Old Yooper’s life story on display

Jordan Beck

Over the 72 years of his life, John M. Longyear was a landlooker, a politician, a coal mine owner, a photographer and an honorary Yooper. It’s a combination of roles that’s made him a legend both in and beyond the Upper Peninsula. And, now, the Marquette County Historical Society has created an exhibit about his life and times. “The Longyear Legacy” will run from Monday, Sept. 16, 2013 to Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014 at their museum facility, the Marquette Regional History Center (MRHC).

According to museum educator Betsy Rutz, Longyear maintained a strong connection with the Upper Peninsula throughout his life. He managed a large portion of the area’s timber and mineral rights, had a house and camp in the region and was even the mayor of Marquette for a year.

It’s that connection that inspired the historical society to create an exhibit about Longyear’s life.“He is a very, very revered gentleman in the community, and so we have been asked questions about him for years,” Rutz said. “People are interested in his life and his legacy, so that was what inspired us to say ‘we should do an exhibit.’”

That’s not to say that “The Longyear Legacy” was a spur-of-the-moment creation, however. According to Jo DeYoung, the museum’s curator, it’s been in the planning stages for quite a while.

In fact, the historical society began planning the exhibit about a year ago, before doing research over the next few months. And they had a lot of material to go through.

“We have an enormous collection here, [including] photographs, travel journals, hand-drawn maps and notebooks,” DeYoung said.

A large part of that collection was loaned to the museum by Longyear’s descendants, many of whom still visit the Marquette area regularly, DeYoung said. The family has been deeply involved with MRHC for a very long time. Longyear himself donated his personal library to the organization almost a century ago, and a bequest from his wife helped them to buy their original museum facility.

While “The Longyear Legacy” is tied to the Historical Society’s origins, it’s also just one of the four temporary exhibits they present each year.

“This year alone, we’ve had a luge exhibit, an exhibit on Bay Cliff Health Camp and an exhibit about bicycles,” Rutz said. “Last year, we had a tool exhibit, a canoe exhibit, a Girl Scout exhibit and a collection of photographs.”

The man “The Longyear Legacy” focuses on has been dead for decades, but DeYoung believes that his story can resonate with today’s college students.

“Longyear had a very interesting life, between his travels and making his money working as a landlooker,” DeYoung said. “I think anyone would really enjoy the exhibit.”

Rutz said she agreed, while also emphasizing the widespread appeal of Longyear’s tale.

“There is so much you can learn from the life of one person. Believe it or not, the travels, endeavors, adventures and mistakes of one person’s life can inspire you, surprise you and be very fun to take a look at,” Rutz said.

“The Longyear Legacy” is now open for public viewing at the Marquette Regional History Center, located at 145 W. Spring St. in Marquette. Admission for NMU students costs $3 with a school ID.