Isabella County History

Isabella County Obituary Index

As a service to the community the Clarke Historical Library has created an index to obituaries published in Mount Pleasant newspapers.

Through a grant from the Library of Michigan to the Clarke Library and the Veteran's Memorial (Mount Pleasant Public) Library, this index has been digitized. The digitized index resides on the Veteran's Memorial Library website.

Please go to the Veteran's Memorial Library website to use the index.

Microfilmed copies of the indexed papers are available both at the Clarke Historical Library and the Veteran's Memorial Library.

Portrait and Biographical Album

You have selected for viewing the volume listed above, which was scanned from the collection of the Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan University. The original volume is retained in the Clarke Library. Detailed information regarding the volume, scanning methodology, and a copyright statement are also found on this page. If you experience problems downloading this pdf, first try right clicking the link and click "save link as...", if you still have difficulties please contact the library to arrange for photocopies of the desired pages.

Additional Information

Call Number
Scanned Pages
Title page and pages 176 through 584.
Omitted Pages
Biographical material regarding presidents of the United States and governors of Michigan found on pages 1 through 175 and various unnumbered introductory pages. In addition the pages 231-233 and 371-374 were not scanned because they are not located within our copy of the book.
Epson Expression 10000 XL at 600 DPI. Original scans were in .tiff format but were converted to jpg for quicker downloads.
Copyright to this scanned version of the 1884 Isabella County Portrait & Biographical Album is retained by the Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan University. The Library authorizes single reproductions of scanned pages for reasons of personal research or multiple reproductions by not-for-profit institutions using the image for non-profit, educational purposes. The Library requests that when used for non-profit, educational purposes the "Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan University," be credited for creation of the scan. Other uses of these scanned images are prohibited unless authorized in writing by the Library. To discuss terms under which other uses may be authorized, please contact the Library at


John Cumming Isabella County Historical Preservation Award

Named in honor of John Cumming, the Clarke Library’s director from 1961 until his retirement in 1982, the Cumming Award was created as part of the 2009 Isabella County Sesquicentennial Celebration. It celebrates and honors individuals who have contributed to preserving the history of Isabella County.

Appropriately the first person to receive the award was Mr. Cumming. Other awardees in 2009 included:


  • HUDSON KEENAN, recognizing a lifetime body of work
  • JOYCE MCCLAIN, recognizing her long devotion to documenting Northwestern Isabella County Brinton/Sherman City​/Weidman and the development of a large historic photo collection.
  • WAYNE BARRETT, recognizing the restoration of Winn Masonic Temple and the creation in that structure of the Country Store Museum.
  • MARVIN LETTS, recognizing his instrumental work in documenting Isabella County’s Old Settlers Association.
  • BONNIE EKDAHL, recognizing her many labors in behalf of documenting the heritage of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe and her pioneering efforts as the first director of the Ziibiwing Cultural Center.
  • ROSE COHOON, recognizing her work leading to the restoration and preservation of Little Red Schoolhouse and Shepherd Light and Power Building.
  • BEN WEBER, recognizing his work creating the Beal City Area Photo Collection and mini-museum.
  • MARILYN FORSBURG, for I Used to Go There for Dances, her historical review of Brinton from founding to fading and for her work in helping organize the Old Settlers Association.
  • DONNA HOFF-GRAMBAU, recognizing her long commitment to genealogical research and her work in bringing Isabella County family history to the internet.

Subsequent winners of the award include:


MARY ​ ELLEN BRANDELL, recognizing her lifetime of work documenting Isabella County and her service during the Isabella County Sesquicentennial celebration.


