One day this fall I’ll go back to Ma Deeter’s, the only tavern in Luzerne Michigan, that small, four-corners settlement on M-72 between Grayling and Mio. Ma Deeter’s first opened in 1921. A year ago today (October 2, 2015), the old log building burned to the ground. Now newly restored, Ma Deeter’s reopened on August 30.
Of course, we have to go back. Anyone who reads this magazine has a favorite watering hole somewhere in northern Michigan. Ma Deeter’s was mine. If I had a dollar for every hotspot map drawn on a cocktail napkin, I would….well, you know what I mean.
I first stopped here with my brother on a summer day in 1971. We had been trout fishing on the West Branch of Big Creek, and two or three nice brookies lay diapered in leaves in the canvas creel we dipped in the cold-running stream. Blistering heat shut down our fishing early that day, and the dusty ride down USFS roads made us thirsty.
“MA DEETER’S This is God’s Country,” the marquee said. “Please don’t drive thru town like hell.” We stopped for a beer. It was ice-cold and cost a quarter. We bought one for an old-timer, still wearing hip boots, who had come up from the East Branch. He had enjoyed a good morning of fishing, too.
That incident occurred 45 years ago. Hard to believe, I suppose, that for 50 years before then Ma Deeter’s had watered, fed and bedded fishermen and deer hunters and the lumbermen who came before them.
Not much has changed in Luzerne since the town was founded in 1881 by Major Myron B. Hagaman, a Civil War veteran. When Anna L. (Ma) Deeter, then 21, and her husband William arrived in 1903, the village included a post office, dilapidated blacksmith shop and grange hall which doubled as a funeral parlor. A school house near the cemetery served Sunday school kids as there was no church or minister in town.
Majestic stands of white pine were depleted in the 1890s, and when the Deeters arrived from Metamora, where they had run a hotel and meat market, the hardwoods were going fast. Cedar would be next. Turn-of-the-century photos already showed a mostly barren land. Thousands of logs run through the Au Sable River system depleted the forest but also destroyed spawning beds made by the grayling.
The Deeters worked a 120-acre farm near Luzerne and opened a general store in town. Driving their oxen team to Roscommon for supplies, the trip took two days. As sportsmen poured in from Detroit, Chicago and the eastern U.S. to hunt and fish, they hired horse teams working the boat docks at Oscoda and Tawas to take them into the wilderness. Many were early customers of the Deeters.
To help handle increasing business, Anna and William opened a small restaurant that specialized in chicken dinners. People came from as far away as Saginaw for the dinners, which included soup, ice cream and pie, and cost 75 cents.
The original Ma Deeter’s, built in 1921, was a block north of town. For 20 years it served sportsmen who paid up to $1.50 per day for three meals and a place to sleep. Anna and William also offered rental cabins. When William died in 1936, the place was torn down; the new Ma Deeter’s opened on November 13, 1941, just in time for deer season. Deer hunters arose at four o’clock for a hearty breakfast and took a huge lunch into the woods. Ma and her daughters served supper well after dark.
Old photos I have seen of Ma Deeter show a slim-waisted, attractive woman with an abundance of dark hair. William appeared to be a thick man with football player shoulders and arms. No doubt he was the bar’s best bouncer.
Ma Deeter died at nearly 88 on Mother’s Day in 1967. She is buried in the local cemetery next to William and their eldest daughter, Mary Tippler. A heart-shaped tombstone bears the epitaph, “Here my heart lies in God’s Country.”
Yes, I’ll go back to Ma Deeter’s one day this fall. If you see me there, we’ll have a beer and compare grouse flush rates and how the dogs did today and how much better we hope to shoot tomorrow.
In the heart of God’s Country, Ma Deeter’s is the place for us.