Michigan: Outdoors Gear Inventor Celebrated in Lansing

Webster Marble’s marketing included catalogs for both dealers and direct-sale customers, like this one from 1915.

Webster Marble’s waterproof matchbox kept matches contained and dry in any conditions.

Perhaps the most influential of Webster Marble’s inventions was the Ideal knife, which set the standard for hunting knives throughout the 20th century. It could be customized with varying handles, blade lengths, guards and sheaths.

Last chance to see ‘Inventing the Outdoors’ in the Lower Peninsula

The story of Michigan’s famous inventor runs through Sept. 11

A hundred years ago everyone, including Theodore Roosevelt and Admiral Perry, knew the name of the Gladstone, Michigan, inventor who made exquisite knives, a box that kept matches dry, and countless other outdoor tools. Outdoors enthusiast today still know the Marble Arms name, though few know the whole story told in the special exhibit “Inventing the Outdoors” at the Michigan History Museum in downtown Lansing.

Running through Sept. 11, the exhibit explores the life and work of Webster Marble, who started the company that would become an outdoor powerhouse, outfitting legions of hunters, anglers, campers and hikers.

“Inventing the Outdoors” explores Marble’s genius for innovation, experimenting and improving upon tools that didn’t meet his needs as an outdoorsman, and for marketing his creations across the globe. Marble eventually would own more than 60 patents for outdoor products. His designs for products including knives, compasses, matchboxes, axes and gun sights set the standard for the 20th century in the outdoor goods market and still are influential today.

“When Webster Marble worked as a timber cruiser, northern Michigan was seen mainly as the home of such resources as timber, iron and copper. By the start of the last century, we began to value the outdoors as a place of recreation and leisure,” said Sandra Clark, director of the Michigan History Center. “That evolution has influenced not only how we relate to the outdoors, but also how we position and promote ourselves to the world.”

Many of the artifacts on display come from a collection of Marble’s products and materials donated to the museum by Dennis Pace, who also helped curate the exhibit.

“As we enter the woods today with every imaginable kind of gadget, it’s instructive to remember that it wasn’t long ago that the simplest items were survival necessities,” said Pace. “A reliable compass, a well-designed knife or a waterproof matchbox could all be lifesavers. It’s fascinating to relive that time and to understand that Webster Marble perfected and manufactured the best of these products right here in Michigan.”

After the Sept. 11 conclusion of “Inventing the Outdoors” at the Michigan History Center in Lansing, a version of the exhibit will travel to the Michigan Iron Industry Museum in Negaunee, just west of Marquette, where it will open in November.

The museum and visitor parking are on the north side of Kalamazoo Street, two blocks east of M. L. King Jr. Boulevard. Weekend parking is free. General admission fees for the Michigan History Museum are $6 for adults 18-64, children through age 5 are free, youth ages 6-17 are $2, and seniors 65 and up are $4. A Michigan History Center membership includes an annual pass, and there is no admission charge on Sundays.

The Michigan History Center is part of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Its museum and archival programs help people discover, enjoy and find inspiration in their heritage. It includes the Michigan History Museum, 10 regional museums, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve, and the Archives of Michigan. Learn more at www.michigan.gov/michiganhistory.