The first unusual thing that could be said about Otto Metzger Bufe was that he had a special name. He wasn’t just Otto Bufe Sr. or Otto Bufe Jr., but he was Otto Metzger Bufe IV. He would go on to name his son Otto Metzger Bufe V, who then broke tradition by naming his son Otto W. Bufe instead.
Otto M. Bufe IV was born in Liegnitz, Germany on January 29, 1876 to Otto M. Bufe III and Marie Mehlhose. In 1880, on a trip to Wyandotte, Michigan to visit family, Marie died of tuberculosis at the young age of 31. This was a disease that would plague the Bufe family through succeeding generations.
According to the written family history, Otto Bufe III “died while back in Germany when Otto was 11 years old. Upon his father’s death, he was sent to live with his mother’s family [Mehlhoses] in Wyandotte. It was a very unhappy arrangement for him and when he was 15 years old, he was accepted as a ward of the United States in the U.S. Navy.”
This was the unconventional beginning of Otto’s 31 years of service to our country in various capacities. From 1891 to 1897, the orphaned Otto served on no less than eight different Navy vessels. As a result, he became a world traveler and acquainted with locales in the West Indies, Brazil, Panama, Hawaii, the Philippines, Japan, and China.
Unfortunately, his naval career was cut short due to him being “condemned by medical survey,” which resulted in a discharge by the Bureau of Navigation in January of 1897. It was most likely the Bufe family predisposition to tuberculosis that was at issue, though it was not specifically cited on any document.
On the reverse of Otto’s discharge papers, there was a summary of his six-year naval conduct record giving individual ratings on his proficiency in seamanship, ordnance, marksmanship great guns, marksmanship small arms, signaling, sobriety, and obedience. Apprentice First Class Otto M. Bufe scored between good to very good in every category except sobriety, in which he excelled.
Nine months later, in September of 1897, Otto tried to reenlist by sending a letter requesting that his “physical disqualifications may be waived.” He further wrote that he had been “constantly employed as a seaman and watchman on lake steamers since April last and my health seems entirely restored.” In reply, he was told to report immediately to the naval recruiting office in Buffalo, NY, and if he could physically qualify, he would be reenlisted. Unfortunately, his second attempt did not succeed, so Otto logically tried a different approach to remain near water, and he joined the U.S. Lighthouse Service instead.
According to the lighthouse appointment ledgers, he took his oath as second assistant keeper at Point Iroquois Lighthouse on Lake Superior, Michigan on April 7th, 1898. However, just two weeks later, the Spanish-American war began, and Otto, in a bizarre twist off the beaten path, took a leave of absence and enlisted in the Army on June 9, 1898 as a member of Troop D in the 4th Regiment of the Cavalry, of all things.
Apparently, the Army was not as particular as the Navy in accepting soldiers during wartime who were in less than perfect condition. Of course, it probably helped that Otto was sent off to the dry climate of Wyoming to keep an eye on the Indians for the short time he served. He mustered out with several members of his company after four months in October of 1898 at Fort Yellowstone as per “instructions from the Secretary of War” at the close of the war. His rank was a private and he was rated as “good” during his short service.
So, having been thwarted in his efforts to remain a Navy seaman and then an Army horseman, Otto returned to Point Iroquois Light Station in November of 1898 to resume his more mundane lighthouse duties.
A little over a year later, on February 28, 1900, Otto M. Bufe IV, then age 26, started a more sedate phase of his life when he married Augusta Schwab from Springwells, Detroit, MI. Their first child, Winfield S. Bufe, came along the following year. Winfield would later serve at Lorain Rear Range Light in Ohio for a short stint in 1921.
In 1902, Otto transferred to Keweenaw Waterway Upper Entrance North Light for a year where his daughter Coral was born in October. The family then moved again the following October to finish out the shipping season at Au Sable Point Lighthouse where Otto was promoted to head keeper though it was not an easy assignment, mostly due to the living conditions of having three families sharing one dwelling.
Later in his life, Otto would frequently tell the story of his fateful shopping trip to Grand Marais using the 16-foot station boat to bring back groceries and supplies for the winter. A newspaper article in the Grand Marais Pilot, written by his son, gives the account in Otto’s words.
“I made a good early start before daybreak. It was calm. I got to Schneider’s Store just as R.E. was opening it. I gave him a list of provisions to put up and made stops at the post office, mailing letters and reports, and picked up the mail.
“Then I went to Hargrave and Hill’s Store for thread, needles, and woolen socks. R.E. Schneider’s horse and buggy hauled my order to the dock and we loaded the boat. Bushels of potatoes, apples, onions, other vegetables, bags of flour, cases of canned goods, condensed milk, and many other provisions which had to last for months.
“The boat was well-loaded. I rowed past the west pier and continued westerly. When opposite the sand dunes at Second Creek the wind began to freshen from the northwest. A choppy sea began running, so I pulled harder and headed for the slide which should put me in the lea of Sable Point, if I could make it there in time.
“There were five miles to go to the light and about two hours of daylight. The wind picked up steadily and I could see heavy surf breaking on the Grand Marais pierheads. There could be no turning back. I pulled for all I was worth on those oars. To make matters worse, the wind was swinging more to the north. Surf was now rolling along the entire shore from Sable to Grand Marais.
“At this time, I was about 1-1/2 miles from Sable Light. Under the conditions, this seemed like the best place to try for the beach. It took some doing, but by keeping the boat just back of the crests, I made my way shoreward to within less than 100 feet of the beach. Then it happened. A big comber caught the boat; it broached; there was no bringing it back; it grounded on the bottom.