JACK WESTBROOK was recognized for his many publications documenting both Mt. Pleasant and Isabella County. Mr. Westbrook, the retired editor of the Michigan Oil and Gas News, has published eight books about the county, including,

  • Anointed with Oil  by C. John Miller; as told to Jack R. Westbrook
  • The Big Picture Book of Mt. Pleasant Michigan: Yesteryears to 2010
  • Central Michigan University
  • Isabella County, 1859 – 2009
  • Michigan Oil and Gas (2006)
  • Michigan Oil & Gas News 60th Anniversary Photo Review : A Pictorial Chronicle of Michigan Petroleum Exploration and Production History from Beginnings to 1993
  • Mount Pleasant: Then and Now
  • Mount Pleasant; Yesterday's School Kids of Isabella County: a Photographic History of Rural One-Room Schools in Isabella County, Michigan (co-authored with Sherry Sponseller).

MARY SUE SAZIMA, better known as Sue Sazima, was recognized posthumously for her pioneering work with the Shepherd Area Historical Society. For many years the Coe Township librarian, Ms. Sazima helped organize and served as the first president of the Shepherd Area Historical Society.  Ms. Sazima tirelessly worked to promote, advance, and assist the Society.  Her death in 2009 was deeply felt within the historical society and the community it serves.  


CHAD AVERY has unselfishly devoted vast amounts of time and energy into documenting the many families that compose the Saginaw Chippewa tribe. His careful and well documented genealogical research creates an important benchmark through which others can learn about their past or draw from a solid foundation through which to conduct additional research.  Chad has shared his research unselfishly, both through personal advice and through contributions of material to the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways Research Center.

SHERRY SPONSELLER has been active for many years helping preserve, document, and disseminate the history of Isabella County.  She has served d as president of both the Mt. Pleasant Area Historical and the county Genealogical Society. She has organized many cemetery walks and helped make possible the county sesquicentennial celebration. Through her efforts reprint editions have been made available of Isaac Fancher’s remarks made on the Isabella County Courthouse steps celebrating America’s centennial in 1876 as well as the diary of Elizabeth Hursh, wife of Mt. Pleasant’s first settler, John Hursh. In addition she has co-authored with Jack Westbrook Yesterday’s School Kids of Isabella County, a pictorial history of the children who attended the county’s one room schools.


LORETTA KOESTER was a charter member of the Shepherd Area Historical Society in 1978. Over the past thirty-five years she has given of her time unstintingly and helped the Society in many ways. She is perhaps best known for the time she spent each year during the Shepherd Maple Syrup Festival at the Little Red Schoolhouse Museum, where, dressed in period costume and her lovely bonnet, she hosts tours and identifies artifacts on display.
Out of the limelight Loretta has worked tirelessly as the chair of the Schoolhouse Museum, obtaining volunteers, maintaining the facility, and making sure the building is clean and presentable. She has also served as treasurer of the Shepherd Area Historical Society, and spent many hours there logging and labeling artifacts for display as well as filing historical documents for future use.

Her knowledge and wisdom have helped make the Shepherd Area Historical Society Museum and the Little Red School House Museum a success.

VALERIE WOLTERS has spent a lifetime in public education, including serving for twenty-three years as a first grade teacher at Mt. Pleasant’s Ganiard Elementary School. A simple question put to Val by a student, “Who was Mrs. Ganiard?” has led to an exemplary documentary project regarding the school and its history, beginning with a simple answer, “It was Mr. Ganiard.”
Val Wolters began the Ganiard History Project began with another simple question – “Did you attend Ganiard School?”  and Val’s knack for getting people to answer it in thoughtful and interesting ways. The Ganiard 75thAnniversary celebration, which Val spearheaded, an innovative program in which “alums” of Ganiard return to tell their stories to the school’s current students, and a scholarship fund at the Mt. Pleasant Area Community Foundation for the benefit of children who have attended Ganiard have all grown out of that innocent question about “Mrs. Ganiard.”
Although the 75th Anniversary Committee has completed its work, Mrs. Wolters is continuing her personal project, spending time learning about Ganiard and the other west side schools in Mt. Pleasant from published works, the internet, and more fruitful conversations with “new old friends.”


