The Legend of Spikehorn Meyer and His Bear Den
One of Michigan's most colorful characters was John E. Meyer. Most Michiganders who were around back then remember him as “Spikehorn” Meyer.
Spikehorn was born July 15, 1870 in Ohio. The family moved to Michigan's Upper Peninsula where Spikehorn was raised in the wilderness. Like many men in the U.P., Spikehorn took jobs lumberjacking and mining...and then something happened that forever changed his life: he found a baby black bear. He ended up taking care of the cub and his love for bears kicked in.
By the 1930s, Spikehorn was in his sixties and had accumulated more bears, all of which he had taken care of since they were cubs. He had a good-size menagerie of baby bears and full-grown bears, all of which were tame and showed love and dedication, just like pet dogs would do.
He had so much love for his bears that he felt he should share the bears with the public...and see that bears didn't necessarily have to be scary. So, in the 1930s, Spikehorn opened his bear den which had other animals as well: birds, buffalo, deer, fox, porcupine, and raccoons.
Decked out in his buckskin and long, flowing white beard, Spikehorn greeted his customers and gave them snacks to feed the animals: the bears loved bottles of pop and popcorn. The bears were not in cages and customers could play and feed them freely. The bears just walked around like it was no big deal...just like dogs.
Spikehorn's Indian friend Red Eagle was on hand to help with customers and take care of the animals. Between the two, they would entertain guests with their stories about living in the wilderness and the tall tales they could concoct about living the frontier life.
As maybe expected, some customers were played with a little too forcefully by bears and lawsuits arose. Nobody was ever killed by a bear, a little roughed-up maybe, but not killed. Threats to shut him down fell on deaf ears...there was no way Spikehorn would give up his bear friends. Conservation officers came a handful of times, concerned about the safety aspects of humans and bears mingling. They finally took him to court for his resistance to get a permit, which resulted in a sign that Spikehorn put out front that read “Feed Conservation Officers To The Bears”.
In January 1957, it all came crashing down. A wood stove caused a fire that burned his souvenir shop. He rebuilt by October, but in March 1958 he suffered a stoke. He became paralyzed from the waist down and was unable from then on to take care of his beloved bears. He ended up in a Gladwin nursing home where he passed away on September 19, 1959. Spikehorn is buried in the Salt River Cemetery in Shepherd, Isabella County.
Spikehorn had over twenty bears, slept in his buckskin, had no conveniences (except electricity), lived in a log cabin, and kept an early 1800s musket by his side. He never married or had any children...the bears were his children.
The old bear den still sits along Old 27, reminding those who were around that long ago about an old frontiersman who loved his bears.
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