Into the Wilderness with J.M. Longyear

John M. Longyear is pictured snowshoeing. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

Because of the depth of his family’s involvement in the Marquette Regional History Center, John Munro Longyear is one of the best-documented figures in Marquette County history. We hold many of his artifacts and letters, and photos both of and by the man friends knew as Munro. One theme that stands out about Longyear’s historical record is his authentic love of nature and gratitude for its role in his personal development. Wilderness transformed him from a sickly teenager to a capable and confident man. Surviving in the forests of the Upper Peninsula gave him strength and self-reliance.

The Marquette Regional History Center is leading a trip to J.M. Longyear’s property at Ives Lake in the Huron Mountain Club June 3. Tickets have sold out. As a highlight of this Huron Mountain Club summer adventure, J.M. Longyear’s great-grandson John Case will speak about Longyear’s fascinating life story. The Cases have also generously allowed the History Center to auction a chance to lunch at their private Huron Mountain Club cabin at a future date. The lucky few attending this year’s event should consider bidding on this once in a lifetime opportunity to gain private audience with the Cases to learn more about the Longyear legacy.

J.M. Longyear, born in 1850, son of a Lansing attorney, suffered serious health issues in his early years. As a teenager he was, he later reflected, a semi-invalid. Tall and gaunt, prone to exhaustion, young Longyear left a boarding school in Washington, D.C.,when he collapsed and was hospitalized for several weeks. He also injured his leg in a woodcutting accident, and had difficulty walking due to the wound. Doctors recommended the frail young man improve his health by spending more time outdoors.

Longyear came to the Upper Peninsula in 1872 to work as a landlooker, evaluating property holdings and timber values for affluent landowners. In his first year in the U.P., he inspected land in the Keweenaw Bay for Henry Thurber, proprietor of a lucrative timber company. Traveling by foot with a heavy pack, Longyear soon wore out his shoes. He had met inexperienced men in the woods without proper footwear, and sincerely worried for their safety. Longyear realized the role of healthy feet in wilderness survival and began experimenting with sustainable shoeing solutions. Longyear’s own words suffice to describe the interesting results.

“I did not find a solution to the problem of footwear until the following year when I tried some large shoepacks. The shoepack is an Indian-French device, usually of heavy leather, made like an Indian moccasin. For several years I used these with two pairs of socks and a piece of blanket (called “nips“) folded about the foot, summer and winter. They were very comfortable. In summer, when the weather was hot, I always waded in water as soon as possible after starting in the morning, and kept my feet wet during the day.”

In 1874, Longyear joined Frank Brotherton on an expedition to Isle Royale to inspect state mineral reserve lands. The island’s dense vegetation made it challenging to explore. However, the men pushed through the jungle-like forests. This experience tested his outdoors skills, and Longyear later expressed satisfaction with his new ability to thrive in nature. “When I first went into the woods, I was very awkward, continually tripping and falling over logs and stones. After the first year I found I had acquired the knack of traveling easily in the woods. My muscles were toughened to the work, and I had learned how to keep my reckoning and a sense of direction.”

Longyear soon earned a reputation for precision and an impressive ability to move quickly through the woods. In fact, many guides did not like measuring distance with him because he walked so fast and expected others to keep up. Longyear himself saw his learned ability to walk the woods as a point of professional pride. “My pacing, through practice, became very accurate, and I gained the confidence in my own work that is absolutely necessary in woods work- or any other work for that matter.”

In 1878, Longyear’s diligence as a landlooker began to pay off financially. He was hired as an agent for Boston-based Frederick Ayer, who owned Lake Superior Ship Canal Railroad and Iron Co., which acquired 400,000 acres to build a canal between Portage Lake and Lake Superior.

Ayer paid Longyear in land for managing the property.

This opportunity helped Longyear grow his own business, which controlled over 1 million acres of land, equivalent to 3 percent of Michigan, when he died in 1922.

Looking back on his early years in the U.P., years filled with hardship and physical risk, Longyear described his fascination with wilderness, and expressed a sentiment anyone who has spent a good deal of time in the woods can appreciate. Living in nature involves an unforgettable form of freedom, and it can be jarring to return to civilization after extended periods of solitary independence.

“There has always been a strong fascination for me in forest and woods life. During my five years of almost continuous work in the woods this fascination did not diminish, although the hard, grueling work, short rations, etc., often made me resolve to stop going to the woods. Yet I discovered that after twenty-four hours in town, I was eager to return to outdoor living, which tended to develop a man’s self-reliance, patience, and perseverance; in fact, all his physical and mental resources. You are obliged to do everything on your own.”

His experience of nature allowed Longyear’s physical strength and confidence to blossom, and he became a nationally significant community leader. Those attending this year’s trip will learn more about J.M. Longyear at the camp he built at Ives Lake in the Huron Mountain Club, have opportunities to photograph one of this undercelebrated visual artist’s favorite places in the U.P. wilderness, and meet his great-grandson John Case, who will tell richer tales of J.M. Longyear’s life.