History’s Gem of the Month: John Keating

March 2012

I wish I had a picture of John Keating. I do not. He was quite a colorful character that owned the Keating Knitting Factory in Grand Marais, MI at the turn of last century. He was born in Ireland on November 10, 1869. When he was 23 years old, he immigrated to the United States in 1892 and initially settled in Sault Sainte Marie, MI. On December 14, 1895 he married Matilda (Tillie) Porter, who was born in 1871 in Canada. According to census records the couple lived in McMillian in 1900 with two children. By 1910 the family moved to Grand Marais with three children. After the shutdown of the mills in Grand Marais and the closing of the railroad, most left Grand Marais prior to 1914. But according to the 1920 census records, the family with three children was still living in Burt Township.

As far as I have been told, there are only a couple of Keating sweaters known to still exist today. Apparently the Keating family has one and the Gitche Gumee Museum has the other. I found the following article in the museum’s archives. Axel retyped it from “The Evening News,” published in Sault Ste. Marie, MI. (Date unknown)

Rugged Grand Marais Giant Knits Sweaters For a Living By John T. Nevill

Among “inconsistent vocations” we’d like to cite that of the late John Keating, of Grand Marais, Mich., a rough-and-tumble gentleman, who lived in an era when fists sometimes were more potent than law in maintaining one’s status in the workaday world.

Keating, who towered well over six feet tall, was a hardened iron-muscled giant who taught boxing to hardy young buckos around the Grand Marais sawmills, and once in a while, when provoked into it, gave a brief but painful lesson in the science of self-defense to a would-be “tough guy” of the lumber camps. But boxing was not Keating’s vocation; it was strictly a hobby. Believe it or not, Jack Keating made his living by knitting sweaters.

In those days Grand Marais was a noisy, bustling lumber town. At least a half dozen lumber mills were in full operation. Boats sailed out of the harbor daily with fresh cut lumber stacked high on their decks, and Alger-Smith trains were continually chugging into town from the south carrying more logs to feed the yawning mills. Other logs, by the thousands, were driven down the Sucker River, and brought into town from the East end of the bay. There were 16 saloons within the tiny confines of the town.

Those were the days a Keating-made sweater was something worth fighting for. They were double-knit beauties, obtainable in almost any color a man might fancy, and they are said to have been nearly one-half inch thick. They were particularly prized by the hard-working jacks in the surrounding lumber camps; men who battled bitter cold from the darkness before down to the darkness after sundown.

But few, if any, men ever had to fight for a Keating sweater. John Keating saw to that by turning them out in quantity, loading 50 or more on his dog-sled, and visiting the lumber camps at fairly regular intervals. Once in the camps, he disposed of them easily at $8, $9, or $10 each. Many’s the time Grand Marais old timers say that when Jack Keating drove his yapping dogs back into town after one of his swings around the territory, with his sled empty and his pockets bulging with money. Mr. Keating’s sled was similar to the one pictured below.

Keating sweaters were available in either buttoned or “pull-over” style, and with or without high colors, which, of course, could be turned up to protect the back of the man’s neck and hood from the frequent sub-zero temperatures. They apparently were as rugged as Keating himself because few of them ever wore out.

Why, man-alive, they tell you in Grand Marais some of the sweaters John Keating made were still seen occasionally on the streets of the town 40 or 50 years later. No lumberjack, therefore, ever was in the market for another Keating sweater, having bought one, unless he wanted one “for dress” in the spring when he came into town to blow his hard-earned money.

Jack Keating started his unusual business by knitting the first dozen or more sweaters by hand, but he soon obtained a machine which speeded up his production many times. No one presently in the area seems to know where Keating learned his trade. But learn it he did – and well.

They know, however, that Keating was no softie. No thermometer ever dipped too low, or no snow drift ever was too high for Keating to strap on his snowshoes and mush out of town with a load of sweaters for the boys deep in the tall timber. But he was never too busy making or delivering sweaters to perform a public or humanitarian service. Take for example, the tragic late fall storm which struck Lake Superior one bitter cold November. Two barges, loaded with lumber and human beings, broke loose from their tow and were swept by mountainous seas against the rocky shores. There, while angry and icy water battered the barges to pieces, many of their occupants perished by drowning. But that, comparatively, proved to be a merciful death. Others among them tried to make it ashore by swimming, then walking to safety over the ice – and froze to death attempting it. Jack Keating, manning his dog-sled, was among those who went out into the howling, sub-zero weather to journey up and down the Grand Marais area shoreline for miles looking for, finding, and picking up the frozen bodies. A total of 31 bodies, both men and women, were found and brought into Grand Marais.

Grand Marais, often a target for Lake Superior’s violence, will never forget that tragic storm, and that’s one reason Grand Marais can never forget Jack Keating. Keating, the father of two sons and one daughter, passed away decades later – although the exact date is not known. One of his sons was killed in World War II. His daughter, Marie, married Commander Stanly Herbst of the Navy. They had planned on retiring in Grand Marais, but Mr. Herbst died before they could make the move. So unfortunately there are no more Keatings left In Grand Marais today to contribute their hard work and tenacity.

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