“The next wave rolled it over several times. Everything was scattered from hell to breakfast. I managed to get the painter- snubbed it on a down cedar near shore and with each wave, I gained by snubbing it higher until the boat was where I could dump out all the water and pull it up. I tried to find some of the provisions, but it was too dark.
“The mail was still inside my shirt, but it was very wet. Morning came and we combed the beach but recovered only a few potatoes and apples. As I was bringing the boat into the dock, “Old Prince,” our big springer spaniel, came running along the beach dripping wet with a big roll of bologna swinging from his mouth. He had eaten a part of one end but appeared very proud to have made the only worthwhile salvage.”
Another incident occurred on October 4, 1904 when the steamer Sitka ran onto the rocks off Sable Point in the fog. During the course of the rescue efforts to bring the crew off, and the subsequent four days in which a storm raged off the point, 40 meals were served to the lifesaving crew from Grand Marais who stayed at the lighthouse. Most likely the keepers’ wives, including Augusta, did the cooking. Whether or not this stress had a direct impact on her, a week later, Augusta gave birth to a stillborn son.
Otto, having sent one of his assistants to bring the doctor from Grand Marais 11 miles distant, later recorded in the station logbook on October 14, 1904: “4 P.M. Mrs. Bufe was delivered of a dead male child.” A funeral was held the next day and the infant was buried there at the lighthouse.
Tragically, another Bufe grave was added the next year on September 23, 1905. Augusta gave birth to a premature son at the lighthouse who only lived for 17 days. Within a month, Otto transferred back to Point Iroquois Lighthouse. It was probably too painful for him and Augusta to remain at Au Sable Point, both physically in the cramped housing situation, as well as emotionally with the two graves to remind them daily of their grief.
A year later, in December of 1906 at the Point Iroquois Light Station, Augusta Bufe gave birth to a baby girl, Ruth. But this, too, was destined to end in fatality when Ruth Bufe Beauchamp, age 20, died of tuberculosis on May 23, 1927, only five months after her marriage. On her death certificate, it listed the tuberculosis as being “hereditary/fraternal” in reference to the Bufe family history of the disease.
In January of 1907, Otto transferred again to Port Austin Reef Lighthouse where, in 1908, a healthy son, Bancroft, was born. Otto served at this light for three years until the family moved to Brush Point Range Light in January of 1910. Here, a last child, Otto Metzger Bufe V, was born the following year.
While at Brush Point, Otto M. Bufe performed a rescue, and while it wasn’t officially noted in the Lighthouse Service Bulletin, Otto did receive a letter of commendation from the Lighthouse Inspector of the 11th district that read: “This office is in receipt of a communication from Einer C.C. Hansen, stating that you were the means of saving his life on December 10, 1912, when he was caught in a yawl boat among the ice floes of the upper St. Marys River. It is with great pleasure that this office learns that one of its employees has shown such zeal and interest in humanity by risking his life to aid another, and the fact that you have thus been commended will be a matter of record in the files of the Department, bureau and this office.”
A few months later, when the two unattended steel skeletal towers were built replacing the former Brush Point Range Lights, Otto was transferred to the nearby idyllic setting of Round Island Lighthouse on the St. Mary’s River. It was a very nice appointment for him, but very isolated for a family with five small children. So, when Otto V reached school age in 1916, his father requested and received a transfer to Michigan’s Grand Marais Lighthouse where the children could attend public school and receive a formal education.
In 1919, Otto M. Bufe was again commended for his participation in the rescue of the crew of the ore steamer H.E. Runnels that ran aground and then broke into pieces off Grand Marais Point in November of 1919 during a fierce storm. While the newspaper accounts heralded the Coast Guard surfmen and volunteers who eventually received life-saving medals, Otto only received recognition from the Department of Commerce for his efforts. At least this time, he was mentioned in the Lighthouse Service Bulletin for rendering assistance not only to the crew, but to a Coast Guard surfman and some of the volunteers.
It was also during this year that Otto’s older brother, Frederick Bufe, succumbed to the ongoing family malady of tuberculosis. Frederick was a young 50 years old. This did not bode well for Otto’s future life expectancy.
The following year, Otto took on an unusual hobby for a lighthouse keeper. Perhaps he thought that he could eventually supplement his meager lighthouse income, or maybe it was just out of a desire to conquer the snowbound roads during the inclement winter weather in Michigan. But whatever the reason, Otto M. Bufe became the official inventor of the “Autosleigh Attachments” that transformed a motorcar into a snowmobile of sorts.
In 1920, Otto made three payment installments to the patent office in Washington, D.C. amounting to well over $100, but it took another two years before the patent became finalized and registered. Meanwhile, Otto drove his invention around Grand Marais during snowy weather. It must have been a huge hit with the locals.
Unfortunately, Otto would not live to see the official patent certificate that was issued in August of 1922. Otto Metzger Bufe IV died from tuberculosis on May 21, 1922 due to a lung hemorrhage caused by the disease. He was only 46 years old.
It is truly sad that Otto had to struggle his whole life with health issues. Who knows what he would have achieved if he had lived longer or had lived a more “normal” life from the start. He was certainly deserving of whatever recognition he did attain during his lifetime of service. At some point he was also awarded the efficiency star, which he is shown wearing in his lighthouse uniform photo taken toward the end of his life.
Otto Metzger Bufe IV is buried in Rose Hill Cemetery at Grand Marais, Michigan. He rests next to his daughter Ruth and her unborn child. Hopefully, a lighthouse service grave marker can one day be placed at his grave to mark his dedicated service for the 24 years he served in the U.S. Lighthouse Service.
This story appeared in the
Jul/Aug 2020 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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