TAMMY PROUT is a lifelong resident of Isabella County who has devoted much of her adult time and considerable organizational talents to preserving memories of  our area's rich heritage by organizing a historical village at the Isabella County Fairgrounds, maintaining and scheduling rotating historical exhibits in the lobby of the Isabella County Building, working with Jack Anson  to co-produce a video named "Isabella  County: 150 years in the making" during the County's Sesquicentennial, organizing a vintage Fashion Show during that 150th celebration. Further, she was active in establishing the County's First Family Award program and helped reproduce Isaac A. Fancher's U.S. Centennial speech in booklet form. She has been active in the Genealogical Society of Isabella County, the Friends of the Faith Johnson Library at Rosebush and the Mt. Pleasant Area Historical Society.


LARRY AND JOYCE NOYES both grew up in Shepherd. Over many years they have actively pursued local genealogy as well as serving as officers in the Shepherd Area Historical Society. As genealogists Larry and Joyce are known both for their own work, and for their generosity in assisting others doing research. Within the Shepherd Area Historical Society, Larry served for many years as the organization’s president, while Joyce has offered equally long service as it’s secretary. Both have been deeply involved in the activities the historical society organizes to accompany the annual Shepherd Maple Syrup Festival. Larry has served as a key player in the village’s Powerhouse Museum. His tours of the facility are legendary. Joyce played a similar key role in the Little Red Schoolhouse Museum, where she has organized many tours as well as many classroom visits by school children. In connection with their work at the school house museum, Joyce and Larry were instrumental in the relocation of the historical marker noting the location of Isabella County’s first one room school to more accurately represent the true location of the facility. The two have also been instrumental in organizing and conducting tours of the Salt River Cemetery in Coe Township.


LOREN ANDERSON has devoted many hours over many years to preserve and promote the history of Isabella County.  He served chairman of the Isabella County 150th Anniversary Celebration, held on February 11, 2009. Since then he has maintained the Mt. Pleasant Area Historical Society changeable local historical display in the lobby of the Isabella County Court House (300 North Main Street, Mt. Pleasant). For many years, Mr. Anderson has evaluated local historical items from printed materials.  Mr. Anderson is a retired teacher who taught printing at Mt. Pleasant High School.

JUDY PAMP (aka Waabanoqua) has been the Assistant Director of the Ziibiwing Center from 2005 to present. She oversees its educational curriculum alignment, public and youth programs, assists with maintaining and sharing the Anishinabemowin language, and the sharing of Anishinabe history, language, and cultural knowledge with students of all ages.

She also serves on many local and state diversity, educational, and humanities committees to build a stronger awareness and knowledge of the Anishinabe of the Great Lakes and the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan.

For many years Ms. Pamp has volunteered to judge student projects for Michigan History Day including the state finals. Michigan History Day is an educational program of the Historical Society of Michigan and is an affiliate of National History Day.

Ms. Pamp is a member of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe of Michigan and from the Turtle Clan.


MARIE GREEN is a lifetime member of the Shepherd Area Historical Society.  Marie has served as a Trustee and Vice President. Recently, she has been a vital part in helping with the restoration of the Little Red School House Museum. The former one room school houses many artifacts and displays what school life was like for our ancestors. Marie worked relentlessly in acquiring estimates and bids used in obtaining grants. She also prepared the necessary inventory of what was needed.

Since Marie became a member, the Museum has been repainted on the outside and the windows and roof have been replaced. Many frames have been built and installed to properly house the many former class pictures. Countless other pictures have been framed for display. Marie kept all of the volunteers on course.
Her guidance working with the many other dedicated, hard-working volunteers have made The Little Red School House Museum, or as it was formerly known The Landon School, more effectively preserved for the future. Indeed, The Museum will continue to be preserved, enjoyed and be an asset for our community for many years to come.
Marie is a supporter of The John H. Goodrow Fund, which supports those in need who live in Isabella County. She is also involved with the Mt. Pleasant Community Foundation where there is an endowed Emerson W. Green Jr. Memorial Scholarship Fund.

