Traverse City Record-Eagle

August 18, 2013

Lifelines: Bear man's legend carries on 54 years later

Poet bard

---- — Spike Horn didn’t smell like cologne. He was as cantankerous as his bears. He was a trickster, but an honest one. Spike Horn made life a lot more interesting at one of the first tourist traps in northern Michigan.

John Meyers was born on July 15, 1870, five years after the end of the Civil War. He died September 19, 1959. During his last three decades he became Spike Horn.

A folksinger friend, Louan Lechler, says her grandfather knew him when he was John Meyers, and a foreman of a coal mine in Williamston, Michigan. John told everybody he was going up north to become famous. In the mid to late 1920’s past Clare was “Up North”.

I don’t know how John Meyers reached Harrison. He never learned to drive, and old M-27 didn’t amount to much. He arrived carrying a backpack and slept under the stars.

The Detroit Free Press first featured him in 1931. John Meyers had become Spike Horn. Along came his parade of bears with names like Nip, Tuck, Joe, Strawberry, Raspberry, Stub, Snowball, Old Tucker, Jackson, Christine, and the notorious Bruno.

These days Spike Horn would be called a “Bear Whisperer.” One advertisement read, “Come and shake hands with a bear.” Things would’ve been okay if tourists drawn to the Bear Camp had understood and respected the animals like Spike did. They didn’t.

One lady slapped a bear cub for grabbing her pearl necklace. The mother bear immediately charged the abuser. The woman was lucky Spike stepped in between her and the beast just in time to interrupt a mauling.

Another serious incident included Old Bruno. He’d grown to 700 pounds and was seven feet tall standing on his hind legs. Some silly citizens entered his home with a jelly roll and a camera to take pictures. The photo shoot was going well until the couple ran out of film. The guy tried to take the jelly roll away from Bruno, while the woman reloaded her camera.

Old Bruno threw a fit, and several people were injured. The woman with the camera went home with some interesting close up photos and 35 stitches.

When Bruno was younger, a mere 500 pounds, Spike Horn took him and five younger bears to Detroit for a live radio interview. The station was a little rattled, because Spike was only supposed to bring one bear.

Bruno escaped the interview, and ended up in the elevator on the floor above. A resident employee opened up the elevator door, and became very confused and disoriented. The poor guy ran into another room and locked the door.

The bears always got loose whenever they traveled with Spike. It was good publicity, and Spike Horn received statewide newspaper coverage. He even did an interview on WJR-Detroit that was broadcast nationally. That was big stuff back then.

Poet Bard Terry Wooten has been performing and conducting writing workshops in schools for 29 years. He is also the creator of Stone Circle, a triple ring of boulders featuring poetry, storytelling and music on his property north of Elk Rapids. Learn more at


Spike Horn’s Bear Camp

There was a magic place

called Spike Horn’s Bear Camp,

located just south of Harrison

on old U.S. 27.

It was the only place

in lower Michigan where a person could

feed or pet a black bear without

zoo bars between you and the animal.

Bears like poets

are some of the most unpredictable animals.

The police finally closed old Spike

Horn down for safety reasons.

I was there only once in 1950 something.

It was the day after they carted

old Spike Horn off to jail for a week,

for hitting a cop over the head

with a frying pan.

I can’t remember seeing any bears.

They must’ve carted them off too.

I bought some postcards

that are probably collectors’ items.

They show old Spike Horn with a Rip Van

Winkle white beard and flowing white hair.

He’s feeding full grown bears

from his hands and mouth.

He’s sitting on a stump

with two little girls,

letting the littlest feed

a huge black bear from her little hand.

He’s standing with his favorite bear,

posing hand-in-paw in the middle

of thirteen uneasy people.

He’s gone;

gobbled up by the red tape of a new age.

Old Spike Horn has passed on

in the parade of time,

and so have his bears.

And now the tourists can breathe

a little easier.