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Living on the Island


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Front windows, looking out over the waters of the busy harbor to the long sand peninsula which is the harbor’s southern boundary, serve as a constant reminder to John Matson and his wife Hilda of the days that used to be. Those were the days of their carefree youth and early married ife when “The Island,” as the peninsula was then called, was their home.

The now barren sand waste was the site of two hustling lumber towns, Buttersville and Taylorsville, and down on the point, where Lake Michigan and Pere Marquette lake meet, was Fintown, a colony of fisher folk most of whom emigrated from Finland and Sweden.

Through the living room window of their home on West Loomis Street, Mrs. Matson pointed out a large spreading lilac bush just west of the Pere Marquette memorial shrine which now dominates the site.

“My mother planted that lilac bush,” said Hilda Matson, now herself a grandmother of 17 grandchildren. “It is all that is left of our home which stood just behind it and of the beautiful old-fashioned flower garden which mother tended every summer.”

Hilda Matson waas born on The Island, the daughter of Charles and Augusta Wilson, who had emigrated to America from Sweden. Charles was a sailor who sailed on the lumber schooners and Augusta stayed at home with their seven children. She was known as a good angel to all the families along the length of the peninsula. For many years she attended the mother and helped as midwife with every baby born on The Island.

“Many a night there would be a rap on our window,” Mrs. Matson recalled. “Mother would get up immediately and go to assist with the birth of a new baby.” Many of the those babies are senior residents of Ludington (Mich.) today.

John Matson came to America with his parents from Finland when he was 10 years old. Herman Matson, his father, got a job working in Taylor’s mill, a busting center of the lumber industry then located on the site where the Mrquette memorial cross stands today.

“We first lived in one of the company houses where rent was free to the men who worked in the mill. At that time (1893) 40 to 50 of these frame houses, all alike, lined each side of the plank road which led from Buttersville along the peninsula to The Point, which was Fintown. Later we moved to a house further west on the plank road which my father bought for his family,” said Mr. Matson.

Little John Matson, along with other children from The Island attended First Ward school in Ludington. They crossed the harbor channel on a cable ferry running between Taylorsville and the foot of Ferry Street in Ludington. “John Stram ran the ferry,” he said. “School children traveled back and forth free of charge, Stram being exempt from city taxes for performing this service. All other foot passengers and teams crossing paid a small fee.” Mr. Matson went on to explain that running the ferry was a thriving business. All the farmers from Claybanks in Pere Marquette and Summit townships hauled their produce down the plank road from Buttersville and crossed the ferry to Ludington instead of going around the head of Pere Marquette lake and crossing the state road bridges.

Like many other children of his day, John Matson received little in the way of formal education. As soon as he was considered old enough to work (before he was 12) he was taken out of school in the early spring to help his uncle on a farm in Amber. When only 14 he got his first job in the Butters mill, hauling barrel staves for the cooper shop. He went to school only a few months in the winter when the mill shut down.

John Matson grew to manhood working at the Butters mill and was foreman of the cooper shop, in which he started, when the mill burned down in August, 1909. He transferred to the Stearns mill on Pere Marquette lake in Ludington’s Fourth ward, continuing there as foreman until it closed down in 1917. During those years the mills ran only in the summer time and young Matson worked winters at other jobs, sometimes logging in the woods, and other times fishing with his Finnish neighbors, commercial fishermen living in Fintown. For a few years, too, he shipped as wheelsman on Great Lakes freighters.

In later years he has been best known in Ludington and throughout Western Michigan as a piano salesman and tuner. Working with the late Louis F. Peterson, he was a piano salesman for Cable Piano Co., traveing throughout Western Michigan for a number of years. While with the Cable company he earned to tune pianos and for the last few years has confined his work almost entirely to tuning the instruments.

On the last day of December, 1904, John Matson and Hilda Wilson were united in marriage by the late Rev. Mr. C. V. Vestling, pastor of Emanuel Lutheran Church in Ludington for many years. The ceremony was performed in the home on The Island where the yung couple immediately started housekeeping. On that New Year’s Eve of 1904 they held a big reception for their many friends in the famous Fintown dance hall, social center of the families living on The Island for many years.

About the last social affairs to be held in the dance hall were Saturday night dances held regularly throughout the summer months and patronized by many couples from Ludington, who came by boat and ferry across the harbor channel. John Matson and his friend Oscar Holmstrom managed the parties and also played for the dancing. Mr. Matson played the violin, Holmstrom, a mandolin with Paul Matson, his brother, Andrew Nass and sometimes others, including Louis Peterson, making up the rest of the orchestra.

“I can remember the posters on which we used to advertise here in town,” said Mr. Matson. “They read: ‘Come one, come all; Come big and small; Enjoy yourself at the Finlander hall.’ And we really packed them in on many a Saturday night.”

Mr. Matson still pays his violin though now he confines himself mostly to playing tunes from a Scandinavian Song and Dance Album for his own amusement. His friend Andrew Nass taught him how to read notes when he was still in his teens and he taught himself how to pay the violin just through hours and hours of practice.

Interesting to readers of today may be Mr. Matson’s boyhood recollection of the Finnish bath house on The Island. This was a log house, perhaps 12x13 feet, he said, fitted on the inside with a big stone fireplace at one end and a raised platform running all around the other three walls just as they were built in Finland. Families would take turns going there for their baths, he explained, each person washing himself from a pail of water carrried to the raised platform and all enjoying the heavy steam created in the bath house by someone throwing pails of water over the hot stones of the fireplace.

The Matson’s oldest son Eugene was born on The Island in 1906. A short time later they were the last family to move from the isolated spot to Ludington. Their house at 404 West Loomis Street from which they look out across Pere Marquette lake to the old home site, was built out of lumber brought over from The Island on rafts. “My father gave me three houses over there,” said Mr. Matson, “and I used the best lumber from the three of them to build this house.”

The Matson home is far from being the only one built from lumber ferried across from the ghost towns on the south side of Ludington harbor. Mr. Matson named several on West Loomis Street and in othr parts of the city still in use today which were built from lumber salvaged from the abandoned houses.

“West Loomis Street was pretty much settled by folks moving across from The Island,” he declared. “We could not stay there but we had to get where we could at least look out over the water.” The big Fintown dance hall was brought over and served for several years as a meeting place for a temperance society then fourishing among Finnish residents of the city. It was located on East Danaher street and his since been remodeled into a residence.

The Matsons celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with a big party at Luther Hall in December, 1954. Assisting them in the celebration were five of their seven children, two having died in childhood. Living are three sons, Eugene and Robert, both of whom reside on West Loomis Street, and John, who lives on Bryant Road, and two daughters, Agnes (Mrs. Thomas L. Herndon of Hammond, Ind.) and Margaret (Mrs Marvin Taylor of Lansing.) There are 17 Matson grandchildren.

Mrs. Matson has a sister, Mrs. John Gustafson, and two brothers, Oscar and Arthur Wilson, still living in Ludington. Of the 11 children of Mr. and Mrs. Herman Matson, John, his brother Walter and their sister Mrs. Donald Crawford are the only ones remaining here.

Leonore P. Williams The Ludington Daily News, July 24, 1956 Submitted by June Pelo

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