Reminiscing the early days of Luther

Looking back 80-plus years, as told by pioneer Joe Bull

Citizens of Luther embrace their local past — as made evident by local icons such as the Luther Area Museum, and annual community celebrations such as Luther Logging Days.

The memories of Luther pioneer Joe Bull, as recorded in the Sept. 15, 1938, issue of the Osceola County Herald, illustrates a picture of the early logging days of Luther and the bustling activity common-place in town well over a century ago.

As Bull's 72nd birthday passed in 1938, the Luther man, who was still active as a sexton in the cemetery and as marshal of the village of Luther, sat down with a reporter to share some of his memories.

Migrating to Luther in 1871 from Ionia County, Bull was 5 years old when his adventures in the north woods began. His parents paid $10 to have their household goods brought by horse and wagon to their new home.

Bull's father would walk through virgin forests with nothing to guide him but a narrow footpath to the nearest trading post, Reed City, then called Todd's Slashing, 20 miles away. He would carry 50-100 pounds of supplies on his back, "his footsteps hurried by the howls of the hungry wolf pack."

"Joe has memories of when pine was king, and Luther was a red-hot he-man town of 5,000 instead of a sleepy little village," the article stated. "He remembers when there were 30 bustling lumber camps within the radius of 10 miles and each camp housing from 50-100 men. Each night the karosene street lights reflected the board walks of Luther with throngs of lumberjacks in their colorful mackinaws."

Bull, closing his eyes, pictured the four leading hotes, the dance halls, the five saloons and the opera house, and could see the saw mill on the bank of the pond with "freshly-sawed lumber." The music of the roller skating rink rang through his memory.

"'Street fights every night,' he sighed, 'When some giant river man tangled with some husky swamper, it was a fight to the finish."

The article told how when Bull was 21, in 1887, he began working on the G.R. Peters narrow gauge Manistee and Luther Railroad, hauling logs from the south and west of Luther to the mill in Manistee, Peters' headquarters.

The engine was a small eight-ton wood-burner which would "snake 15 loaded cars upgrade in a hurry," and crossed the Pine River at Thorpe's over a log bridge about "three city blocks long and 55 feet high, which was quite an engineering feat of its day."

Bull stated wrecks were quite common on Peters' logging line, with the road being uneven, the curves sharp, and washouts frequent. Riding the heavily-loaded train was hazardous.

"'I remember one time we piled up three miles south of Luther,'" he remarked. "It was Saturday night and there were 50 to 60 lumberjacks from Peters' camp, riding the flats into town. Someone had left the switch open and neither I nor Will Hill, the engineer, saw it. We went plowing right through, and piled up the whole kaboodle in the swamp. Luckily, no one was hurt seriously."

Bull recalled strikes in the lumber woods of Luther, such as in 1890, when several camps laid down their axes and unhitched their teams, quitting cold, demanding a 10% raise and working hours to decrease to 10 hours per day. Company officials called in the state militia, putting an end to the strike in "short order."

With Bull's vivid descriptions of the past, as one walks through the streets of Luther and through the trails in the woods in the outlying areas, perhaps they will hear an ax ringing through a large pine, or hear a lone train whistle down a grown-over logging grade, reminiscent of a time gone by.