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True to His Roots

Bud Overholzer's obsession with Michigan's decimated trees lives on in his strange and wonderful Shrine of Pines.

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By Susan and Michael Stahl

The Shrine of the Pines is Raymond Overholzer's memorial to the butchered wilderness that supplied his livelihood as a hunting and fishing guide more than 50 years ago. Located off route M-37 just south of the tiny town of Baldwin, in Michigan's Lake County, the shrine is a 2,500-square-foot log cabin that Overholzer erected on the banks of the Pere Marquette River to house and display the furniture and fixtures he'd made by hand from pieces of natural pine that he found in the surrounding woods. There are accommodations for 12 hunters in the cabin, but Overholzer never intended anyone to live in it, and no one ever has.

There are more than 200 pieces of Overholzer's work in the shrine, most constructed with the remnants of enormous white pines that were lumbered off in the first couple decades of the century: double beds, bunk beds, daybeds, bedside tables, gaming tables, fireside chairs with hollowed-out places for a dog to sleep, a "bootleggers' table," complete with holes for shot glasses and a hollowed-out leg big enough for a fifth. Twelve ladder-back chairs surround a dining table, seven feet in diameter, that Overholzer made from a 700-pound stump. He spent two days cutting the stump with a one-man crosscut saw and fashioned inlays to fill places that had rotted. The perfectly smooth table reflects light from a roughly oval four-by-six-foot window, the frame of which was once a giant root that stuck out into the river and had often snagged Overholzer's boat. He got the glass for the window from a store in town and scraped off the paint that read GROCERY: WE DELIVER. At a certain angle you can see the ghosts of these letters.

Raymond "Bud" Overholzer, whose last name means "dweller beyond the woods," was born in 1890 and grew up in Paulding County, Ohio. He ended up marrying his elementary-school teacher, Hortense Brown, who was 23 years his senior, and sometime in the 1920s he brought her and his mother to Lake County, where he made his living mainly by catering to wealthy sportsmen who came for the copious game and fish the region has always offered. When steelhead or salmon were running the narrow, serpentine Pere Marquette, sport fishermen would hire him to take them out in his scow, which he maneuvered with a long pole. Hunters would hire him to help track game through the forests, such as they were: by then the lumber companies had just about finished harvesting the last of the giant virgin white pines that had dominated the area. The thriving towns that had sprung up around that industry--like those that had sprung up around the coal and marl industries in the county--melted away as soon as the raw materials were gone, leaving behind only stumps and legends.

Overholzer learned taxidermy from a man who'd once taken him and his wife in for several weeks during a snowstorm, then started making bases for trophies out of the scraps of trees--roots, branches, stumps--left behind by the loggers. Most people familiar with his legacy say that the devastation of the pines by the lumber barons touched him deeply, stirred a compulsive desire to salvage whatever remained. He would find a severed root or limb during one of his fishing or hunting forays, drag it home, remove the bark, sand it, and turn it into anything from a door handle to a piece of furniture. He would then burnish the piece with deerskin, heat from which would cause the sap to rise to the surface, giving the wood a lustrous amber finish. "My husband had three ideals underlying his work," his wife said in an interview after his death. "Each piece had to be done by hand from Michigan white pine, had to be useful, and must cost nothing."

Around 1940 Overholzer bought 28 acres on the banks of the Pere Marquette and, with the help of two other men, began assembling the hunting lodge of his dreams, which included an enormous fireplace and chimney constructed from an estimated 70 tons of natural stones collected from around the area. He and Hortense lived in a small fishing cabin that was already on the property, and he constructed the lodge right up against one side of it.

On one wall of the lodge SHRINE OF THE PINES is spelled out in roots that resemble letters of the alphabet, some of which took Overholzer years to find--becoming a folk hero, like fishing, requires patience and determination. A photo hanging by the door shows him working on one of his pieces, his face set in stern concentration. Rather than spend money on sandpaper, he took used sanding belts from lumberyards and glued ground glass to them. By the end of a day's sanding his hands would be raw and bloody, and Hortense would wrap them with poultices of deer tallow. The next day he'd be at it again. Word of mouth attracted many curious visitors, and the Overholzers proudly showed off the fruit of Bud's labor, charging admission and conducting tours.

