Mason County’s longest unsolved murder.

March 12, 2020

Luther H. Foster

Mason County’s longest unsolved murder.

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.

Editor’s Note: MC History Spotlight is a regular history column brought to you by Ludington Woods Assisted Living and Memory Care.

Mason County’s oldest unsolved murder centers around the namesake of Ludington Area School District’s Foster Elementary School.

Luther H. Foster was born in East Machias, Maine on May 31, 1827, the son of Edward and Fannie Foster. He began school when he was 3-years-old and graduated high school at the age of 17. He was known to have an aptitude for mathematics and mechanics. Like his father he was an accomplished musician as well.

In 1851, at the age of 25, he and his younger brother, Edward rented a small sawmill in Ridgway, Penn. They worked up to 18 hours a day and had one employee. The three men produced 6,000 to 8,000 board feet of lumber per day. In 1855 they moved to Oshkosh, Wis. and were managers of a lumber business. That same year, on May 25, Luther married Lucy Armelia Schraam in Camden, N.Y. They had two children, Frank (1856-1925) and Edwin (1860-1924).

In 1857 the Foster brothers moved to Stiles, Wis. on the shore of Green Bay where they worked for seven years for Holt & Balcom, Iverson & Whitecomb and the Holt Lumber Company.

In 1865 the brothers crossed Lake Michigan to Muskegon where they worked for S.N. Wilcox for a year at the Eldred and Farr Lumber Company. The next year, they were hired by lumber baron James Ludington of Milwaukee, Wisconsin to manage his vast real estate and lumber interests in Mason County. Ludington’s health had been deteriorating and he was having difficulty handling his affairs.  

At that time, Pere Marquette was a small village located around some sawmills on the inland lake now known as Pere Marquette Lake.

The brothers devised a business plan for the management of Ludington’s timber holdings and local real estate. They presented the plan to Delos L. Filer, a Manistee lumber baron and raised $500,000 in capital, buying Ludington’s interests and holdings, though Ludington continued to be part of the business. In 1869, Ludington, Filer, John McLaren, John Mason Loomis, and the Foster brothers formed the Pere Marquette Lumber Company.

Foster residence, northwest corner of Ludington Avenue and Main Street (Gaylord Avenue)

In 1873, the residents in the village of Pere Marquette voted to incorporate the town into a city and name it Ludington. Luther Foster was an active community leader.

Foster was in charge of platting the city. He also named all of the main streets in the city and played a major role in getting the city of Ludington to become the county seat.

He was on the board of education (1868-1876), and helped establish both the Congregational and Presbyterian churches and played organ at church. He was also a leader in the Temperance movement, the movement to ban alcohol. \

In the early hours of June 20, 1876, a burglar (some accounts state there was more than one burglar) entered the home of Luther and Lucy home located on the northwest corner of Ludington Avenue and Main Street (now Gaylord Avenue). Luther grabbed a handgun and chased the burglar out the door north up Main Street (Gaylord). At the intersection of Court Street, the burglar shot Foster.

The intruders had taken only one thing, a ledger, which came to be known as “Foster’s Black Book.” Legend has it that Foster’s book contained information that would expose corruption. The crime is likely the longest unsolved crime in Mason County as the murderers were never caught.

In her book “Sand, Sawdust and Saw Logs” Frances Caswell Hanna described the incident.

“Awakening in the night to find a prowler in their room, Mrs. Foster heard her husband explain, ‘You rascal!’ The intruder fled and Foster, grasping a revolver, followed. Under a young maple at the corner of Main (Gaylord Avenue) and Court streets, the burglar fired, and Foster dropped. Mrs. Foster, who had followed her husband, found him still breathing, but he died in her arms unable to speak. The crime remains unsolved.”

In his diary, 20-year-old son Frank wrote: “Mother woke me up this morning about 3 o’clock saying that father had chased a burglar out of the house and there had been a pistol fired, then a cry of murder. We went out ot see what the trouble was and after searching about 10 minutes found father, dead, shot three times, by the person he had followed out of the house. We have passed a dreadful day.”

The book “History of Manistee, Mason and Oceana Counties,” published in the 1880s, stated: “Probably no event has ever occurred in Ludington which produced such a profound sensation as did the assassination of Luther H. Foster, by a burglar, on the morning of the 29th of June, 1876.

“He was a man of great courage, which never faltered through all the hardships of business trials, and his integrity never suffered during all his business career. He was prompt and determined in his decisions, earnest and resolute in all that he did, and his liberal heart and active hands were the benefactors of every good enterprise. Stricken down by the ruthless hand of an assassin, in the full vigor of life, the bereavement was doubly severe. His death was mourned by the entire community.”

At a regular meeting of the city council, held July 3, 1876, the following resolution was unanimously adopted:

“Whereas, in the inscrutable way of Providence, Luther H. Foster, one of our oldest and most valued citizens, has been stricken down by the hand of an assassin, and

Luther Foster

Whereas, heroic courage in defense of his dear ones has added its tragic weight to his many peaceful virtues at the expense of his own existence;

“Resolved, that this is the sense of this council that Luther H. Foster was a wise, generous, faithful, gallant, Christian gentleman, a benefactor of individuals, and one of the greatest benefactors of the city of Ludington, a father to make his sons proud, and to secure them the esteem of this community, a husband to secure for his widow the loving condolence of every citizen, and as a tribute to his memory, we ever stand ready to engraft these sentiments in marble over his tomb.”

In 1905, when Ludington Union School District built a new elementary building in the 500 block of East Foster Street, the street named after Luther H. Foster, the teachers of the school voted to name the building in honor of Luther H. Foster. The building was located across the street from Central High School, which was built in 1887.

In 1925, an addition was built onto Central High School, along with Oriole Hall. Ludington schools built a new complex on North Washington Avenue in 1953. For four years the complex served as the junior high school. In 1957, the Washington Avenue complex became the high school and the junior high school was relocated to the old high school on Foster Street. That year, the original portion of the Central building were razed and the 1925 additions were remodeled. After completion of the construction of O.J. DeJonge Junior High School (now Middle School) in 1965, the old Central building became name as Foster Elementary. The old Luther H. Foster Elementary was razed in December 1966.

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