Kenyon Boyer: Keeper of history,
by Larry Chabot
Kenyon Boyer was known for many things, mainly as a cornucopia of history. But he had survived such colorful adventures that Ken Lowe, a former boss at the Marquette Mining Journal and later editor of Michigan Out-of-Doors, once wrote of him, “Beneath that pedestrian mien lay the soul of a swashbuckler.”
Born in Marquette in 1901, Boyer played football and basketball at Marquette High School and Northern Michigan Teachers College before transferring to the University of Michigan to finish his journalism degree. After graduation, he worked as a deckhand on a cruise ship which sailed to Argentina. When this vagabond life ended, his father bluntly confronted him: “When are you going to get a real job?” That was forthcoming.
Lowe, in a 1996 Out-of-Doors article, recounted the saga that earned Boyer the ‘swashbuckler’ label. In late October 1926, when most small boat owners were towing their craft into winter storage, Kenyon Boyer and his friend Fred Perry––an experienced lake and salt water sailor––left Sauk’s Head north of Marquette for Isle Royale in a seventeen-foot sailboat with a tiny cabin and one-cylinder engine. Their goal was 125 miles away, and the great lake was in a cranky mood.
Soon after push-off, they discovered their compass was defective. Within hours, the seas roughened into mountainous waves. At their crests, the boys frantically looked for landmarks. After the wind snapped their anchor in half, they eventually sailed into the safety of Chippewa Harbor on Isle Royale, which Lowe wrote was widely known as the wildest spot in America.
The young sailors spent four days on the island with a fishing family before sailing back to Marquette on calmer waters. Lowe quoted Boyer’s assessment of their predicament: “No one ever really appreciated a lighthouse until he is bouncing along in a cockleshell in a blinding snowstorm, guided by an inaccurate compass, in pitch darkness, eyes glued to the horizon in the general direction of where the beacon should be, hour after hour.” Oh, but the young know no fear.
After this escapade, Boyer did get some “real jobs” as a teacher and newspaper reporter in lower Michigan and Florida before returning north in 1931 to join Marquette’s first radio station, WBEO (later named WDMJ), owned by the Mining Journal. He also worked for that newspaper and the Munising News.
From 1932 until 1954, Boyer toiled on the business side of the Mining Journal, chiefly supervising the distribution system and its numerous paperboys.
The newspaper recognized this new local talent in an August 25, 1931 profile on Boyer, hailing him as “one of Marquette’s own sons who has been with WBEO almost since its inception, even assisting with the construction and set-up of the station, and putting together a phonograph record library. He gradually worked into announcing until today he is heard on the air a large portion of the time that WBEO is broadcasting.”
In less than a month, the new voice started a feature, “Know Your Marquette County,” which he wrote and delivered on air. Each quarter-hour segment, which required three hours of research, introduced his listeners to the history, people, and events of Marquette and the region. Although he’d not worked behind a microphone before, his journalism background made him a natural for WBEO (whose initials the irreverent staff, according to his daughter Jane, said meant ‘We Boys Eat Onions’).
As further proof of their sense of humor, during the 1949 Marquette Centennial celebration, a WBEO tribute backfired when the cast misread the script. Jane said the script called for a piccolo riff after the phrase “Spirit of ‘76”––which somehow came out “Spirit of the Piccolo.” Everyone burst out laughing.
In 1954, he started another series called “Historical Highlights” on the now-WDMJ. Using some scripts from the early WBEO days, Boyer produced an incredible 426 fifteen-minute talks, which aired each Sunday.
After the first hundred talks, Boyer wrote a retrospective for his listeners, thanking them for their listening and comments. He said he tried to interest all ages in “the fascinating history of our area. The area is so rich in history that one hundred more could easily be given. I would be pleased to hear from you on future subjects.” Then came his familiar sign-off, which is fondly remembered to this day: “Until next Sunday, good afternoon.”
