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An Oldie but a Real Goodie
Douglas S. Looney
February 22, 1993
Car-free streets and a hotel of timeless elegance make this island the rarest of gems
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February 22, 1993

An Oldie But A Real Goodie

Car-free streets and a hotel of timeless elegance make this island the rarest of gems

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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.

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