Throughout her years living in Shepherd she has worked and supported the Shepherd Maple Syrup Festival, the Shepherd Jaycees, and the Shepherd Women’s Club. This year she was instrumental in organizing The Shepherd Women’s Club 100th Anniversary party. She made sure that every member past and present was honored.  She has also been honored by the Shepherd Lion’s Club as The Citizen of the Year.

WILLIAM "WILLIE" JOHNSON is a descendant of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan.  He serves the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways as the Curator and Team Leader for Cultural Resource Management Team. He has worked for the Ziibiwing Center since 1998.
He has 19 years of experience dealing with Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) issues; including the coordination of ancestral reburials for the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe as a NAGPRA designee.   He is also the Chairman for the Michigan Anishinabek Cultural Preservation & Repatriation Alliance (MACPRA) and helps coordinate NAGPRA efforts for all the federally recognized tribes of state historic tribes of Michigan.  He serves as the interim tribal historic preservation officer.

Through his efforts, the center’s excellence in exhibits and events has earned it numerous awards, including the 2006 Museum Award from the Michigan Cultural Alliance, the 2008 Harvard University’s “Honoring Nations” Award, and a Gold Muse Award from the American Association of Museum’s Media and Technology Committee.
In 2011, Johnson became the chairman of the Michigan Anishinaabek Cultural Preservation and Repatriation Alliance. He worked as a coordinator of Flint’s Stone Street Ancestral Recovery and Reburial Project, helping oversee the proper burial of more than 108 ancestral remains and their associated funerary objects that were inadvertently discovered during a construction project. He has also worked with many Michigan museums and colleges to accrue and respectfully inter Native American remains that had been removed from their resting places.
Johnson serves on the Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School Committee. The Boarding School, which operated from 1893 until 1934, sought to educate Native American children but also had the darker purpose of “taking the Indian out of the child.” The committee is charged with preserving and transforming this site to become a place of awareness, education, and healing for our state.
In 2012, Mr. Johnson has also been recognized by the Historical Society of Michigan with an award for Distinguished Professional Service.


SAM STAPLES, a businessman and philanthropist for almost 40 years, has worked to preserve local Isabella County history.  He was an early member of the Mt. Pleasant Historical Society and has long supported historic preservation efforts in the area.  His most significant contribution was the preservation of the historic Transport Truck Company manufacturing facility (1918-1924), starting when he acquired the structure in 1985.  His use of the building has maintained the historical elements of the structure.  His forethought in the 1991 acquisition, restoration, and operation of a 1920 stake-bed Transport Truck and the documentation associated with the company that built it is a singular achievement.  In 2017 he donated the truck to the CMU Museum of Cultural and Natural History so that this history will be preserved indefinitely and that the truck will continue to foster educational opportunities for students in the CMU Museum Studies Program, Cultural Resource Management Program, and the Mt. Pleasant Area Community Schools for decades to come.

JUDY WELSH has a long connection with Isabella County history.  Born and raised in Mt. Pleasant, her family has been connected to the Mt. Pleasant Fire Department for generations.  She is a 1962 graduate of Central Michigan University and was a special education teacher for 30 years in the Mt. Pleasant Public Schools. Her interest in the Transport Truck Company is personal, her grandfather having purchased stock in the company in 1919.  Between her connection to both the Transport Truck Company and the Mt. Pleasant Fire Department, she began to accumulate the documentary history of the company and the multiple restorations of the 1921 Transport Truck fire truck now on display in front of the Mt. Pleasant Fire Department.  During retirement she researched, collected, and developed a detailed history of the Transport Truck Company, which she recently donated to the CMU Museum of Cultural and Natural History.


WAYNE AND RUTH BARRETT are recognized for their long interest in local history, including their historic general store in Winn, MI as well as their continued community involvement with the Fremont Township Museum.

