John J. Michels was born in Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin, the son of Michel and Katherine (Misen) Michels. In 1880, the family moved to Houghton, where the elder Michels worked as a carpenter. John J. Michels attended school until he was 12, then began work in a furniture store. He worked in a mine and a stamping mill, and when he was 17 began carpentering at the Huron Mine. A few years later, he became a contractor and builder, and was responsible for a number of large public and commercial buildings in the area, including Douglas Public School, the Houghton Odd Fellows Hall, Houghton Presbyterian Church, the David Haas Block,St. Ignatius School, Houghton High School, Dollar Bay schools, the Houghton Public Library, the Houghton Flour Mill, the Copper Range Railroad depot at Painesdale, and the Isle Royale School in Portage Township.Michels was also a village trustee and a member of the Houghton County Road Commission.