Today on Museum Bites we’re wrapping up our tour of Mackinac Island with a look at how the island transitioned from a remote fort and trading post to a car free, fudge-crazed, bucket list destination.
The first tourists sailed into Mackinac harbor by steamboat in the 1840s. These wealthy adventurers hiked the island’s lush forest, scrabbled onto Arch Rock for photo ops, sipped water from the island’s natural springs, and took in the breathtaking views. Back in the tiny village, they purchased baskets, trinkets and corn husk dolls from the local Odawa and Ojibway people. Among these early thrill seekers were authors Alexis de Tocqueville, Harriet Martineau and William Cullen Bryant.
Its [Mackinac Island] climate during the summer is delightful; there is no air more pure and elastic, and the winds of the south and southeast, which are so hot on the prairies, arrive here tempered to a grateful coolness by the waters over which they have swept. The nights are always in the hottest season, agreeably cool, and the health of the place is proverbial. The world has not many islands so beautiful as Mackinac.
~William Cullen Bryant (1846)
Word spread about the island’s unique charm and soon summer cottages, modest at first, began to pop up. Fur warehouses and fish shanties were converted into hotels and souvenir shops to accommodate this new influx of summer visitors.
Concerned by the island’s rapid transformation, US Senator and island native, Thomas Ferry pressed Congress to safeguard the island’s “scenic and historic wonders”. In 1875, Ferry got his wish and the nation’s second national park was established. Mackinac National Park covered more than 80% of the island and was under the management of Fort Mackinac brass from 1875 to 1895 when the fort closed. The land was subsequently turned over to the state of Michigan and remains a state park to this day.
Perhaps the island’s most dramatic change came when the Grand Hotel made its debut in the summer of 1887. Commissioned by a consortium of railroad and shipping big wigs, the Grand Hotel was built in just four months and boasts the world’s longest porch. Guests paid $3 to $5 per night and were entertained with demonstrations of Edison’s new phonograph and lectures by Mark Twain.
By the 1890s, the modest cottages were dwarfed by large mansions and candy shops lured customers inside with offerings of peanut brittle, salt-water taffy and island favorite, fudge.
The first automobiles sputtered onto the island and sent shockwaves through the tiny community. Like an Uber vs taxi cab feud, the carriage drivers were in an uproar. Fearing their horses would be spooked and their livelihood ruined, they took their complaints to the village council. On July 6, 1898, the horseless carriage was banned within the village and soon after the entire island.
However just two years later, summer resident, Earl Anthony, either in defiance or ignorance of the law, ferried his new steam-powered locomobile to the island. He somehow got the vehicle off the boat and through town without incident. But when he took his sputtering, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang locomobile out for a spin, he caused a fair number of carriage horses to…go loco. Multiple equine and carriage injuries were reported and Anthony’s locomobile was sent packing.
Today, horses, bicycles and good ol feet are the preferred and legal means of transportation. Mackinac Island boasts 500 horses, 1,500 rental bikes, 14 fudge shops and over 70 miles of hiking, biking and horse trails. The island features several museums and a multitude of historical sites. Click on this Google Maps link for a look-see.
Fun Fudge Facts: In the 1960s, confectioner Harry Ryba moved his fudge making operation to the storefront. He also installed fans to blow the sweet aroma out into the street. Like Pavlov’s dogs, drooling customers came a running. Ryba coined the name “fudgies” to describe the fudge-loving tourists. He even gave out Ryba Fudgie buttons to his customers. Click here if you’d like to watch how fudge is made on Mackinac Island. Warning…this video may be addictive.
Museum Bites will be back in 2 weeks with a tour through the Detroit Institute of Arts. Wishing you a safe and happy 4th!