John Cumming Biography


Of all the things John Cumming enjoyed doing, collecting, printing, and writing were his three greatest loves.  Although his path to the Clarke took many years to complete, once he arrived John knew he had found his place.  John once enthused that coming to the Clarke each morning was like having Christmas every day.  He loved the things that serving as the Clarke’s director allowed him to do.  He also loved the unfolding story of the library.  He told a colleague that he could never commit suicide; he wanted to be able “to read the next chapter.”  Although John is no longer with us to share that next chapter, it is appropriate that we share with others the many chapters of his life.


John Cumming is not a native son of Michigan.  Born in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts in 1915, he grew up in nearby Worcester.  As a boy John developed a love for books.  His mother was an avid reader who passed the enthusiasm on to her child.  When a job as an office boy gave John a bit of money he frequently spent it in Boston’s long gone but still lamented Goodspeeds Book Store.

Even as a young fellow, John’s eye for a good book, and a good deal, was discerning.  He recalled for a newspaper reporter a windfall he came upon at Goodspeeds itself. At the time Goodspeeds had two shops.  The storefront “on the hill” was for upscale customers while those of more modest means frequented the establishment’s location on south Church Street. were the “lesser” books were sold.  One day while looking through the ten cent table at the Church Street location John stumbled upon a book of considerable value that had somehow been overlooked by the staff.  He promptly purchased it for a dime and marched over to the Goodspeeds “on the hill” where he resold the book for fifteen dollars.
As a young man John worked for several years for the Worcester Telegram and Gazette as a sports reporter.  Newspapers were very much in the young man’s blood.  Both his father and grandfather had worked as type engravers until their craft was made outmoded by photographic reproductions in newspapers. 

When not covering an event for the paper, John demonstrated himself a more than able athlete, excelling in track events.  It was his athletic skill that first brought John to Michigan.  Offered a track scholarship at what is today Eastern Michigan University, John packed his bags and traveled west from Worcester to Ypsilanti. 

After graduation John eventually found employment in the Detroit Public School system.  He taught journalism for several years and subsequently became a high school counselor.  During his years in Detroit John obtained a master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Michigan.

In September 1961 John was lured away from Ford high school to become director of the Clarke Historical Library.  In his many years as director John carried out a wide variety of roles and responsibilities.  As director of the Clarke perhaps his greatest accomplishment was in building the fledgling collection.  Dr. Clarke’s gift to his alma mater in 1954 was a generous beginning, but it was not a comprehensive body of material.  There was much work to be done.  John rose to the challenge of finding the important but obscure volumes that the collection needed, and took considerable delight in the chase.

In a speech he delivered as director John talked about his collecting activities.  He saw his role as something of the underdog.  “Wealthy, competent, aggressive collectors were amassing materials of this type for Detroit and Ann Arbor long before Central Michigan University was ever conceived.  One would think then that little would remain for a new-comer to collect.”  John, however, was convinced that there remained much to collect — if one were willing to do a little digging.

And dig John did.  He estimated that he traveled 28,000 miles each year chasing down leads.  He spent time listening to people.  As John noted, “Some days I stand around at a farm auction for hours, waiting nervously for a box of books to come under the hammer.  There may be one item that we want and it may be worth waiting for.  We wait nervously, hoping that nobody else recognizes it.  Seldom, however, do we find any rare books at farm auctions, but we do meet people there who have things that we want.”  Seldom, indeed.  John once estimated that in fifteen years of visiting farm auctions he had come upon five rare books. 

John once shared with an audience that one of the most thrilling experiences he had as a young man was catching a three and a half pound trout in northern Ontario.  Having shared with his audience his elation with his catch that day, he continued, “My fishing these days is for old books, letters, and diaries, and other items of historical interest.  But the thrill is just as intense.”

