This week, the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island celebrates its 125th anniversary. In honor of that, Bob Tagatz, Resident Historian and Concierge at the Grand Hotel, takes us on a journey through the history of the hotel and shows us that there’s much to explore at this historic establishment.
Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel will be celebrating our 125th Birthday on July 10, 2012. It has been a privilege to serve as resident historian for this rare institution for the past 17 years.
Any business that has continuously served the public for over a century would be proud to achieve such a milestone. But a massive 385 room wood frame hotel that has never closed its doors to the traveling public through the industrial revolution, two world wars, economic depression, recessions, changes in transportation, travel, leisure, and as structure survived the ravages of time and weather is nothing less than astonishing.
The hotel was originally built by two railroads and a steam ship company who needed to create a grand destination for the gilded age traveler to escape the scorching summer heat, dust and dirt of America’s industrial cities. Mackinac Island provided a healthy robust environment with clean air and water but most importantly a constant cool breeze blowing in from the lake. The island’s rich human history from the first native Americans, explorers, Jesuit priests, soldiers, fur traders, commercial fisherman, and finally Victorian tourists made Mackinac Island the perfect choice to build a large stately hotel. I often imagine the long ago conversations that once echoed down her long hallways, dining rooms, and stately front porch. By gone guests speaking about how they hoped to visit the new Washington Monument and recently opened Statue of Liberty in New York harbor. Endless discussions on how electricity would change the world. The superiority of internal combustion engines to steam in industrial uses and its adaption to the first four wheeled vehicle just two years before.
Do you think Mackinac Island National Park will ever become Michigan’s first state park? How about the excitement of the first messages arriving to the hotel by telegraph and later by the telephone. The wide eyed amazement when Lou Owens of the Edison Photographic Company demonstrated his new machine that reproduced the human voice and music from a cylinder. The debate of when if ever the railroad ferries from lower peninsula will start carrying automobiles across the Straits of Mackinac to upper Michigan. Did the hotel windows rattle when the first airplane flew over? With prohibition gaining nationwide prevalence thank goodness John Pemberton introduced new alcohol free beverages the very year Grand Hotel opened Coke Cola and later the click of dice from the hotel speakeasy referred to as back of the house entertainment. The clink of bottles in the illegal cases of booze being smuggled in from Canada. Grand Hotel is a summer resort about fun, escape and fantasy, but you can’t help but wonder if there was a more solemn conversation about the United States entering into World War I and the hush tones about the unimaginable crash of the stock market in 1929. Was there patriotic music played to celebrate the end of World War II? Has anyone seen Esther Williams today, you know she is filming down by the hotel pool. From the hotel’s porch you could watch a life size erector set being constructed as the Mighty Mackinac Bridge was being assembled between 1954 and 1957. I am relatively sure that a black and white TV was prominently placed somewhere in the hotel broadcasting a flickering image of the first man to set foot on the face of the moon and later the sound of a little Fiat sports car being driven up Grand hill by Christopher Reeves during the filming of Somewhere in Time. A sign of things to come, the humming of the first air conditioner on those rare occasions when the cool lake breeze failed us. Today the hotel halls are filled with a miracle of the Internet Wi-Fi connection, enabling our guest to access the information web and each other in a fraction of a second.
The sound I most remember from last year is the jingling of a row of brass bells on an antique Coke Cola bike being ridden by a young man on his very first day of work. The young man represents the fourth generation of the family that had been the steadfast stewards of this grand old lady.
Grand Hotel has been associated with the same family since 1919 and owned solely by them since 1933. W. Stewart Woodfill came to Grand Hotel in 1919 to work as a modest desk clerk and he worked his way up the ranks to manager and eventually owner. His nephew came to work fulltime the hotel in 1951 and like his uncle, ascended the ranks to president and wife Amelia Musser became the secretary treasurer, they ultimately purchased the hotel in 1979 keeping it in the same family. His son Dan Musser III is now President and his daughter Mimi Musser Cunningham is Vice President.
The hotel exists today because of the dedication of this family, their ability and vision to successfully guide this hotel into it third century of service against unbelievable odds. Its survival is tribute to their belief and dedication to this institution. The Musser families are the ultimate hosts.
We must never overlook the others who have been key to the hotel success. Our patrons, those loyal guests and conventions that have traveled a parallel path supporting this hotel through its evolution in hospitality. The next monumental event that this grand old lady will witness in the second week of July among countless celebrations will be the cutting of a 125 foot long birthday cake in her honor.
She has found a way to offer as many modern amenities as possible for today’s traveling public but has never forgotten who she is, who she serves or where she has come from and if I may say so myself she has never looked better. Happy Birthday Grand Hotel!
Bob Tagatz is the Resident Historian and Concierge at Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel.