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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.
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.