In the final annual report he wrote as director of the Clarke, detailing the library’s activities in academic year 1981-82, John allowed that, “Since there will be no more annual reports from this director, he may indulge himself in a few backward glances.”  These backward glances ran to seven finely printed pages and returned over and again to the joys of collecting.  In the twenty one years of acquisitions that were revisited, the many, many joys that John experienced collecting for the Library became clear. 

There was a great pride taken in this little “indulgent” essay in the number of pre-1851 Michigan imprints that the Library had located.   There were a few items listed of particular pride.  One was the second known copy of a broadside published in Detroit in 1809 addressed to President James Madison and listing the alleged shortcomings of General William Hull.  Another was obtaining the Maxwell Code, the first book published in the Old Northwest Territory.  A third treasure mentioned by name was a rare daguerreotype of the polygamous James Jesse Strang with his second wife, disguised as his “male” secretary.  But perhaps John’s favorite found treasure were the surveyor notes of Douglas Houghton.

In October 1972 John and a member of the Clarke staff, Bill Miles, had been attending an annual meeting of the Manuscripts Society, held in New York City.  As was the custom of the Society, an auction was planned at the close of the meeting.  John and Bill took a few minutes to peruse items soon to be sold.  Moving from one lot to the next, John happened to follow a man who had just looked at an otherwise untouched and poorly described group of unidentified “Michigan surveyor notes.”  With his wonderful knowledge of state history and keen eye, after a few minutes John came to an amazing conclusion.  He leaned over to Miles and in a hushed tone said “they’re Houghton’s.”  John had unearthed a treasure, Douglas Houghton’s daily survey notes for the years 1838 until his death in 1845.  

The notebooks represented some of the most important field surveying notes in the state’s history.  He quickly followed his initial declaration with a more forcefully whispered question, “who was that other guy?”  Fortunately for John, “that other guy” had not recognized the treasure that lay before him.  At the auction, after a token bid or two, he surrendered the lot to John.  One of the Clarke’s greatest treasures came home with John that day. 

John summed up his collecting activity as a joyful hunt.

One does not start the year with a plan to acquire certain basic items during that period, simply because the rare books desired may never appear in that year or subsequent years.  That element of chance adds to the excitement and interest of the searcher.  As with luck in most circumstances, one can help it along and sometimes unearth a rare book which might have remained undiscovered without the hunter’s efforts.

It seems very clear that John’s greatest pleasure as director came not in showcasing a volume within the Library but rather in the search to find a new and even better acquisition.

John’s greatest joy as director may have come from collecting, but collecting was hardly his only contribution to the Library and to state history.  One of his most significant acts was the pivotal role he played the preservation of Michigan’s newspaper heritage.  Like many other local historians, John realized that newspapers were the single most important source for local history. 

Unlike his colleagues, John took the time to survey this precious resource to better understand their availability.  He soon realized that these invaluable sources of local and rural history were rapidly being lost through accident or neglect.  Having discovered a crisis, in 1963 John set about to create the solution — a project to undertake preservation microfilming of the state’s newspapers.

Money was hard to raise.  The Kresge Foundation offered $20,000, but only if John could raise $30,000.00 additional dollars in three years.  Despite intense effort, as the deadline approached John was $8,000 short.  A last minute gift from the McGregor fund of $5,000 as well as “closing gifts” from several private philanthropists amounting to $3,000 made the project possible.  In September 1966 the Clarke was able to purchase two microfilm cameras and embark on a pioneering project to film Michigan newspapers. John emphasized the small town weeklies found in so many rural communities.   It was with no exaggeration when John said that, “This is one of the most important efforts at historical preservation ever undertaken in the state.”  In launching Michigan’s first newspaper microfilming project, John’s only mistake was to underestimate the need. John believed that the still ongoing project would be completed in about five years.

