Mackinac Island: a study of high horsepower

Most people who visit Michigan’s Mackinac Island come for just a few hours, so they’re more likely to study fudge shops and fort history than contemporary city rhythms.

Up to 15,000 travelers per summer day roam the island’s roads and trails on foot, bicycle, horse or horse-drawn carriage. Motorized vehicles were banned in the 1890s, so up to 600 horses work here seasonally. Some already left the island, and by winter no more than 20 equine will remain to assist the people population, which shrinks to around 500.

“Every bend in the road, every fork in the trail is a potential painting,” writes Bill Murko, to explain his artwork at the newly opened Mackinac Island Art Museum. This island, “unlike any other place on earth, gives you the feeling that time has stopped.”

How appropriate it is to frame Mackinac Island – a National Historic Landmark – as a pretty, quaint and unique nautical community that clings to a bygone era. Lesser known is the city’s identity as a maverick in dealing with the consequences of non-conformity.

The lack of cars is a novelty, when you’re a tourist. It’s a way of life that involves commitment and challenges, when you’re a year-round islander.

“We can’t lose the ambiance or historic nature of our island, but we also are a real community and have to keep the balance,” says Margaret Doud, mayor of Mackinac Island since 1975.

Police ride bicycles unless an emergency requires more. Fire, ambulance and utility vehicles also are available. The island contains a snowplow, and residents may operate snowmobiles from Nov. 15 to the end of March.

Other than that, it’s all about two- and four-legged travel. Rules are firmly enforced; that includes golf carts – don’t even think about using one to cross a street without a permit.

Three miles long, two miles wide and eight miles around: That’s the size of Mackinac Island, and 25 percent of the waste – about 5,800 tons per year – is horse manure. The job of removing it quickly and discreetly was a “Dirty Jobs” topic on the Discovery Channel in 2007.

Add waste from restaurants (the largest hotel serves at least 1,000 guests and staff per meal, during the height of summer) and the expense of transporting garbage to a mainland landfill (the island capped its own dumping ground in 1991).

All this means that islanders turned “green” long before it became fashionable. They recycle or pay $3 per bag of landfill waste. A commitment to composting began in the 1970s, when a Nebraska farmer set up an island-wide system to turn organic garbage into compost and fertilizer.

So now you know why all those flowers look so lush, including the 2,500 Yours Truly geraniums that line the 660-foot-long porch at Grand Hotel, the world’s largest summer hotel that is family-owned.

Grand Hotel, built in 1887 and perched on a bluff, is Mackinac Island’s beacon. It’s also known for having a genteel atmosphere, no-tipping policy and no guest rooms decorated alike. Overnight rates tend to include dinner (where men are required to wear a coat and tie) and breakfast.

“Somewhere in Time,” the 1980 movie starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, was filmed at the hotel. Thirty-four years earlier, Jimmy Durante and Esther Williams starred in “This Time for Keeps,” and the resort’s swimming pool is named after Williams, the Olympic-caliber competitor.

Lesser known fact: The 500,000 gallons of heated water in the pool also re-circulates in a water-based air conditioning system that since 2007 has cooled the hotel’s oldest 170 (out of 385) guest accommodations. It’s a newer example of how islanders work to reduce their carbon footprint.

The biggest challenge for Mayor Margaret is “maintaining our infrastructure. Everything has to be geared toward our high-season numbers.”

It’s also a challenge to uphold identity. After a Starbucks began business, a city ordinance was enacted to prohibit chain enterprises. Margaret says a Tastee Freez and Pizza Hut are a part of island history; neither remains in business.

Now discussion moves to establishing historic districts, to prevent savvy developers from having their way with purchased acreage. Some residents are concerned that longtime structures will be demolished without discernment or discussion.

Margaret operates the Windemere Hotel, steps from the island’s harbor and built as a summer cottage in 1887. The 26 guest rooms of this third-generation family business have private baths but no televisions.

Fans include Becky Splett of Bloomer, who says she and husband Nate have been repeat customers since 1980. It is similar for Frank Wood, former publisher of the Green Bay News-Chronicle, whose family is longtime friends with the Douds.

“The winter is our time for a little R&R,” Margaret says, although her one-year terms as mayor means that every year is an election year. “It’s a challenging job,” she says. “You know everybody, so some issues become more personal.”

Success, in part, depends upon cooperation among businesses, including competitors.

“Our barometer is the Grand Hotel,” the mayor says. “The island opens and closes with the Grand’s season.”

“We both need each other to do well,” agrees Bob Tagatz, the hotel’s historian.

Many of Mackinac Island’s 1,200 rooms, suites and cottages for overnight travelers remain open into autumn. Rates drop after Labor Day. For more about the area: www.mackinacisland.org, 906-847-6418. Restaurant Week, Sept. 26 to Oct. 2, features discounts and culinary events.

For more about Grand Hotel, 286 Grand Ave.: www.grandhotel.com, 800-334-7263. Upcoming promotions include a history weekend, Sept. 17-19; girlfriends’ getaway, Sept. 24-26; “Somewhere in Time” movie weekend, Oct. 15-17; and “Close the Grand,” Oct. 25-26 ($199 per couple for a room, hotel tour, lecture, casual dinner and breakfast). The resort closes Oct. 26 and reopens in late April.

For more about Windermere Hotel, at Main Street and French Lane: www.windermerehotel.com, 800-847-3125. Rates after Labor Day are $75-190. The hotel closes Oct. 16 and reopens in mid May.

Ferries from St. Ignace and Mackinaw City make multiple daily runs to the island until the end of October, and the ride takes less than 20 minutes. Arnold Transit Company also operates an off-season ferry service until the waterway freezes, and small-plane travel to the island’s airport is possible.

About 83 percent of the island is Michigan State Parks property, and this includes Fort Mackinac, established during the American Revolution and site of two War of 1812 battles. New in the park this summer is the Richard and Jane Manoogian Mackinac Island Art Museum, whose holdings show how the island has long inspired artists and provided fodder for their work.

Examples range from a 1,200-year-old Mackinac Ware pottery shard to “Island Life,” an oil painting by Elizabeth Pollie, winner of the museum’s first purchase award. Historic artifacts complement contemporary works of 25 islanders, including a doctor’s table carved from local wood and a jeweler’s beadwork that brightens a rusty bicycle wheel.

In the basement of the museum – built in 1836 as a dormitory for Native Americans, and later the island’s school for a century – is a studio for art activities.

For more: www.mackinacparks.com, 906-847-3328. The museum closes Oct. 10 and reopens in early May.

“Roads Traveled” is the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.