1887 : Grand Hotel Opens

When:
July 10, 2018 all-day
2018-07-10T00:00:00-04:00
2018-07-11T00:00:00-04:00

On July 10, 1887, the Grand Hotel opened for the first time.

The Rest of the Story

In 1886, the Michigan Central Railroad, Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad, and Detroit and Cleveland Steamship Navigation Company formed the Mackinac Island Hotel Company. The group purchased the land on which the hotel was built and construction began, based upon the design by Detroit architects Mason and Rice. When it opened the following year, the hotel was advertised to Chicago, Erie, Montreal and Detroit residents as a summer retreat for vacationers who arrived by lake steamer and by rail from across the continent. The hotel opened on July 10, 1887 and took a mere 93 days to complete.  Rates were $3 to $5 a night. Guests often spent 6-8 weeks and shared bathrooms with adjoining rooms!

Miscellaneous Facts and Stories

A Haunted Grand Island Hotel?

When the Grand Island Hotel contractors were digging out the foundation for the hotel, they unearthed hundreds and hundreds of human skeletons. Overwhelmed by the daunting task of removing the skulls or relocating to another bluff, they built the hotel directly over the burial ground. It is unclear whether the skulls belonged to ancient Anishinaabe Chiefs, warring tribes, or the fallen European soldiers of the Great Fur Trade. However, one thing is sure: the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island is sitting on top of tons of history. And the island’s many ghost tours and murder mystery dinners are quick to point out this fact.

The World’s Longest Porch

At 660 feet long, the Grand Hotel’s porch is the longest in the world. Visible from the ferry lines, this postcard-worthy veranda boasts traditional white rocking chairs, American flags, potted red geraniums, striped yellow awnings, and a sense of timeless American beauty. Over the years, the porch has served as the island’s major gathering point, hosting presidents for cocktails  (including former US Presidents Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Gerald Ford, John Kennedy, and Harry S. Truman), flirtation walks for island romantics, promenades, political discussions, and Edison Phonograph demonstrations (the father of all sound recordings today). It’s an elegant place to spend the afternoon watching the cool Michigan waves or to start writing your next mystery novel.

No Two Guest Rooms are Alike

Grand Hotel Room

Grand Hotel Room | Photo Courtesy of Credit Grand Hotel

Each of Grand Hotel’s 397 guest rooms has its own unique character, artfully decorated by Carleton Varney of Dorothy Draper & Co. Inc. in New York City. Varney is also known for his design consultancy at the White House.

Additionally, six suites are named for and designed by seven former First Ladies of the United States, including the Jacqueline Kennedy Suite (with carpet that includes the gold presidential eagle on a navy blue background and walls painted gold), Lady Bird Johnson Suite (yellow damask-covered walls with blue and gold wildflowers), Betty Ford Suite (green with cream and a dash of red), Rosalynn Carter Suite (with a sample of china designed for the Carter White House and wall coverings in Georgia peach), Nancy Reagan Suite (with signature red walls and Mrs. Reagan’s personal touches), Barbara Bush Suite (designed with pale blue and pearl and with both Maine and Texas influences) and the Laura Bush Suite.

Mark Twain Lectures at the Grand Island Hotel

Known for his best-selling works Innocents Abroad and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain was an accomplished American Author and humorist. But he was a terrible businessman. After his moonshot investments in the Paige Typesetter and his own publishing company tanked, he hit the road on a 22-city, judge-ordered tour in order to lift himself out of debt and pay back his creditors.

The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island was one of the stops on his famed international tour. He arrived via steamship in 1885 and was immediately surrounded by fans on the ferry ride over. When he arrived at the hotel, he ate dinner with his family at the hotel restaurant while onlookers stared and whispered at his celebrity.

When it was time for his lecture to begin, the hotel manager regretfully told him that not a single ticket had been sold. Confused and surprised, Twain stuck around. The manager was about to cancel the lecture. However, guests started showing up. By 9 pm, an hour after the scheduled lecture was set to take place, the hotel’s casino room was filled to the brim and Twain delivered a legendary evening of stories, humorous tales, and passages.

Fake Nannies, Prohibition, and the great depression

During the early 1900s, the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island hired fake nannies to smuggle spirits in from Canada. Women pushing baby carriages full of alcohol strolled up the storied Mackinac streets, pausing periodically on their routes to enjoy the sunshine and avoid suspicion from law enforcement or church officials. The nannies unloaded their goods at the Grand Kitchen’s door and went on with their days.

The Grand Hotel staff unloaded the goods and doled them out to notable guests. Perhaps iconic hotel visitors like the Armours and Swifts (the meat packing families), Marshall Field (the department store founder), Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Mrs. Palmer Potter (whose husband founded the Chicago’s Palmer House Hotel) imbibed, or perhaps that was all before their time, but who can say for sure?

During Prohibition, the Grand Hotel not only had a speakeasy, it had slot machines disguised as radios and a revolving wall with roulette wheels on it.

During the Great Depression, the Grand Hotel had to come up with other ideas to make payroll as well.  For many years the hotel only compensated staff – 400+ – with room and board only.   The manager notes that on at least one night there were only 11 paying guests, and 411 employees.

Things eventually started picking up, but then World War II broke out.   With gas rationing and limited travel, room rates dropped from $24 or more per night to just $5 a night. In fact, the Grand didn’t turn a real solid profit on its hotel operations until 1951.

Somewhere in Time — Hollywood Leaves its Mark on the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island

Although a handful of documentaries and movies have been filmed on Mackinac Island, few leave as lasting of an impression as the 1980 cult-classic Somewhere in Time. Filmed at the Grand Hotel, this time-traveling romance captures the elegance of the resort — which masquerades as the set for the film’s two distinct time periods (1912 and 1980).

In the movie, lead actor, Christopher Reeve, plays a Chicago playwright who teleports back in time to win the heart of a beautiful actress, played by Jane Seymour.

Nearly forty years later, Somewhere in Time continues to be a cult-classic and fan favorite. Every fall, the historic Grand Island Hotel hosts a sell-out Somewhere in Time Weekend which draws film fans to the hotel for a series of elegant dinners, dances, screenings, and celebrations. Attendees are known for dressing in period wardrobes and dancing to the Grand Hotel’s Symphony Orchestra after dinner. Jane Seymour makes the trip every fall to join her fans and romanticize in age-old costumes.

Three Generations — and A Westminster Dog

In 1919, W. Stewart Woodfill landed a job as the hotel’s front desk clerk. He was paid $3 a day and $5 on weekends. Woodfill was a practical and serious man who said, “just pay me what I’m worth.” After learning the ropes of the business from the inside out and serving the hotel’s upper-class clientele, Woodfill took over the managership of the Hotel when the former manager died in 1923.

When the opportunity to purchase the Grant Hotel came along, he used his contacts to form a partnership. After the banks refused to loan the group money he pitched a proposal to James Kraft, yes that James Kraft of Kraft Foods, the food magnate supposedly fell asleep during the presentation but then woke up and told Mr. Woodfill that he and his wife stayed at the hotel on their honeymoon. He said it was the most beautiful place in America and helped finance the hotel in 1925 with Woodfill as the managing partner. The hotel struggled to make ends meet and after a few years without paying dividends to its owners W. Stewart Woodfill sold his portion of the hotel in 1927. Without knowing it at the time he made the smartest decision of his life, for a few years later the stock market crashed and the American economy was in shambles in 1929. The hotel fell on hard times and went up for auction in 1930.  W. Stewart Woodfill, a one-time desk clerk, was the only bidder purchasing the stately hotel with the money he received from selling his share of the hotel a few years earlier. He owned the historic hotel until he sold it to his nephew in 1979.

In 1979, Woodfill’s nephew, Dan Musser, took over the business, and since that time, Musser’s son has taken over the reins. The family is involved in all aspects of the hotel — the kids sell bottles of coca-cola on the porch and make pastries in the kitchen, Dan’s sister works as the Vice President and chief hotel designer, and their mother runs the finances.

Even the Musser’s dog, Sadie, has her place. In 2010, Sadie won Best in Show at the Westminster Dog Show. To honor their prize-winning Scottish Terrier, the Mussers opened up Sadie’s Ice Cream parlor, an old-fashioned soda shop with milkshakes and banana splits.

Latest News

The Musser family, which has owned the Mackinac Island getaway since 1979, has reached an agreement to sell the property to an affiliate of Denver-based private equity firm KSL Capital Partners, which focuses on travel and leisure companies, the parties announced in 2019.  The deal includes not only the elegant 397-room hotel itself with its sweeping 660-foot front porch, but also the hotel’s 18-hole golf course, the majestic Esther Williams Swimming Pool, its Woods Restaurant and The Gatehouse Restaurant, and a concession space at historic Fort Mackinac.

Sources:

Grand Hotel, Mackinac Island / by John McCabe. Mackinac Island, Michigan, U.S.A. : Unicorn Press, 1993.

W. Steward Woodfill: Master of Mackinac’s Grand Hotel. Available for loan from the Library of Michigan and other libraries.

Michigan Historical Calendar, courtesy of the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University.

How a Desk Clerk Purchased the Grant Hotel“, Lost Michigan.

Daniel Hager, “A Grand (Hotel) Lesson in Free Enterprise“, Mackinac Center for Public Policy, January 4, 1999.

Grand Hotel did what it had to do to stay open in tough times – even if it was illegal“, MLive, April 3, 2019.

Claire Van Winkel, “The Grand Hotel Mackinac Island: Sagas of Ancient Native American Chiefs, Frozen Shipwrecks, and Ancient Ballroom Dances“, Storied Hotels.

Candice Williams, “Equity firm to purchase historic Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island“, Detroit News, September 10, 2019.

JC Reindl, “Mackinac Island Grand Hotel owner: We weren’t trying to sell“, Detroit Free Press, September 11, 2019.

Grand Hotel Timeline

 

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