The Society for the Preservation of the Shrine of the Pines, a nonprofit organization formed by local citizens in 1980, is now responsible for the maintenance and display of Overholzer's work. Chairman Roy Warner conducted tours for many years, and still gets excited as he describes each piece in detail. "The main door is really one of the most impressive pieces," he says, pointing out a few joining pegs just visible between vertical logs as thick as a man's arm. "At the top of this end log is a pin about the size of a rolling pin, and at the bottom is a round white oak wooden ball, and that's what the door turns on. It's amazing that it hasn't worn enough yet so that the door doesn't work good." He opens the door, which swings inward without a sound. "Mr. Overholzer didn't use any nails or screws or metal of any kind, only pegs and glue." Nor did he use any power tools or varnish.

To make a gun rack, Overholzer hollowed out a massive trunk, cutting a door in one side and using a gnarled root for a handle. At the top of the freestanding contraption, roots protrude from a ten-inch wooden sphere to hold the barrels of 12 guns. The sphere is mounted on a platter with 12 depressions to hold the gun stocks, and the whole top section spins as smoothly as a skateboard wheel on wooden golf-ball-size bearings.

The peculiar shapes inherent in the wood have inspired lots of interpretation, creating a lore within the shrine that's continually evolving. "Some people see a squirrel running down the leg of this table," Warner says. He also points out a mouse poised between the runners of Hortense's rocking chair and an anchor in the chandelier.

Mixed in with the furniture are dozens of stuffed birds and animals--a great blue heron perched on a rafter, a snowy owl with its wings outstretched, a case full of smaller birds with their eggs, many of them now protected species. Above the front door hangs a moose head, and on a little table sits a stuffed mink killing a stuffed muskrat.

"A lot of the things that we know and use [as tour guides] are what's been handed down from one person to another," Warner says. "Some of it probably is not real accurate. We do the best we can with what we have. There are no written records that we know of, so we just have to go with what people tell us."

About 20 yards from the main lodge is a tiny cabin that's now a gift shop. A wooden plaque calls it "The Widow's Cabin," and the tour guide will probably tell you that Hortense had it built after her husband's death because she didn't feel comfortable living in the fishing cabin that she and Bud had shared. "That sign has always been there as far as I know," Warner says. "But one time not long ago a man came up to me after I'd just finished giving a tour and told me that Mr. Overholzer had actually been involved with another woman in his later years. Mrs. Overholzer went to Chicago for a while, but then she came back and had that little cabin built. She lived there while Bud lived with his mistress in [the fishing cabin]. We don't tell people that because we don't want to distract attention away from Mr. Overholzer's work. After all, that's what the shrine is about."

After Overholzer's death in 1952 Hortense wanted to ensure that his work would be preserved, so she bequeathed it to Boysville, a Catholic organization that provides services for boys suffering from abuse and neglect. Based in Clinton, more than 200 miles south, Boysville took over the shrine after Hortense died in 1959, at the age of 93. Marie Moore, a local historian who knew the Overholzers, says, "Her idea was that Boysville could use it as a training school for the boys, that they could train them as guides. But the distance was too great." When Boysville was compelled to put the property up for sale in 1982, a group of local citizens rallied to raise $168,000 to buy it--despite the fact that developing the land might have meant more revenue for the county, which is one of Michigan's poorest.

As stipulated in Hortense's will, the lodge and all of Bud's artwork still belong to Boysville. "They lease the building and artifacts from us for a nominal amount," says David Jablonski, Boysville's director of public relations, "very nominal--next to nothing."

"I'm quite sure [Overholzer] would be happy that his work has been kept intact, in excellent condition, for this many years after his death," Moore says. "It's quite a feat that these people have accomplished, holding it together and operating it--a group of people who didn't particularly have business training, who weren't in the resort business."

Roughly 10,000 people visit the shrine each summer. From the middle of May to the end of October, managers Dee and Harry Carr occupy the fishing cabin where Overholzer and his wife used to live. An avid hunter and fly fisherman, Harry Carr says that he isn't superstitious by nature, but he often feels Overholzer's presence, especially when he's standing in the river with a fly rod in his hands. "I'm always looking over my shoulder, seeing someone out of the corner of my eye," he says. "And sometimes at night after we've closed the gates, the doorbell will go dingdong for no reason at all. It made us a little jumpy at first. But now we figure it's just Mr. Overholzer checking up on us, and we say, 'Hello, Raymond. Everything's just fine.'"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.

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