UP Centenarians’ Club: George Butler

George Butler is seen in the Northern Michigan College Peninsulan Yearbook in 1956. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

You many have heard by now that the Marquette Regional History Center is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. As part of that celebration, we’re recognizing people, businesses and organizations that have also joined the “U.P. Centenarians’ Club” who have also reached that milestone. One of those people, was George Shearman Butler.

He was born in lower Michigan in 1893, grew up near Holland and graduated from Michigan State University in 1917 as a landscape architect. He never fully intended to become a teacher, thinking his expected salary was too high for any school district to hire him, but Sandusky (Michigan) hired him to teach vocational agriculture anyway.

Just a year later in May 1918, George was drafted into the Army and was sent to Waco, Texas, where he received training in the dental clinic, learning everything from mixing amalgam to extracting teeth. He served just shy of seven months and does not appear to have served overseas or been promoted beyond the rank of private. Following his discharge in December 1918, he returned to teaching in Sandusky. In June 1919 he married Florence McConnell, they went on to have two children, Virginia Long and Keith Butler.

In 1927 the Upper Peninsula lured him across the straits to teach and coach athletics in Grand Marais. He promised that if his boys’ basketball team trained well he would enter them in a basketball tournament in Marquette. When the day of the tournament finally arrived, the roads were impassable with snow and the nearest snowplow was in Munising. But that morning the boys showed up expecting to go and insisting that a promise was a promise.

So George, the entire team and a couple of substitutes strapped on their snowshoes and began the 25-mile trek to Seney, hoping to catch the 6 p.m. train to Marquette. Halfway there, already well into the afternoon, some of the players’ energy and spirits lagged. George positioned a sure-footed back-court player at the front of the line to break the trail and sent a couple of the faster boys ahead to hold the train. Luckily, five miles out from Seney, the road was blown clear of snow and there was a truck waiting for them.

When they finally reached Marquette, Butler hustled the team up the hill to Dr. Casler’s office where the physician gave each boy a turn in his vibrator chair to shake loose their stiffened muscles. The team lost the tournament but the real victory was making it through the final whistle of the game.

George went on to establish 1,320 acres as the Grand Marais School Forest, one of the largest in the nation, and eventually became the Superintendent of Schools in Burt Township. In 1935 he joined the staff of the former Northern State Teachers College in Marquette (now Northern Michigan University) where he taught conservation, botany, forestry, and agriculture courses.

From 1948 to 1959 Butler developed and directed NMU’s conservation laboratory which took place on Munuscong Bay in the far eastern U.P. for nine weeks each summer. One of the first years that the program was co-ed, two of the girls decided to play a prank on the boys. They slipped into the boys’ quarters and spread rouge on all the toilet seats. It was hours before anyone noticed the stains in the darkened room. When word of the prank spread, all the boys returned to the barracks to see if they had been branded. Hardly anyone had escaped. When word reached Butler, he decided the best course of action was silence. The girls never discovered that their trick had worked so well that (allegedly) the branded conservationists had lined up in the shower room for a photograph of their backsides.

His conservation work led to a number of awards, including the Nash Certificate of Merit of Conservation Education in 1953 and a special citation for “outstanding contributions to conservation” from the Soil Conservation Society of America in 1975. George Butler died at his daughter’s home in Marquette on Jan. 29, 1995 at the age of 101. He was the last known World War I veteran to be buried in Park Cemetery.

To hear more fascinating stories of area people who reached 100 years of age, join us at the Marquette Regional History Center for the UP Centenarians Club on March 7, 6:30 p.m. There is a $5 suggested donation. The Longyear Library is seeking information on members of the club — U.P. residents who celebrated their 100th birthdays, both living and deceased. If you are interested in sharing this information, please contact Librarian Beth Gruber at beth@marquettehistory.org or 906-226-3571. The information will be placed on display at the History Center for this event and will later be added to the library’s permanent collection.

We also have a Centennials Special Exhibit on display through May 12. This exhibit explores our museum’s history and what was going on in our county and nation in 1918. It celebrates the many businesses, people and organizations that are 100 or more years old. From centennial farms, cherished family camps, banks, service organizations and more! Learn about the first Lions group to form in Michigan in 1919.