2011-05-21 / Columnists

A Look at History

Mackinac Island’s Main Street History Goes Back 225 Years

Mackinac Island’s visual centerpiece is historic Main Street. Main Street, at times called “Huron Street” and “Water Street,” has many names because its heritage dates back more than 225 years. The British Army laid out what was to become the primary shopping street of Mackinac Island on the pebbly beach of “Haldimand Bay” in 1781. Not surprisingly, a strong sense of heritage surrounds this short public way, now one of the oldest streets in the Midwest to have retained its Victorian purpose and atmosphere.

In my column last week, I wrote about Market Street and its buildings dating back to the furtrade era. Surprisingly, Main Street’s buildings are a little bit younger than the oldest structures on Market Street. Many of them were built in a slighter later generation, the “steamboat era,” starting in the 1850s, when steamboat lines such as the grandly named Northern Transportation Company began operating “package freighters,” carrying freight and passengers to Mackinac Island and other key Great Lakes ports on a fixed schedule. The Coal Dock and Arnold Dock were built or expanded at this time to provide a safe wharf space for these vessels and a place to take on fuel.

“Bailey’s Drug Store,” featured prominently in this Main Street photograph, was later named “Alford’s Drug Store” in the same location. 
(Photographs courtesy of Tom Pfeiffelmann) “Bailey’s Drug Store,” featured prominently in this Main Street photograph, was later named “Alford’s Drug Store” in the same location. (Photographs courtesy of Tom Pfeiffelmann) Starting at this time, many visitors to Mackinac Island were “day visitors.” They would come to the Island, disembark, and be told to check their pocket watches, because after more coal was loaded, their vessel would blow its whistle and off it would go. It was very important to these visitors that they “soak up” as much of Mackinac Island’s atmosphere as possible in a few hours’ time; and Main Street businesses sprang up to help them do this, and maybe sell them some remembrances of the beautiful Island and harbor.

At left: This photograph was taken years ago from a vantage point near the current Main Street site of Doud’s Market. At left: This photograph was taken years ago from a vantage point near the current Main Street site of Doud’s Market. Images and photographs show that Main Street, after changing dramatically during the first half of the 1800s, began to look recognizably similar to our present street in the late 1800s – the Victorian era. Passengers from the Great Northern Railway’s “Northern Steamship Line” and the Pennsylvania Railroad’s “Anchor Line” were joined, by the 1880s, by visitors who had come to the Straits of Mackinac on the newly built railroad lines to Mackinaw City and St. Ignace. Many of these railroad travelers were also “on the clock” and had to look at their watches to catch the boat back to the mainland and their next destination.

A very early Mackinac Island Main Street scene. 
(Photographs courtesy of Tom Pfeiffelmann) A very early Mackinac Island Main Street scene. (Photographs courtesy of Tom Pfeiffelmann) Mackinac Islanders built and rebuilt their Main Street buildings to follow an indigenous style that reflected the difficulty of digging basement spaces on rocky Mackinac and celebrated the low cost of northern Michigan structural timber by the board foot. Lavish architectural add-ons welcomed sidewalk visitors by protecting them from the rain or sun. Eccentrically shaped lean-tos, deck spaces built toward (and in a few cases out over) the waters of the harbor, and attic spaces provided storage space for the merchants’ pre-summer inventories.

In the second half of the 1800s, Main Street was carefully built from the standpoint of density. Builders and retailers did not hire professional psychologists (as their chain-store descendants do today), but they instinctively understood certain basic axioms and facts about how humans feel and behave while shopping. It was necessary to build retail spaces close together, enough so that travelers would feel comfortable walking from one independent store to the next, but not so closely packed that “ladies” would be jostled by their fellow pedestrians in such a way as to make them uncomfortable. The Victorian age was the set-up point for what we now call “personal space.” When a lady of the 1860s wore a bustle, with her skirts hooped out over her body, she was a revolutionary woman staking a claim to something her mother could not have hoped to have, but which her granddaughters (and grandsons) would take for granted.

Main Street’s buildings were built to create an ideal density from the standpoint of the shopper on foot. Buildings such as the Murray Hotel (1870) were built as multiple-use structures with hospitality space upstairs (or in back) and retail/porch space in front. Columns that sheltered porch visitors from the sun or rain could also be used to create Victorian facades, such as those of the nearby Fenton’s Bazaar (1872).

To this day, shoppers on Main Street buy goods that hearken back to the Victorian years before 1900. Up until 1893, what we call bar chocolate was practically unknown in the United States; a German manufacturer in that year demonstrated chocolate making machinery at the Chicago world’s fair. Before 1893, Americans turned cocoa into sweets such as hot chocolate and fudge, and Mackinac Island’s Main Street still sells tons of fudge every summer.

Along with fudge, however, Main Street is a place where the actions of everyday life take place in a world of more than 100 years ago. Visitors can hail a taxicab, climb on a tour carriage, step off a bike, pick up a newspaper, go shopping for groceries at Doud’s or for remedies at Alford’s, just as their grandparents did in one of the old county-seat squares or urban-neighborhood shopping streets of yesteryear.

And this kind of shopping is what our forebears really did. By the early 1900s, the “main street” had become an American institution. A writer named Sinclair Lewis, who wanted to write a tell-all novel about the rural Midwest, called his book “Main Street” (1920). Lewis was almost awarded a Pulitzer Prize for this tale; but neither he nor anybody else could have guessed what another invention from the Midwest, Henry Ford’s automobile, would do to America’s real main streets over the next decades.

Today one Main Street remains, alive and well. A glance at an Island postcard stand shows this street and its authentic Victorian architecture is one of the visual keystones of Mackinac Island, with up to half the postcards showing Main Street scenes. Today, new media also testify to the importance of Main Street. If you look at souvenirs from Mackinac Island offered by sellers in a well-known online auction house, more than half either show Main Street, or were clearly sold there. Two of the Internet’s best-known photo-sharing Web sites place pictures of Main Street front and center on their Mackinac Island picture walls. Of the first four pictures published by a well-known online encyclopedia in its “featured” article about Mackinac Island, two are of Main Street.

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