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Broadcloth, Brocade and Buckskin -- Return to the past on Mackinac Island

A little-known getaway on the border of two Great Lakes--no cars allowed!

The movie, "Somewhere In Time," appears frequently on "most-romantic" movie lists -- and for good reason. Part of its charm is its location -- Mackinac Island, Michigan -- unique in North America.

Revered by the Native inhabitants as a sacred place, "The Big Turtle" was a burgeoning center of commerce in the early 1600's, a weigh station for the booming fur trade. The voyageurs traveled in their 32 to 40 foot long canoes to the vast forested areas of mid-North America for a winter's worth of fur-trapping, or to gather prized skins in trade from the Native inhabitants. Blankets, pots and beads were their currency. John Jacob Astor made several fortunes as owner of the American Fur Trading Company. You can still visit the Robert Stuart House, which housed his business. Today, it is a museum of fur-trading times, when the French (brocade) merchants ran the fur-trapping/trading venture with the help of the Indians (buckskin), all under the watchful eye of the English (broadcloth). Such was the society of the island from 1780 through 1834 -- when furs ran out and were replaced by fish. But that's another story.

To embark on a visit "somewhere in time," one must first cross the blue waters of two of the Great Lakes, Huron and Michigan, whose waters conjoin under the longest suspension bridge in the world. As one sets foot on this small, historic island, one is immediately struck by the absence of motorized vehicles. The only exceptions are the firetruck, an ambulance, a few power lawn mowers needed to keep the wide, sweeping lawns under control, and the huge earth-moving machines at the landfill on the back portion of the island.

Horses, bicycles, or your own feet are the means of transportation. Bring your own bicycle or rent one at the hotel or downtown. Horses are also available -- you can rent a saddle horse and explore the many miles of wooded trails that criss-cross the island. You may also rent a drive-it-yourself horse and carriage by the hour, or there are regularly scheduled taxis or charters. One company, Carriage Tours, specializes in sightseeing, leaving the downtown area every half hour during the summer. Some 300 horses are kept on the island during the summers.

In fact, if you stay overnight, you may come to think you're hearing the clip-clop of some of those horses in your sleep. Actually, you will be hearing the real thing, not the ghostly variety. Most all of the freight -- merchandise, groceries, mail -- that comes or goes from the island is distributed from or hauled to the docks during the night. By horse, of course.

However, considering that "across the Turtle's back" is barely more than 3 miles from British Landing to Marquette Park and the circumference of Lake Shore Road is 8.1 miles, transportation is rarely a problem. Lake Shore Road, incidentally, is also M-185 -- the only state highway in the nation that does not allow automobiles!

Just a few steps to the west of the Stuart House is the Biddle House -- also open to visitors. This is the oldest building extant on the island, construction having begun in 1780 by Edward Biddle of the Philadelphia Biddles. It's typical of the upper-middle class houses of rural Quebec at that time. Biddle was an independent fur trapper, surveyor, and eventually first sheriff of the island.

The first military presence was established by the French on the northernmost tip of the lower peninsula. Fort Michilimackinac was founded in 1715, and is presently being restored in its original location under the southern end of the mighty Mackinac Bridge. (The natives won't like it much if you call their bridge the 'Mighty Mac', either.) After the massacre led by Pontiac and his band of warriors in 1763, the fort remained uninhabited until 1777, when the English decided to re-establish it in order to protect their land-holding as well as fur-trapping. Those buildings still standing at the fort on the mainland were carefully dismantled and hauled across the ice, where they were re-built on the limestone heights. A village was encouraged to form around the natural crescent-shaped harbor. (The English merely bastardized the French version of the original Algonquin name 'Michilimackinac'. No matter which way it's spelled, that last syllable is always pronounced 'aw'.)

The last battle of the War of 1812 was fought on this island -- in 1814. Communications then, obviously, were not what they are now! (And they still aren't completely caught up.) On the island to this day, many hotel rooms lack a telephone, television, and/or air conditioning (though most have at least one of these three) regardless of the price of the room. On the other hand, there actually is an ATM at the local bank -- which advertises the only horse-drawn drive-up window in North America.

Depending on the time of year, your welcome may be a fragrant one. (Remember all those horses?) If you visit in June, you'll be treated to the heavenly scents of the multi-colored lilacs for which the island is justly famous. The annual Lilac Festival is always the third week in June, as spring comes late so far north. Early French settlers brought their beloved lilas with them. In spite of the sometimes harsh winters, you will still be able to find some of those very trees, now nearly 250 years old!

Another sweet fragrance that wafts throughout the village is that of fudge. Disabuse yourself of any notion of dieting when you visit the island. There are nearly as many purveyors of the delicious confection as there are varieties. Choices include: With nuts? Without? Chocolate? Vanilla? Pistachio? (My favorite is peanut butter, with or without nuts, thank you.) A slab is roughly half a pound, but it is nearly impossible to stop there. You can take it home with you; it keeps for months in a freezer. If you run out before your next trip, just call and they'll mail a slab of your favorite to you!