His first talks covered times more than two or three centuries ago, about missionaries, trappers, and explorers of the Lake Superior region, followed by mining, shipping, early trails and roads, sports, music, Indians, fires, fairs and manufacturers. He showcased the stage line which ran between Marquette and Escanaba, and the beginnings of Northern Michigan University in 1899, when the first sixty-one students arrived on campus. Taken as a group, the scripts comprised a small encyclopedia.
In an editorial tribute after Boyer’s death, the Mining Journal noted the incredible number of his historical programs were “certainly a state record and possibly a national record.” His prodigious output (and remember he had a full-time job, too) required about 1,400 hours of research and air time. For good measure, he also penned a weekly “Ninety Years Ago” piece for the paper.
After twenty-three years of newspaper and radio work, Boyer became managing director of the Marquette County Historical Society, a job he held until his death. His daughter Jane recalls he and his wife Dorothy did everything from setting up historical displays to checking the furnace on weekends. He went far and wide to seek new members and material donations. One highlight of his efforts, with Northern Michigan University professor Lew Allen Chase, established that presidential widow Mary Todd Lincoln visited Marquette and other Lake Superior towns in 1867.
Busy as he was, Boyer got to enjoy his favorite lake. In his book So Cold A Sky, TV-6 meteorologist Karl Bohnak cited a July 1936 incident during “the greatest U.P. heat wave.” Lake Superior did provide relief for one young couple.
“My dad had a little sailboat,” said Jane. He and his soon-to-be bride Dorothy would take the boat out into the lake. “They would just slide off the boat and float around to cool off. They told me it was just beastly,” she recalled. “The weather finally cooled off in time for their wedding July 17.”
Another Lake Superior outing, this one off Granite Point, brought him a place in the record book that lasted over half a century. In the summer of 1944, with his friend Ned Watson, Boyer hauled in a forty-eight-inch, fifty-five-pound lake trout. The fish was so huge it snapped the rod in half and had to be conked on the head with a wrench to kill it. The enormous fish was displayed in a local grocery store where, said Jane, “it was so big it scared little kids.”
Boyer told an interviewer that “we filmed it, chopped it, and ate it.” He never fished again. The record stood until August 1997 when Baraga County’s Lucas Lanczy caught an even bigger laker.
In a March 2009 Marquette Monthly story on Helen Longyear Paul, librarian Pam Christensen recorded an incident during a 1960 trip to New York by Paul, Ernest Rankin and his wife, and Boyer. Paul was the daughter of John Munro Longyear, who founded the Marquette County Historical Society, museum, and research library, stocking it with his vast collection of books, maps, photographs and manuscripts.
The travelers were staying in an Ithaca (New York) hotel when Paul failed to appear for breakfast. Upon investigating, her companions were shocked to learn she had died during the night. Jane said her dad was greatly shaken by this experience.
In his work and contacts, Boyer was known for his even temperament and sense of humor. He loved Lake Superior and everything about it, and enjoyed his camp at Middle Island Point (built by his father more than 120 years ago). In addition to many other talents, he was ambidextrous, and could write with either hand.
How did he manage to get it all done?
“He was a workaholic,” said Jane, and with his heart problems, “he probably worked himself to death.” As the Mining Journal tribute pointed out, “He was never too busy to stop his own work in order to help others.”
Boyer died December 12, 1963, and is buried in Marquette’s Park Cemetery. Three days after his death, WDMJ presented a memorial program of tributes from prominent people who knew him and his work. Featured were Mining Journal executives, NMU professor and historical society president Richard Sonderegger, and mayor/historian Fred Rydholm.
In 1936, Boyer married Dorothy Jones, the daughter of Elmer Jones, founder of Jones Ford––one of Marquette’s first auto agencies. Dorothy died at age ninety-five on July 26, 1999. Jane, their only child, married Robert John and they have two daughters and six grandchildren. Now retired from Peter White Public Library, she has a complete set of her dad’s radio scripts, as do the library and Marquette Regional History Center. Her son-in-law has the original Underwood typewriter on which Boyer typed his manuscripts.
Historians and researchers still comb through the Boyer scripts, fifty years after his passing, and Jane gets feedback from those who remember his talks and traditional sign-off. Many clearly remember coming home from church and turning on the radio for his unforgettable historic gems.