One man’s life, another man’s quest: Collecting John D. Voelker

by Pam Christensen

John D. Voelker (NMU Archives)

Steve Peters has worked for the past ten years on the project of a lifetime. He has spent several hours per week organizing the John D. Voelker Collection at the Central Upper Peninsula and NMU Archives, located on the Northern Michigan University campus.
“Judge Voelker was a pack rat,” Peters said.
Normally such a moniker would offend, but in the world of archives that term is one of the highest honors that can be bestowed.
The John D. Voelker collection spans the earliest history of the family in the United States, as well as the personal and professional documents related to Voelker and his family. Shortly after Voelker’s death in 1991, the collection was moved from the Voelker home, basement and garage to the Central U.P. Archives.
Opening each box was a treasure hunt.
“John even kept his junk mail,” Peters said. “We did deaccession some of the junk mail due to space constraints, but kept the pieces of mail that he had written comments on or that held some special interest.”
The collection contains the personal papers of Voelker’s grandfather, Nicholas Voelker, who first settled near Fort Wilkins. He is purported to be the first brewery operator in the U.P. Voelker’s mother Annie joined the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), so her DAR paperwork documenting her family roots in the Rhinebeck (New York) area is included.
Annie taught music at the Ishpeming grade schools and gave private music lessons. Voelker saved all of the music, notebooks, lessons and financial records she collected during her career. Nothing was too insignificant to save.
George Voelker, John’s father, married his mother Annie after the death of his first wife. At that time, his family included three sons. His second marriage yielded three more sons. Voelker’s brother Robert died in 1920. He was an electrician’s mate on the USS Pittsburgh. John preserved the materials Robert had collected during his service career, as well as photos of the places the ship visited during his duty.
Of the six Voelker sons, John was the only one to attend college. He graduated from NMU and then went to the University of Michigan to pursue a law degree. While in law school, he sent weekly letters to his mother detailing his activities. Their correspondence documents what was happening in Ishpeming and Ann Arbor during that time period.
“The John D. Voelker Collection gives us a good look into that era,” Peters said. “Researchers can get a feel for the personal and professional life of Voelker from the collection.”
Voelker claims to have written his first short story at the age of ten years. He was a prolific writer, and, for most of his legal career, kept the correspondence he received as well as his replies.
“We have copies of most of his correspondence for as long as John had a secretary,” Peters said. “He also believed in responding to mail he received from just about anyone, so the correspondence is varied.”
Voelker wrote under the pen name Robert Traver. The name honors his brother and a son, both named Robert, who both passed away. Traver was his wife Grace’s maiden name. Under this name he published Troubleshooter in 1943, Danny and the Boys in 1951, Small Town D.A. in 1954, and his biggest hit, Anatomy of a Murder in 1958. His best seller Anatomy of a Murder was later filmed by director Otto Preminger in Marquette County in 1959. Other books followed; Trout Madness, Hornstein’s Boy, Anatomy of a Fisherman, Laughing Whitefish, Jealous Mistress, Trout Magic and People vs. Kirk round out his literary works. Voelker also wrote many short stories and articles that were published in a variety of magazines.
Voelker’s secretary for many years was Donna Snider. When Donna talks, you can see what a well matched pair they were. She displays a genuine admiration and affection for Voelker, as well as the ability to poke fun of him.
“He always claimed I was the first person to translate Anatomy of a Murder into English,” she recounts with a chuckle.
Voelker’s papers display the comments and notes he made on just about all of his papers in green felt pen. Those distinctive marks are something both Snider and Peters remember well. Peters is proud of the fact that the collection contains manuscripts for all of Voelker’s published books as well as notes for future projects and unfinished drafts.
“Studying the collection would be a wonderful way for aspiring writers to see what all is involved in publishing a book from beginning to end. We have all of the drafts and correspondence between Voelker and his publishers. The creative process, editing and give-and-take between author and publisher is well documented in the collection.”
Peters chuckles when he says that even once a book was completed and published, Voelker still contacted the publishers to correct typos, printing errors, and make suggestions for future editions. Peters said there is at least one letter from a publisher that nicely says, “enough is enough” on the corrections to be made.
Peters has worked for NMU for thirty-nine years as a cataloger and professor of academic information services. He received his BA from Rippon College and his MA at the University of Washington. He gained experience for the Voelker project while on leave from NMU to pursue his doctorate at the University of Indiana.
“Our professor came into class and said we would all have a chance to work on some special collections,” Peters said. “The Bobbs Merrill records were a focus of the U of I Archives and most of the items related to that collection. The professor said there was also a collection from Wendell Willkie from the 1930s that needed to be done, and I took that. It was not a significant collection, but while doing research on Willkie, I found that the most recent biography about him had been written by Ellsworth Barnard and published by NMU in 1966.”
