The man who opened the U.P. to the world

“Webster Marble is the greatest outdoor inventor-entrepreneur that nobody has heard of.” 

So says Dennis Pace, a retired advertising executive from Lansing who was a driving force in the creation of a Webster Marble exhibit first shown in Lansing in 2015. The exhibit, Inventing the Outdoors, has now found a permanent home in the Marble Arms Museum at the Delta County Commerce Center in Escanaba. 

Who was Webster Marble?   

Many say he was the man who put the Upper Peninsula on the map as an outdoor recreation destination. Marble was an outdoorsman born in Milwaukee who landed in northern Michigan as a boy, when his father moved to a remote area of the U.P. 

Growing up in the woods, he became a land cruiser, whose job is to size up and survey land for timber companies.    

Webster MarbleMarble worked as a land cruiser for 20 years. A slight man, standing about 5 feet 2 inches and weighing not much more than 100 pounds, he often had to lug a load — 50 pounds of heavy equipment, such as surveying chains and a big surveying compass — on his back through the woods for weeks or months at a time.  

His desire for more manageable tools led him to start inventing.

By 1898, Marble had designed, prototyped and patented his first invention: the pocket safety axe, with a blade that folded into the handle.

Then he invented a compass that could be worn on a wrist or pinned to a coat. And then he realized the needle in the compass was hard to read in dim light, so he invented the rotating dial. The compass’s whole dial rotates rather than just the needle, so it is easier to read.

Gladstone became home

Marble moved to Gladstone with his wife, Rosa, and their young son, William, in 1887, just as the town was forming. Gladstone grew up around him. Their second son, Floyd, was born there.  Marble became active in the community, serving on the Gladstone school board. He also became heavily involved in the Episcopal church, serving on the church board for many years. Marble’s wife, Rosa, died in 1923, and he married her younger sister, Eunice, a year later. 

In 1899, with a high demand for the tools he had invented and more ideas brewing in his mind, Marble established his own firm, the Gladstone Manufacturing Company, in a shed behind his home. The first product he made there, the Marble Universal Gunsight, came to be used by well-known gun manufacturers like Winchester, Remington and Colt. 

The safety axe was one of his most popular early inventions, so he renamed his company the Marble Safety Axe Company. The company’s name would change several more times until it finally became Marble Arms, which remains in Gladstone to this day.

While inventing outdoors tools in his shed, Marble initially went back to the woods as a land cruiser to support his family. But his tool-making side business grew and grew, so he quit land cruising to nurture it. By 1907, his backyard shed operation had grown into an enormous manufacturing plant that covered several blocks and employed hundreds. There he manufactured invention after invention, such as the Marble Ideal Knife for hunting and camping and a waterproof match box that he invented after he fell into the Sturgeon River and soaked his matches. 

A new view of the outdoors 

At that time, the U.P. was viewed as nothing but a wilderness. Marble turned it into a place to live and build a business. 

He was a visionary. He saw that more people were coming to work in cities like Detroit and Chicago. They were living in hot, crowded tenements. They worked long hours, and they longed to get outside. People were starting to look at the outdoors in a new way, as a place where they could relax and have fun. Trains — and later, automobiles— opened the North Woods to them. No longer was hunting, fishing and trapping just a way to survive.

Inventing the Outdoors was originally on exhibit at the Michigan History Center.

Marble capitalized on this changing view of the outdoors. He invented and marketed hundreds of new tools, winding up with more than 60 patents.  He became a household name as his Marble Arms & Manufacturing Company outfitted millions of outdoor enthusiasts with Michigan-made products. Explorers from Teddy Roosevelt to Charles Lindbergh came to depend on Marble gear. Lindbergh carried Marble’s knife, compass and match box on his first transatlantic flight in 1927. 
Webster Marble died in September 1930 and was buried on the Protestant side of Fernwood Cemetery, one of the earliest cemeteries in Gladstone.

The Webster Marble exhibit

In 2014, Pace, who serves on the board of the Michigan History Foundation, donated a large collection of Webster Marble tools and memorabilia to the State of Michigan. The following year, the Michigan History Center created the 250-piece Webster Marble exhibit, Inventing the Outdoors.

When the exhibit opened, the Michigan Senate also commemorated Marble by passing a resolution declaring November 15 as Webster Marble Day.

Inventing the Outdoors is the story of a man of the woods who became a
uniquely Michigan entrepreneur,” says Pace, who is curator of the exhibit. “It’s also the story of how the outdoors became the U.P.’s largest industry, how outdoor recreation and U.P. tourism was born.”

When the exhibit closed in Lansing, it moved to the Iron Industry Museum in Negaunee. From there, it was put in storage. 

The Michigan History Center’s director, Sandra Clark, wanted to preserve the exhibit.

“Webster Marble was a wonderful example of entrepreneurship and inventiveness in Michigan,” she explains. “We say that's who we are. And that's exactly who he was. Just about anybody who has ever hunted or done anything outdoors in Michigan owns something of Webster Marble’s.”

When Webster Marble was inventing and marketing his inventions, the whole economy of the U.P. was undergoing a transition from exploiting our natural resources through lumbering and mining to a place where people could come to relax and enjoy those natural resources, Clark goes on to say. “Webster Marble saw that transition happening and led the way.” 

Clark worked with Pace and enthusiastic supporters in Escanaba to give Inventing the Outdoors a permanent home. 

The famous Marble Safety Axe is among the displays at the exibit in Escanaba.

Vickie Micheau, executive director of the Delta County Chamber of Commerce, envisioned making the exhibit an anchor of a long-desired welcome center in Escanaba, close to Marble’s Gladstone home. With a lead gift from the John and Melissa Besse Foundation, state and local contributions helped make the building — and the exhibit — a reality.

“Webster Marble understood economic development — that raising up an entire region would benefit every business in it,” says Micheau. “He is also a fine role model for business owners and leaders. For a region that is working hard to retain and attract talent and to encourage entrepreneurs, Webster Marble reinforces the ‘can do’ U.P. attitude.”

The interactive exhibit’s tale begins in the late 19th century, when a rapidly urbanizing America began to seek wild and beautiful places for recreation and relaxation. 

Among the hundreds of artifacts on display are Marble’s safety folding axes, many models of iconic hunting knives, automatic fish gaffs, waterproof matchboxes and the famous Game Getter gun used by hunters, campers, soldiers and scouts worldwide. It also contains Marble’s original journals, hand-drawn section maps from his timber cruising days and artifacts from the old Marble factory in Gladstone.

“To my mind, one of the most interesting things about the exhibit is the opportunity for kids to experience history hands-on,” Pace says. “They can build a 19th century timber cruiser’s lean-to shelter, sit around a campfire to tell stories and sing old camping songs, or design and build their own inventions at the Webster Marble Creation Station.”
For those who can’t make the trek to Escanaba, there is a virtual tour of the exhibit. 

Jennifer Donovan is a reporter with more than 40 years of experience on daily newspapers, magazines and university writing and editing. She is retired as director of news and media relations at Michigan Technological University and lives in Houghton.
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