Michigan Slim: A backwoods hermit

Local ‘character’ was well known throughout region

In the mid-20th century, if you went to Big Bay and asked for Max Hackel, folks would shake their heads and say they’d never heard of him, unless, of course, you just happened to talk to the postmaster.

But if you asked for “Slim” or “Michigan Slim,” well, that was different. Everyone knew Slim!

They’d give you directions to the Salmon Trout River and to Panorama trail. Out there in the woods, 9 miles from Big Bay, you’d find “Grasshopper Ranch.” It was just a tiny cabin in the woods and Slim lived there, a peaceful existence except the occasional troublesome bear.

Max Hackel was born downstate in January 1889. His early life was fairly normal, growing up with five siblings. In May 1913, he married Muriel Myrtle Rose in Sault Ste. Marie. Then, during World War I, in June 1918, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. He served for a year in the Black Hawk Division. But when he returned home in June 1919, he found that while he was gone, his wife had run off with another man.

After divorcing Muriel, Slim spent four years holed up in the Canadian wilderness working as a lumberjack. From there he drifted into professional gambling, making a regular circuit. But during that part of his life, he was introduced to the Upper Peninsula wilderness, taking time out from his travels to hunt and fish.

By 1925, Max was ready to try again. He married Clara Hanson, a music teacher from Munising, whom he’d met during his travels. He settled into a job with an oil company and covered a territory through Michigan and Wisconsin. That marriage lasted slightly longer than the first but it also ended in divorce in 1934 and Slim headed back to the woods.

He drove out to sand plains north of Big Bay, where he found an old blacksmith shop in a deserted lumber camp. He cleaned out a corner of the building for his bed. A friend asked what he was going to call the camp.

“Grasshopper Ranch,” he answered. “Won’t grow anything but grasshoppers in these sand plains.”

Slim had a good life in the woods. In addition to his own hunting, fishing and exploring, he worked as a guide for other hunters and fishers. He also ran a trap line in season, lumberjacked, worked on the road crew and even dabbled a bit in moonshine. About once a week, he would go into town for mail and supplies to fill out the game and other foods he could gather in season. For a while, he served as the commander of the William Beerman American Legion Post in Big Bay and he also served as justice of the peace for 14 years.

It was as justice of the peace that he even performed a wedding. The couple knocked on the door of the tarpaper cabin, brushed through woolen socks steaming over the oil drum heater, and into the kitchen with its cans of peaches and stacks of cereal boxes piled across the table. Slim slid the beaver he was cleaning into a crate near the stove while he said the words. Later, he thought he might as well have left the beaver on the table- the marriage didn’t last anyway.

Over the years, Slim’s main trouble was bears, including one that barged right into the cabin. After smearing molasses all over the floor and stove, the bear left through a “closed” window. In another encounter, Slim was walking home with a full catch of fish. “I had a chew in my mouth, so when he looked up. I spit in his face and he took off.”

Slim remained in the woods for 44 years, living life on his own terms and forging his own unique lifestyle. At the age of 89, he moved to the Palmer Nursing Home, where he died less than three weeks later, on April 6, 1978.