FIFE LAKE — Lucy Downey remembers when the forlorn fishing lodge near her home on Coster Road was filled with high-rolling clients from Indiana, Illinois and Michigan who spent their days floating down the Manistee River, catching monster trout, drinking whiskey stashed in pine stumps along the river bank, and telling fishing stories long into the evening.
The lodge was run from the 1920s to the 1960s by legendary fishing guide James “Rainbow Jim” Coster III, a 6-foot, 4-inch, 250-pound mule of a man. There, in his two-story home on the river, he hosted doctors, lawyers and businessmen. The men slept upstairs. When they occasionally brought their wives — Rainbow Jim offered a two-day “honeymooners” special for $2.50 per couple, meals and lodging included — he put the newlyweds up in private rooms, Downey said.
“I remember the men would sit in their rocking chairs upstairs and spit chewing tobacco into the spittoons,” she said.
Downey said meals were prepared by Rainbow Jim’s fourth wife, a sweet woman named Anna. According to “The Legend of Rainbow Jim,” a self-published biography by his late grandson, Orie Wells, Rainbow Jim found his new wife through a “Lonely Hearts” newspaper ad — at the time a popular medium that single men used to find a spouse.
She was aptly named Anna Trout and she lived in Kansas. After a period of frenetic correspondence, Wells wrote, Anna agreed to come to Fife Lake and get hitched. Wells’ account says that on the day that Rainbow Jim went into town to meet the woman he called his “mail-order bride,” he announced, “Yep, I ordered me one from the Monkey Ward's catalog and she's arriving today on the train.”
Thus was a match made, if not in heaven at least in a heavenly place.
Downey, 81, said Rainbow Jim carved his own river boats. The remnants of one of them sits on the property today. He despised canoes and once punched four holes into the side of a canoe that had rammed his boat.
“He could roar when he wanted to, but I knew him as a gentle guy,” she said. “He might have gotten mad at the fishermen sometimes, but I never saw him mad. Because he was so big, he could scare anybody.”
Downey said the lodge had a huge wooden kitchen table, which Rainbow Jim also used to butcher deer. She said he ate prodigious amounts of food, refusing to talk while he ate.
“When he ate, he ate,” she said. “He didn’t listen to nobody, he didn’t talk to nobody. He said, ‘I’m gonna eat, just leave me alone.’ ”
Rainbow Jim made sure he had plenty of whiskey stashed in white pine stumps along the river, Downey said.
“He would hide his bottles at different spots on the river that they’d stop at,” she said. “I suppose he did it for entertainment.”
Rainbow Jim lived, fished and hunted on the river until August 1967, when he suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 72. Downey said he was survived by Anna and a son named Bill from his second marriage. Fittingly, Rainbow Jim’s son was known locally as “Brooky Bill.”
Rainbow Jim is memorialized with a Department of Natural Resources plaque at the Coster Road boat launch on the Manistee. The sign identifies the site as the Rainbow Jim Bridge, honoring a colorful local character whose spirit — perhaps searching for a lost bottle of whiskey — still hovers over the river today.