John also had a love of children.  He seemed to intuitively recognize the need to capture the imagination of young minds and the power of history to do so.  Two years after arriving at Central, in 1963, he was doing a television show seen in 243 Michigan schools.  “The only place history in unpopular is in the schools.” said John.  He delighted the children with his memorable tales that would linger in their minds for years.  Richard Miles recalls an episode when he was doing a presentation for a group of boy scouts.  As he talked about a particular item one youngster earnestly waved his hand for recognition.  Given the floor, the child asked Bill to repeat himself.  After listening again to Bill’s explanation, the boy said, “well, that’s not what that old fat man told us last year.”  John enjoyed tremendously learning of the detailed recollection the boy had of his talk, although he did take some umbrage at the adjectives “old” and “fat.” 

In 1982 John retired as director, but not without a final flourish.  The University, then as now, had an official “gift list” of parting presents from which a retiring employee might select.  When asked his wish from this list John, without looking at the paper, said, “a watch.”  He was gravely informed by those who decided such matters that a watch could only be awarded to those with twenty-five or more years of service and not to someone with a mere twenty-one years in the University’s employ.  John persisted, and took advantage of the University President’s position on the Clarke Board to make then President Harold Abel aware of his wish.  Abel waved John off, pointing out that things such as watches were not his responsibility.

If John was persistent on the point, so to was the University bureaucracy.  The conversation went on for days and became famous around campus.  To each of John’s requests for a watch the bureaucracy responded by asking that he select an item from the approved list.  When the day of John’s retirement party arrived John and the bureaucracy had come to an impasse. John refused to pick an alternate gift and the University officials in charge of the matter refused to offer a watch.  When it was Harold Abel’s turn to speak at the celebration he rose and with a sly smile said simply, “I don’t have much to add to what has already been said except, John, here’s your watch.” It was a touching gesture of respect and gratitude from the University’s senior officer. 

During his years at the Clarke John also was an active professional.  He was involved in a variety of organizations.  He served as president of the Michigan Archival Association.  He was also a director of the Historical Society of Michigan.  He was perhaps best known as an effective speaker, crisscrossing the state to share his infectious love of history with audiences throughout Michigan.

Although busy for twenty-one years at the Library and at professional meetings, John found time to cultivate a number of hobbies, the most lasting of which was his printing press.  Using a nineteenth century Chandler & Price platen press, John became a small publisher of considerable renown.  Taking from two to three hours to hand set each page of type, each of his many books took approximately one year to complete.  They were usually printed in runs of from three hundred to five hundred copies.  Originally John also personally bound his books.  In later years, however, the books were bound at a commercial bindery, John having decided that binding was far less enjoyable a hobby than printing.

Printing was in John’s blood.  Both his father and grandfather had worked as type engravers until their craft was made outmoded by photographic reproductions in newspapers.  John received his first press at age seven as a gift from his parents.  On an off John tinkered with printing for the rest of his life.  Having inherited a printer’s legacy, John worried greatly about the technical merits of his publications.  As John himself expressed it, “To me, it’s a work of art.”  John haunted old print shops, looking for additional typefaces to add to his collection as well as old borders, printer’s ornaments, cuts and engravings.  Ultimately John’s type collection included over six hundred fonts plus innumerable other items.  All this type, a careful eye for the printer’s craft, experience, and considerable skill created work that compared well against any other master of the printer’s craft.
Although John’s small press did indeed preserve the printer’s art, for many of his patrons what drew them to John’s books was less their great technical finesse then John’s eye for a “good read.”  The slender volumes that rolled of John’s press invariably told a fascinating tale. 

Perhaps those most enjoyed by John were books relating the adventure of travel and the seeking of fortune. An example of this type of book is the diary of Basil Austin.  In 1898 Austin joined thousands of other men seeking their fortunes in the newly discovered Alaskan gold fields.  Eventually Austin and a companion netted a few thousand dollars in profit.  He and his partner decided to celebrate by taking a trip to Dawson but their trip eastward continued until in the summer of 1900 they returned home to Detroit.  Unlike hundreds of other men who ventured to Alaska Austin was a good writer who kept a detailed diary.  It was just the kind of story John loved, despite the work involved.  As John himself noted,

            “It is really too big a job for a home print shop.  I print two pages at a time, fold the pages, and insert them into sixteen page signatures.  By Monday I have stiff muscles. ...  now that it is just about done, I am glad that I did it.  It is just too good a story to remain unpublished.”

