Max Bielenberg and J.M. Longyear

The Longyear household at 424 Cedar St. is photographed on Nov. 1, 1889. Max Bielenberg is pictured third from the left. The woman second from right is thought to be Elise, his future wife. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

MARQUETTE — At a time when the concept of social class divided people in America, two Marquette men formed an authentic friendship that transcended economic status. One was John Munro Longyear, the wealthy land speculator who founded the exclusive Huron Mountain Club. His friends knew him as Munro. The other was Maximilian Johannes Bielenberg, a Norwegian immigrant and handyman. His friends called him Mox.

Physically weak but showing a precocious propensity for entrepreneurial savvy in his youth, J.M. Longyear (1850-1922) came to the Upper Peninsula on a doctor’s recommendation to work in the woods in order to build strength. After early challenges adjusting to life in the wilderness of the Upper Peninsula, Longyear soon became an adroit woodsman. He developed a landlooking business, then became a successful real estate speculator. Eventually, Longyear owned the equivalent of at least three percent of Michigan, and was regarded as one of the wealthiest American men of his day.

Maximilian Bielenberg (1857-1907) was born in Oslo, then called Christiana. His father was a German carpenter from Gluckstadt, a master carpenter who, with his younger brother, helped to build St. Jacob’s Church in Oslo, now known as Trefoldiget. He later worked as an architect on another church project in Norway. Max’s mother was Norwegian. Maximilian spent his adolescent years at sea and became an experienced sailor.

He then came to America, and eventually settled in Marquette with two of his brothers by 1886, earning a living as a painter. Soon after arriving in the Upper Peninsula, Maximilian Bielenberg became part of Longyear’s household staff, working as a jack-of-all trades and handyman for the renowned businessman.

During this time, the men shared a series of outdoor adventures that created a lasting bond of friendship. In 1887 Longyear purchased a naphtha-fueled launch boat he dubbed the Abbie after his eldest daughter. In the next years, Bielenberg joined Longyear and his guests on fishing expeditions around Lake Superior and to Isle Royale. The 1889 trip to Isle Royale is preserved in Longyear’s The Cruise of the “Abbie,” a jovial memoir of a fishing foray with Longyear’s brother and wealthy associates.

Longyear was an avid photographer, and loved to use his cameras to capture the beauty of Upper Peninsula wilderness. Robust and agile, Bielenberg was one of few people who could keep up with the experienced landlooker in the woods. Longyear trusted him to haul his expensive 5×8 camera through the bush. Some of the most remarkable photos in Longyear’s albums of that era were taken with that camera.

He also trusted Bielenberg with his life. Longyear chronicles that on July 30, 1889, the crew of the Abbie stopped at the Black River near Ironwood. Longyear wanted to photograph some waterfalls, and only Mox would join him on a hard scramble in the woods to get the best pictures.

At one precipice, Bielenberg held onto a tree by his legs and firmly gripped Longyear by the ankles while the millionaire snapped a daring shot of a waterfall from above. The two men returned to camp safely, albeit with scrapes and bruises, having captured images that continue to awe over a century later.

The Longyear Mansion was constructed between 1890 and 1893. It is likely Max Bielenberg and his brothers were involved with building this massive new home. Evidence of how much work they did on this project may still remain undiscovered in the voluminous Longyear Collection at the Marquette Regional History Center.

Bielenberg died from burns sustained in a house fire in 1907 caused by lighting a kitchen stove. Five years after this tragedy, in his Reminiscences written in 1912, Longyear fondly remembered his companion of several years. He recalled that Mox was excellent handyman, able to do quality tool work in wood and metal. Longyear described that Bielenberg was a man of quite some education, from a large family consisting of architects and artists.

Today, the Marquette Regional History Center is fortunate to have descendants of both men as life members. They access the extensive Longyear Collection, consisting of tens of thousands of original photographs and documents, to learn details about the lives of these two adventurous friends.

In fact, Bielenberg’s relatives have discovered interesting photographic evidence about Mox’s life through exploring the Longyear Collection. It appears that he met his wife, a Swedish immigrant named Elise Nilsdotter Lundin, while she was also an employee of the Longyear household.

Give the gift of life membership to the Marquette Regional History Center this holiday season. Life memberships cost $1,000 and guarantee access to the J.M. Longyear Research Library forever at no additional cost. This is a gift that is particularly valuable to children or young adults that you want to ensure have a strong understanding of their heritage.

Call 906-226-3571 for more information.