Mackinac Island, the summer paradise on Lake Huron that lies between Michigan's upper and lower peninsulas, is a place lost in time. In many wonderful ways, it hasn't advanced a lick since 1896.
The little village of Mackinac, on the island's southern coast, has a new library, and around the library's fireplace are hand-painted tiles depicting scenes of life on the island. A freighter eases by the window, and librarian Cynthia Terwilliger (her father, Bill, was the U.S. decathlon champ in 1942) says, "That's something you don't see from most libraries."
Indeed, Mackinac Island is made up of things you don't see from most anywhere else. Mostly you don't see cars.
It's a lovely sight.
February 22, 1993
In 1896, says local historian Phil Porter, a motor vehicle was driven onto the main street, which was otherwise full of horses and buggies. "It was not a good meeting," Porter says. The horses were spooked, and the city council promptly banned horseless carriages. Nobody has ever seen any reason to change that. A local eccentric, the late E.M. Tellefson, tried to sneak a Buick onto the island in 1930 but then reluctantly gave in to authority. His daughter, Lynne, says, "People thought he didn't like horses. That wasn't true. He just thought machines were meant to save man and beast from hard labor. He thought horses should stand in pastures of clover and look beautiful."
Fortunately Tellefson was in the minority, and that's why, to this day, transportation around the 2,300-acre island is on horseback, by horses attached to carriages, by bicycles and by legs.
Showing visitors around in a private limousine (a carriage and two horses), Don Smith, 29, addresses the difficult issue of all the, um, manure. "Business is always picking up," he says slyly. "People often ask me if it makes the strawberries better to put manure on them. I don't know, because I put whipped cream on mine." See, even Smith's humor is oldtimey. Dennis Cawthorne, chairman of the Mackinac Island State Park Commission, says of the manure, "It's one of the attractions. It is a necessary and expected by-product of relying on horses. A lot of people find a certain charm to it."
And Mackinac Island is indeed charming. In 1963, when a Canadian brought his amphicar up onto the beach with the intention of flouting the law and driving on the island, he was met by a deputy sheriff on a bicycle and ticketed. How charming is that? Police chief Lawrence Jones was pleased last summer when his department got three new bikes. There are 2,500 registered bicycles on the island. In the peak tourist months of July and August, there are also about 400 carriage horses and 100 saddle horses. Lorna Straus, a University of Chicago biology professor, who has summered here for 50 years, says that because there are no cars, "when you get off the boat, you have to gear down, go slowly, look around. You don't make as many plans, because you know you can't carry them out." As Peter LaPin, stable manager for the Grand Hotel, puts it, "Being here, you kind of lose touch with the outside world."
The Grand Hotel is certainly out of touch, and wonderfully so. Its 319 rooms (at $120-$235 a night) have no radio, no television—and that's just for openers. The Grand, a sprawling wonder of Victorian architecture and a U.S. landmark, is located just outside the village, and it pays faithful homage to everything oldtimey. Its cornerstone plaque reads THE GRAND HOTEL. OPENED 1887. CLASSIC DESIGN THAT WILL LIVE FOREVER.
The hotel's 660-foot porch has about 200 rocking chairs on it. These chairs and other furniture at the Grand add up to a wicker heaven. Once a week John McCabe, a former New York University drama department chairman, delivers a lecture on the porch about Shakespeare. LaPin's son, Branden, 11, drives a Coke-mobile—a sort of whatizit—along the porch, selling the beverage in the famous little greenish bottles (from 30 to 58 a day, says Branden); it tastes infinitely better that way.
Down below, in the spectacular gardens, are areas for croquet and boccie. In late afternoon there is high tea accompanied by piano and violin music. Guests play cribbage in the hotel parlor, and after 6 p.m. gentlemen sport coats and ties, and ladies wear dresses, often real fancy. Mark Twain was right when he wrote, "Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society." Waiters, most of them seasonal employees from Jamaica, sweep about the dining room, smiling at the patrons. After dinner there is a demitasse service in the parlor, where a violinist plays Viennese waltzes. At 9 p.m. an eight-piece band, Bob Snyder and the Grand Hotel Orchestra, strikes up. Later fresh fruit is put out in the lobby. Then, presumably, each guest retires and reads a bit of Loon Feather, written by Iola Fuller in 1940, which Terwilliger says is the best book ever written about Mackinac Island.
It should be noted that there are many hotels in the U.S. that have bigger rooms and suites than the Grand. And there are certainly many hotels that don't have uneven stairs between the floors. And there are those where the food is better. But there are few where the staff tries as hard to please and even fewer that are charged with the Grand's awesome responsibility as a keeper of the old-time flame.
If there weren't the Grand, in fact, there wouldn't really be a Mackinac Island. The hotel was built by railroad and steamship companies to provide a destination for city people from Detroit and Chicago. And over the years it has been difficult for the hotel to hold back the clock, partly because guests no longer arrive with their steamer trunks on July 4 and stay through Labor Day. Now, says hotel president Dan Musser, the average stay of the 100,000 guests who come each year is 2½ days. Another 60,000 visitors a year stay at the island's 22 other, smaller hotels and tourist homes.
But the happy point is that it's impossible to listen to violin music and feel pressed by business. You cannot sit in a rocking chair on the porch, survey the elegance all around and find your mind drifting to commodities futures.
In 1947 Esther Williams came to Mackinac to make a movie, This Time for Keeps, with Jimmy Durante and Xavier Cugat's orchestra. To accommodate her, the Grand heated the pool. And Christopher Reeve starred in a 1980 movie filmed on the island, Somewhere in Time, in which he, horrors, drives a car up to the Grand. Each pure Mackinac heart was pained. "Even little chip hurts." says Cawthorne.