In the late 1800s, when Mackinac was the premier tourist attraction in the Midwest, rivaled only by the more exclusive Newport to the east, the island was referred to as "so healthy, a man must go elsewhere to die", by Dr. Sinclair, the island's then-physician. Boasting it had neither hay-fever nor mosquitoes, the island quickly became the summer home for wealthy Detroit and Chicago merchants. Many of their "cottages" -- a mere 20 or so rooms each -- still exist as private residences on the East and West Bluffs.

It is little changed today from that earlier, slower, time before automobiles and computers began to drive our lives. Must-sees on the island begin with The Grand Hotel, which has the longest porch in the world -- 660 feet. The Grand and the Fort are the first sights you'll see as your ferry wends its way from Mackinaw City. Perched high on the west and east bluffs, respectively, the dazzling white structures nestled in the green trees are highly visible for miles. If you come from St. Ignace to the north, you'll see the somewhat nondescript back of the island until that final swing around, when the village in all its glory is made visible. By air, you'll notice these same two entities flanking the large meadow, which is really the Grand Hotel's golf course. Another course, Wawashkomo, is further north on British Landing Road -- both are nine-hole courses. The Grand also sports tennis courts and a wonderful lawn for croquet matches.

The Grand is now 111 years old; it is also the most expensive place to stay on the island. However, sumptuous morning and evening meals are included, and the evening meals are truly special. Dinner guests are subject to a 'dress code' befitting the grandeur. Ladies are asked to wear 'tea' or evening clothes, while gentlemen should wear a dark business suit or, preferably, a tuxedo.

As a tourist attraction, the tremendous porch generates so much traffic that it became necessary to impose a small fee for sight-seers. If you time your visit properly, however, the $5. is credited toward their imposing 'lunch buffet.' This all-you-can-eat, not-to-be-missed, event is $25 a person. The dining room is about 300 feet long -- nearly half the length of the hotel -- and the buffet tables take up over half of this length. Have you ever seen 150 feet of food stretched out in front of you? The walk back down to the village will be a welcome respite.

High atop the hotel is a cocktail lounge, from which you can see for miles in three directions. Walking down the stairs from this lounge, you will come face-to-face with a door bearing a brass plaque. Upon closer inspection, you are advised that this is "The Suite of the President of the United States." Unfortunately, he wasn't there any of the times I was. Toward the back of the hotel on the ground level is a wonderful carriage museum. Admission is free to anyone; you don't need to be a guest of the hotel to visit and enjoy.

The oldest hotel on the island is the Island House, at the eastern edge of the village, under the bluff where the fort resides in all its pristine whiteness. The Island House -- a large U-shaped structure -- is also white, and parts of it date to 1848, preceding by several years the tourism boom that followed the Civil War. Slightly farther to the east, past the former location of the school for children of the voyageurs, British soldiers, or native inhabitants is Mission Point Resort. This is a relatively recent conversion of the former Mackinac College into a modern, fully-equipped resort, including health club, swimming pool, volleyball courts and a charming gazebo suitable for weddings -- of which there were 70 scheduled for the summer of 1996.

At nearly the highest part of the island is its raison d'etre -- Fort Mackinac. Even though hostilities ceased at the end of the War between the States, the fort continued to be staffed until the 1880s, when it was decommissioned and actually became the second U. S. National Park (after Yellowstone). In 1895, however, it was given back to the state of Michigan when it became -- and still is -- Mackinac Island State Park. A hold-over from the military days is the cannon boom at sunrise and sunset, as well as the sound of taps played by a lone bugler each evening.

Although the season is primarily from Memorial Day to Labor Day, some attractions on the island are available during the entire year. The larger hotels close, but there are several bed-and-breakfast establishments willing to cater to hardier individuals.

Nearly every month has a special festival or two to entice the visitor. From the largest of them all -- 1997 was the International Lilac Society Conference coinciding with the island's own Lilac Festival in June -- to the Winter Festival in February, there is something for everyone. Art, music and voyageurs have their own celebrations. And if you like sailing, you won't want to miss the first two weeks of July. The first weekend hosts the ending of the Chicago to Mackinac Yacht race; the following week finds the somewhat shorter, but frequently gustier, Port Huron to Mackinac race.

If you are a history buff, it is well worth the time to allow at least one extra day for related visits to several close-by locations. Just three miles southeast of the partially restored Fort Michilimackinac is Mill Creek, a water-powered saw mill erected in the 1780's. It has been reconstructed during the last few years, and costumed interpreters and artisans inform and educate, as they do at both forts.

Some 75 miles south of Mackinaw City is Hartwick Pines State Park, the last remaining stand of virgin white pine in Michigan. After the great fire in Chicago, wood from this area rebuilt that city, as well as contributing to the construction of much of the immigrant-settled midwest. A restored lumber camp of the late 1800s provides a glimpse of that life, as well as the equipment used to get the long, straight logs out of the forest and to the rivers by which they traveled to their many destinations.

Whatever your main interest, this northern part of Michigan is one destination you won't regret adding to your list of places to visit -- and revisit -- many times over.

(Originally published in Romance Forever, Summer, 1996)

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