meteor Spring Work Weekend on the ship, which opens for tours in mid-May.

Like his father, Brennan also was a merchant mariner, but this weekend was the first time he had been on the same ship as his father, he said. He had a photo taken of himself standing in the same spot at the helm of the SS Meteor where his father stood for the photo in the 1930s, he said.

The Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society’s annual weekend of improvement projects on the SS Meteor draws volunteers from all over, many of them divers who like to explore the shipwrecks along the North Shore, said Sara Blanck, director of Superior Public Museums.

Blanck created a list of needed work that included painting, cleaning up the exhibit area, going through documents, folding up flags and making beds. The volunteers that show up have a great skill set of engineers, welders, painters and mechanics, she said.

“It’s a museum director’s dream to have them here,” Blanck said. “The progress they’ve made is outstanding.”

The SS Meteor, constructed in Superior, is the last surviving whaleback freighter designed by Capt. Alexander McDougall. Saturday marked 119 years since the SS Meteor was launched — as the Frank Rockefeller — on April 25, 1896. It opened as a museum in 1972, but the maintenance on it was minimal, said Phil Kerber, president of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society.

The Wisconsin Underwater Archeology Association hosted the cleaning weekend beginning in 2001, until it handed over the maintenance responsibility to the shipwreck preservation society in 2004. The society has been able to do more maintenance during the weekend because it’s a larger group, and members of the archeology association still join in to help during the weekend, Kerber said.

If someone wants to work on a historic ship, the weekend of projects is a perfect venue for that, Kerber said.

“We have a job for everyone,” he said.

Although the recommendation is for volunteers older than 16, they made an exception for Duluth resident Ethan Rentschler, 11, this year because of his fascination with the ship.

Ask Ethan a question about the SS Meteor and he’ll respond with details about its unique qualities and size. He said he’s amazed at how the ship has held up, given its age, and by how small it is compared to modern vessels.

He’s done a lot of his own research by reading books on whaleback freighters since his first tour of the ship with his uncle. He wanted his own membership to the SS Meteor for a birthday present and wants to become a tour guide when he turns 15. He wants to follow his father, Dan Rentschler, by becoming a merchant mariner when he turns 18.

He’s been crossing off the days on a calendar until the SS Meteor’s cleaning weekend, his mom Sarah Rentschler said, adding, “He was up early like it was Christmas today.”

He spent the day folding flags and polishing brass instruments on the ship. His favorite moments were when he was able to be above deck, he said. His mom said he was most looking forward to polishing the brass.

“He said, ‘I hope no one else wants to clean the brass,’ ” she said.

Best of all, he’s been able to go places in the ship he wouldn’t normally be able to see on a tour.

“I’ve been almost everywhere today,” he said.

Online: Find more information about the SS Meteor at superiorpublicmuseums.org.

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