And make no mistake: It's difficult to fight off all things motorized. The police have one emergency automobile; there's an ambulance; snowmobiles are allowed in winter, when there are few visitors to Mackinac, because there's no alternative (but they are not permitted for recreation, only for business); and permission is occasionally given for motorized construction equipment to come to Mackinac. Golf carts are allowed on the golf course, but when they arrive on the island by ferryboat in the spring, each is hitched by rope to a horse to be pulled to the course (well, sort of—the carts in fact motor under their own power, but it looks as if the horses are pulling them).
The history of Mackinac Island has been almost as quiet as its present. Native Americans who fished Lake Huron for trout and whitefish were the first inhabitants. Naturally, missionaries showed up to convert them to Christianity, but after experiencing one frigid winter on the island, the missionaries decided that the natives didn't need Christianity as much as the missionaries had thought. Today there are only about 500 permanent residents of Mackinac. The ferries to the mainland Michigan towns of St. Ignace and Mackinaw City don't run during January and February, and the only way off the island is by plane—$24 round trip to St. Ignace—or, if the lake freezes, by snowmobile along a 4½-mile path marked by discarded Christmas trees. The local school has 70 students. Last year's high school graduating class comprised two boys and one girl, which, carriage driver Smith says, made it "tough to get a date for the prom."
In colonial times the British established a military outpost called Fort Mackinac on the island. When the Revolutionary War ended in 1781, there weren't enough U.S. soldiers to occupy the fort, so the British troops stayed and profited from the brisk fur trade. Fifteen years later the British finally left of their own accord, only to return and attack the fort at the start of the War of 1812. Sixty U.S. soldiers were told, in effect, "There's a war, this is the first battle, and you lose." The Americans, who were outnumbered and unprepared, surrendered. Two years later they counterattacked, but the cannonballs they fired from the harbor went only about halfway up the hill to Fort Mackinac. The British stayed another year.
The U.S. Army fared better on Mackinac between 1875 and 1895, when its primary mission was handling park duty. In 1895 the fort was closed, and now it is a museum and tourist attraction.
In the early 19th century, beaver trapping was the local business, and John Jacob Astor's American Fur Co., which was based there, got rich on it. Then, in the 1830s, with the fur-bearing animals all trapped-out, business turned to fishing. By 1875 it was clear that tourism was where the money would be. What Mackinac mainly has to offer tourists is scenery. Cawthorne says, "It's a place of unsurpassed beauty—in the Midwest." He sells the island short. It's wildly pretty by all standards, even those of snooty New Englanders who rhapsodize about Martha's Vineyard (page 92) or Maine's islands.
Of Mackinac's nearly 2,300 acres, close to 1,800 are state land and thus are safe from the condo builders, who have put up only about 40 units around the island in the past decade. Actually, the island is safe from most everything. There was a murder once, and on page 111 of the local police log is the entry: "Body of Mrs. Frances Lacey found below Stonecliffe at 7:15 p.m., Thursday, July 27, 1960. She had been strangled with her panties." Not a lot more was ever found out about the crime. In '92, 258 bikes were stolen, but 166 of them were recovered, and nobody got too wrought up. Police chief Jones says that sometimes, in the winter, the department's phone can go for days without ringing. So the officers occupy themselves with issuing speeding tickets to snowmobilers—16 last winter.
Lynne Tellefson says, "The Indians felt a mystique here. There is a spiritual appeal that captivates your heart, and then you are never happy anywhere else. But everybody here is a little warped." Terwilliger agrees, saying, "You do have to be slightly askew to choose this way of life. But at least we're not really abnormal like they are in Key West" (page 76).
Mackinac village, the only settlement on the island, does have Alford's Drug Store, the junkiest store in America. Alford's sells everything from plastic ants to refrigerator magnets that say IT'S HARD TO BE NOSTALGIC WHEN YOU CAN'T REMEMBER ANYTHING. The village also has one must-see attraction: Butterfly House, behind St. Anne's Church, a fascinating habitat for live butterflies.
But mostly Mackinac has fudge. As Cawthorne says, "The essence of the island is history, horses and fudge." The village's short main street has 11 fudge shops. What must have been going through the mind of the guy who, seeing 10 fudge stores, said to himself, "What this town needs is one more fudge store"? When the final history of Mackinac Island is written, it will be interesting to see whether the place was buried in manure or in fudge. The aromas certainly compete for dominance.
Bob Benser Jr., veep of Murdick's Fudge, says the appeal of his product is that "fudge is really decadent, and people come here to splurge." Murdick's makes about 540 pounds of fudge a day during the summer. What could be more oldtimey? Says Benser, "It's one of those things that is always near and dear to our hearts. There are hot dogs, popcorn, ice cream, apple pie—and fudge."
Perfectly in line with the old-time feeling is the way things have always been done on the island, which is to say straightforwardly. In 1870 the post surgeon at the fort, Dr. Hiram Mills, pointed out the many healthful attributes of Mackinac Island and concluded, "Bowel complaints seldom prevail here." When a city ordinance was passed in 1887 decreeing that all saloons be closed on Sundays, care was taken in its wording: "The word closed in this section shall be construed to apply to the back door as well as the front door."
The clip-clopping goes on. Carriage driver Bob Gilmore, 57, has been driving for six years. He has his own concerns: "They say if you follow something long enough, you begin to resemble what you are following." The highway that encircles the island, M-185, lays claim to being the only highway in the U.S. never to have had an automobile accident on it. Well, O.K., there are a lot of bicycle accidents, and a snowmobile once clipped a dump truck that had special permission to make a delivery on the island, but those aren't car wrecks, right? Clip-clop.