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updated: 6/17/2013 10:18 AM

Vacationers sweet on Mackinac Island

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  • The Grand Hotel will be 126 years old this July and is one of the few white-frame hotels of the Victorian era remaining in America.

      The Grand Hotel will be 126 years old this July and is one of the few white-frame hotels of the Victorian era remaining in America.
    Photos Courtesy of Katherine Rodeghier

  • Guided horse-drawn carriage tours start from Main Street and are a great way to see the sights on Mackinac Island.

      Guided horse-drawn carriage tours start from Main Street and are a great way to see the sights on Mackinac Island.

  • Employees posing as Fort Mackinac soldiers wear the Prussian-inspired costumes of the 19th century.

      Employees posing as Fort Mackinac soldiers wear the Prussian-inspired costumes of the 19th century.

  • Mackinac Bridge, connecting Michigan's Upper Peninsula with Lower Michigan, opened in 1957.

      Mackinac Bridge, connecting Michigan's Upper Peninsula with Lower Michigan, opened in 1957.

  • Horseback riding is one way of exploring Mackinac Island. More than 500 horses spend the summer on the island transporting visitors and cargo.

      Horseback riding is one way of exploring Mackinac Island. More than 500 horses spend the summer on the island transporting visitors and cargo.

  • Blockhouses are among the 14 historic buildings visitors can explore at Fort Mackinac.

      Blockhouses are among the 14 historic buildings visitors can explore at Fort Mackinac.

  • Cannons at Fort Mackinac overlook Lake Huron and are periodically fired for visitors' enjoyment.

      Cannons at Fort Mackinac overlook Lake Huron and are periodically fired for visitors' enjoyment.

  • Horse-drawn carriages are a chief means of transportation on Mackinac Island.

      Horse-drawn carriages are a chief means of transportation on Mackinac Island.

 
By Katherine Rodeghier
Daily Herald Correspondent

"Plug your ears!" We dutifully obey and in a moment we are glad as the boom of the cannon reverberates through the crowd at Fort Mackinac.

Cannon firings on the bluff overlooking Lake Huron and antique rifle firings on the parade ground are noisy reminders that history comes to life every day at this 233-year-old fort on Mackinac Island, Mich.

Every summer day, that is. The fort, like most of the island, goes quiet the rest of the year.

During the May to October season, temperatures barely reach into the mid-70s, cooled by breezes off the Great Lakes. The island's 500 horses, the chief means of transportation since motor vehicles are banned, return from their winter quarters on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The lilacs usually don't bloom until June. Sixty-eight varieties of the flowering trees take root on the island, some nearly 300 years old brought by French settlers.

Father Jacques Marquette founded a mission for the Huron Indians on the island in 1671 and French fur traders followed. Then the British took control, building Fort Mackinac in 1780. The Americans came after the Revolutionary War, then the British took the fort again in the first land engagement in the War of 1812. It went back to the U.S. at war's end and remained an active military installation until 1895.

Now a historic site, costumed interpreters, including soldiers nattily dressed in Prussian-inspired uniforms, walk the grounds and staff the fort's 14 historic buildings. Inside the Officer's Stone Quarters, a Kids' Quarters exhibit gives little ones an interactive area for play. A hologram of a 19th-century doctor inside the Post Hospital explains his diagnosis and treatment of soldiers' ailments -- until he is upstaged by a hologram of a modern doctor who gives his assessment of these real, historic medical cases.

The fort is owned and operated by the Mackinac Island State Park Commission. In 1875, Mackinac Island became America's second national park -- after Yellowstone -- but the state park has taken it over and now protects more than 80 percent of the land on the island. Just 8.2 miles in circumference, the island is a mix of woodlands, historic sites, rock formations and other natural features with a fringe of shops, restaurants and inns along Main and Market streets.

In the 19th century, Mackinac Island transitioned from a fur trading outpost to a summer resort destination. The first hotel, the Island House, opened in 1852. The Grand Hotel followed in 1887.

"Our guests were the product of the Industrial Revolution," says Robert Tagatz, the Grand's resident historian. "It was a time of unbridled capitalism."

The Victorian era spawned a new leisure class that built summer cottages and took excursions to escape the cities, which Tagatz describes as "miserable places in summer" thanks to a combination of heat, smoke and foul odors. Chicago alone had 70,000 horses stirring up dust and manure.

At the same time, "railroads were spider-webbing across the country," Tagatz says. Until railroads, "people often lived and died within 50 miles of where they were born." The railroad companies needed a network of vacation spots for these newly wealthy people to travel to in their fancy Pullman cars, and Mackinac was chief among them thanks to the luxury steamships then plying the Great Lakes.

Transportation companies built palatial hotels across the country, often operating them at a loss, just to promote their business. By 1904 there were 1,200 of these wood-frame hotels in the U.S.; now about a dozen remain, Tagatz says.

Then, as now, the Grand Hotel operated seasonally and guests often stayed for two months in the summer. Musicians were brought in from the mainland to entertain. "These people were romantics. They wanted fantasy, escape," Tagatz says. There were tennis matches, teas, egg-rolling contests on the lawn and lectures by notables, including Mark Twain. Women often had five changes of clothing a day.

Then came Prohibition. Alcohol arrived illegally from Canada. Maids would transport it from the dock to the Grand in baby carriages so as not to offend "the fine sensibilities of guests taking their morning constitutional" on the hotel's famous long front porch, Tagatz says. There were secret rooms hidden by swiveling walls behind which the liquor flowed around blackjack and roulette tables. As a publicity stunt, the hotel paid police to raid them because once news of a raid hit the newspapers, the hotel's occupancy would shoot up.

The Mackinac Bridge connecting Lower Michigan with its Upper Peninsula opened in 1957 sparking a new era in tourism to Mackinac Island. Movie stars came to film, including Esther Williams who swam in the Grand's pool. Nostalgia reigned, and still does. The Grand Hotel remains not only a place to stay on Mackinac Island, but an attraction in itself. Non-guests pay $10 just to walk the grounds and have a meal in the main dining room where diners are still required to "dress" for dinner.

After touring the fort and the Grand, the island's other pastimes include visits to two butterfly sanctuaries where hundreds of the colorful insects are shipped from around the world. Horse-drawn carriage tours -- the drivers of the fringed surreys giving a corny commentary -- are a must-do, as is shopping for fudge. More than a dozen fudge shops dot the storefronts of the town, the gooey sweets cooling on marble slabs.

Without cars, getting around on the island means walking or renting a bike from your hotel or one of several businesses close to the ferry docks. Stables also organize trail rides and have horses for individual hire. If you're handy enough with the reins you might take out a horse-drawn carriage on your own. How romantically Victorian; ladies, pack your parasol.

• Information for this article was gathered during a research trip to Mackinac Island sponsored by the Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau and the Grand Hotel.

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