For years, Boston University was after Voelker to leave his papers to them, his daughter Grace Wood said.
“I think my father would have preferred to have them go to NMU, because of his ties to the university and the U.P.,” she said. “I think my mother made the decision to send his things to NMU after his death.”
Voelker credited A. Bess Clark and James Cloyd Bowman with developing his writing skills while a high school and college student. These educators influenced him greatly, and he remained lifelong friends with both. Bowman, served as chairman of the English department at Northern State Teacher’s College (now NMU) from 1921 to 1939 and is well known for his juvenile works, many influenced by folklore and noted for realistically capturing regional dialects. In 1938, he received the Newberry Honor for Pecos Bill; The Greatest Cowboy of all Time. Other works include Tales from a Finnish Tupa, The Adventures of Paul Bunyan, John Henry: The Rambling Black Ulysses and Mike Fink: Snapping Turtle of the O-h-i-oo and Winabojo, Master of Life.
Voelker’s Danny and the Boys captures the essence of backwoods lumbermen in the U.P. Published in 1951, this was the second of his books to be published. The dust jacket of Danny and the Boys quotes Orville Prescott, a New York Times reviewer, saying Troubleshooter, his first book, is “A prime, ripe, robustly satisfying book. It is in the topmost rank of books of regional life, local color and American folkways.”
Peters would like to see more use of the collection by researchers. That may happen now that he has completed cataloging the thousands of items in the collection. Archives staff are working to develop a brochure and finding aids for the collection. Hopefully, these items will assist NMU faculty and students as well as others who might be interested in using the collection for research.
“Having Dad’s papers in one place enables family, students, writers and others to do research,” Wood said. “Marcus Robyns, archivist, has been very helpful whenever we have questions.”
It is Robyns’ job to oversee the Central Upper Peninsula and NMU Archives and build its collection. The core mission of the Archives is to appraise, collect, organize, describe, make available and preserve primary and secondary resource materials emphasizing the documentation of the central Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Northern Michigan University.
The Archives is the repository of official records, papers and publications of the University. In addition, staff tries to acquire, organize and encourage use of the personal and professional papers of NMU faculty. This includes documenting the careers of NMU faculty. NMU is not the only focus of the collection. The Archives holds a variety of governmental records, naturalization records, court documents, personal records and business records that relate to the central Upper Peninsula. The Archives is an essential first stop for anyone doing local history or genealogical research.
While most collections are not as prolific at the John D. Voelker Collection, the Central U.P. Archives is interested in collections that would enhance a knowledge or understanding of the central U.P.
Peters has gotten to know John D. Voelker on a personal basis through the materials he has handled over the past ten years. He feels Voelker’s correspondence with friends is perhaps the most interesting and revealing. Peters said Voelker’s correspondence with Judge Joseph Welch started when Welch was researching his role as Judge Weaver in the film version of Anatomy of a Murder. Welch sent a letter to Voelker requesting information about gowns and gavels in Michigan courtrooms. Their correspondence continued for years.
Welch is not the only nationally known friend of Voelker. The collection contains correspondence between Voelker and Arthur M. Schlessinger, G. Mennen Williams, Eugene Black, Talbot Smith, Charles Kuralt, Damon Keith, Robert W. Kelley, Sherman Baker, Nick Lyons, John Bartlow Martin, William McCann, Art Farrell and Glen Seaborg.
“Voelker and Seaborg did not correspond much, but Glen sent Voelker copies of all of his speeches,” Peters said.
Peters said Voelker’s love of technology and gadgets also is apparent from the collection. He and Frank J. Russell Jr. shared interesting correspondence about potential inventions that could improve fishing. Russell was a tinkerer who invented a number of gadgets. Voelker would often send him ideas for new fishing lures or other fishing related items.
The owner’s manuals and correspondence regarding items that Voelker had purchased also are included in the collection. Peters said Voelker was not shy about sending criticism about an item to its manufacturer. There are letters from John to a company about how an item does not work and then return correspondence giving Voelker the correct operational instructions.
“In most cases, it is pretty apparent that John did not read the owner’s manual,” Peters said with a smile.
“Steve Peters has worked tirelessly to organize and catalog the various materials,” Wood said. In doing so, he has developed an unparalleled admiration for Judge Voelker and his life and given a gift to researchers and scholars that will last for many years.

—Pam Christensen

Editor’s Note: Peters can be reached at 227-2123 or speters@nmu.edu, while Robyns can be contacted at 227-1046 or mrobyns@nmu.edu

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