Whether to the Alaskan gold strike of 1898 or the California gold fields in 1849, stories of men seeking to make their fortune in the rough and tumble excitement of a boom town filled the pages of John’s press.  The press of John Cumming told these tales in an invariably good-looking book.  The press never actually made money.  As John noted, the only accounting ink he ever saw was red.  However, in 1982 the Historical Society of Michigan recognized “the printer of Mount Pleasant,” through an award of merit. 

When not collecting or publishing, John was busy writing.  The “printer of Mount Pleasant” has also been described as the city’s principal historian.  His books This Place Mount Pleasant and his centennial history of Central Michigan University define the history of Isabella County and one of its most significant institutions.  In 1976 John distilled much of what he had learned about writing local history in the aptly named, A Guide for the Writing of Local History.       

Collector, printer, and author, all these describe John but they leave out an important aspect of the man: his legendary sense of humor.  In his early years at Central, university cars were emblazoned with the state seal. When using one of these cars for a field trip, John often indulged in a lunchtime pizza.  After having been served his pie and having eaten a piece or two he would ask to speak to the manager.  Proclaiming in his most official voice that he was the “state pizza inspector,” John would gravely shake his head and express his deep concern over the establishment’s sub-standard pepperoni.  If the manager had the temerity to suggest that he or she had never heard of a state pizza inspector or the alleged legally enforceable pepperoni standard, John would simply point to his state vehicle, parked with considerable calculation to be plain view, and offer it as proof of his official status. 

He delighted in efforts to “catch” staff members.  One of his most famous “gotchas” took place on the live radio show he and Bill Miles presented.  The day’s show was on Michigan place names.  Miles listened while John waxed poetic about the possibilities of visiting Paris or Paradise.  As this litany proceeded John suddenly ended his comments with, “and you Bill Miles can go to Hell.”  Hell, Michigan of course, but the line left Miles speechless.  With each passing second of dead air time John’s grin became larger.

Although always respectful of the many contributions made to the Library by its founder, John was not above having some sport even at Doctor Clarke’s expense.  A memorable incident occurred one day when Dr. Clarke sought entry into the Library’s stacks.  Dr. Clarke had been emphatic that his was to be a closed stack Library and no researcher, absolutely none no matter what their status, should be able to wander through the stacks.  Such an unwavering rule was bound to have unforeseen consequences.  One day as Dr. Clarke attempted to enter “his” Library’s stacks a new staff member, whether knowing to whom she was speaking or not to this day remaining a matter of some conjecture, physically blocked the door and informed the good Doctor that “no one, absolutely no one” could enter the stacks.  

Furious at the youngster’s impudence Dr. Clarke stormed into John’s office.  Savoring the moment, John slowly lit a cigar, this occurring in the era before smoking was banned in the building, and reminded the Library’s most important benefactor that the young lady was merely following the repeated instructions given by Doctor Clarke himself.  Staff lore does not recall Dr. Clarke’s response to this eminently logical answer but John did allow that his words were not the ones Dr. Clarke was seeking to hear.

The printer of Mount Pleasant and the longest serving director of the Clarke Library always had an eye for a good book, an ear for a good story, and a passionate commitment to share his books and his stories with others.  But the story of the printer himself is equally full of good books, good stories, and a more than its share of the devil.  Just as John’s press preserved and shared tales of lives well lived, lives too full of energy and accomplishment for him to allow them to pass unnoticed, so too John’s story is one of energy and accomplishment and tales too rich to be left untold.  Those of us privileged to carry on his work in the Library take this opportunity to pause, to thank, and to salute a man whose farsighted vision and life well lived deeply enriched the Library itself and each of us who knew him.