Martin Johnson Heritage Museum commemorates pioneer

IRONS — Martin Johnson was in many ways a renaissance man. As an artist, taxidermist, photographer, builder, farmer and naturalist, his original cabin and artifacts are preserved at the Martin Johnson Heritage Museum in Irons.

Tom Curtin, president of the Martin Johnson Heritage Museum, and his wife, Jill Engelman, are the curators. Visitors to Irons can see rustic cabin built by Johnson in 1901 and the one-room Eden Township Unit Schoolhouse in a clearing of pines along the roadside at Skinner Park.

Johnson donated 30 acres of his land to the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) of Hyde Park, Chicago, in the early 1920s. The camp ran until 1980. Camp Martin Johnson memorabilia also is featured at the museum.

Curtin has been a part of Camp Martin Johnson since his birth, with his dad, Tom Curtin Sr., being the camp director.

“I was first at the camp in 1951, after I was born,” Curtin said. “My dad was the camp director until 1956. I returned as a camper in 1965 and stayed every summer until 1968, during which time I became a camp counselor.”

Johnson was born in Sweden in 1859 and emigrated with his family to Michigan. When he came of age, he attended the Chicago Art Institute.

“It is believed he lodged at the YMCA during his schooling at the art institute,” Engelman said. “He never forgot the kind treatment.”

After his schooling, Johnson traveled throughout Michigan as a portrait and landscape artist. In the 1880s, he visited Lake Na-Tah-Ki, which was renamed Big Bass Lake, and built his first cabin. In 1901, he constructed a log cabin with a skylight for his permanent home and studio, which is now part of the museum.

“He sided the cabin not long after it was built,” Engelman explained. “He added a sky light, which was very rare for homes in the early 1900s. He used it to light his studio. The cabin is maintained just like it was a century ago. There is no electricity. What you see is how he constructed it.”

In the early 1920s, Johnson donated 30 acres of his land to the YMCA for a boys camp. He signed a lease allowing him to spend the remainder of his years living in his cabin. The camp opened in 1924. In following years, the camp purchased more land and expanded. When the camp closed, developers put lakefront houses on it.

“When the developers bought the property, they were going to tear Martin Johnson’s home down,” Curtin said. “Seven ladies who lived on Big Bass Lake took action to save his cabin. They formed the Heritage Park Council and began raising money to move the cabin from Big Bass Lake to Skinner Park. Once the home was moved, they undertook restoration and opened it as a museum. The Martin Johnson Heritage Museum now owns the two and one-half acres of museum grounds, the Martin Johnson cabin and the Eden Township Unit School and the contents in the buildings.”

Johnson died in 1931, and he was buried on Camp Martin Johnson with a large rock as a marker. Campers served as pall-bearers.

“His grave is now in someone’s yard,” Engelman added. “He never had a wife or children, but he has a number of relatives still in the area. He was called the Hermit of Big Bass Lake, but he wasn’t an actual hermit. He was a single man who lived off the land. He planted an orchard, hunted and fished for his food, and he built many of his own tools and whatever else he needed.

“He was an artist, a photographer, farmer and a taxidermist. He also was musical. He built his own camera and created a shutter release. He took self portraits of himself with the camera while he was creating art. There are several views of Big Bass Lake he painted on canvas, going outside and painting what he saw. People who know the lake and visit the museum recognize the locations.”

Nearly 400 photographs depicting the life of Johnson and the camp have been collected, and many are displayed at the museum. There also are paintings, charcoal and pencil drawings and original photos Johnson took including his self portraits. Camp Martin Johnson memorabilia, publications featuring Johnson and the camp and local Big Bass Lake and Irons artifacts also are displayed.

Curtin recalled his time at Camp Martin Johnson.

“When my dad was director, he built new rustic cabins as part of a redevelopment plan,” he said. “The camp became co-ed in 1956 until the time it closed in 1980. Some of the things offered at the camp were archery, shooting, swimming, water skiing, sailing, rowing and riding horses. Social skills also were taught. The racially diverse campers learned to live and work together, building lifelong friendships.

“Some of the people who attended the camp were playwright David Mamet; Natalie Cole, singer and daughter of Nat King Cole; and Bryant Gumbel, a TV journalist, and his brother.”

Every 10 years there is a camper’s reunion, Engelman said.

“When I began attending the reunions and meeting the former campers, I was impressed with all the over-achievers in one room,” she said. “Many campers were from Hyde Park in the south section of Chicago, and Evanston, north of Chicago. Others came from all over the U.S., and there were a few local campers. Local people remember the Wards Hills located at the camp, which were popular for skiing in the winter.

The Martin Johnson Heritage Museum is run completely by volunteers, and the operations are funded by small grants and donations. It is open from noon to 3 p.m. every Saturday in July and August or by appointment, and is located at Skinner Park on 10 1/2 Mile Road in Irons.

For more information call (231) 745-8505.