2012-06-09 / Columnists

Michigan Politics

Grand Hotel Steeped In Political History
By George Weeks

Michigan has had important political happenings in Detroit, Grand Rapids, and other cities. But in modern state history, seldom have there been political gatherings as grand as those at Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel, which marks its 125th anniversary on July 10.

Last week’s annual policy conference of the Detroit Regional Chamber, which usually attracts state and national political elite, was not such a gathering this year because the meeting conflicted with wind-up sessions of Congress and the Michigan Legislature.

But many previous chamber conferences, as well as Mackinac Island gatherings of both parties, have featured national political headliners.

Furthermore, and most impressively, visitors have included five presidents—Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Gerald R. Ford, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton.

Not all were overnight Grand guests. Kennedy came to the island in 1960 primarily for a meeting in the sunroom of the Governors’ Summer Residence in a successful bid for a presidential nomination endorsement from Governor G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams.

(Mr. Williams was appointed as President Kennedy’s assistant secretary of state for African affairs— not exactly a plum but one handled with enthusiasm and distinction. A memorable moment for me in covering the State Department for United Press International was seeing Mr. Williams call square dances, as he so often did in campaigning for governor, for African ambassadors as they swirled around the department’s top floor with robes flowing.)

The Grand Hotel, with its 385 rooms, has seven First Lady Suites named after presidents’ wives—four of whom stayed at and later participated in the designs. Jackie Kennedy was not alive when her suite was designed with help of associates.

Not all interesting moments covering Grand Hotel political events involved those who went on to highest offices. In the 1990s, after a National Governors Association meeting in Traverse City, Governor James J. Blanchard invited Democratic governors, and some presidential hopefuls, to the island.

Among them were ex-Nebraska Governor Bob Kerry, a former Congressional Medal Honor winner who was then senator and perennial presidential hopeful, and The Reverend Jesse Jackson.

Mr. Kerry was accompanied by Hollywood star Demi Moore. They chose to stay at the Grand, rather than accept Blanchard’s offer for a pad at the guv’s residence.

Another political angle to Grand Hotel history: It was in 1882 that 1887-94 Senator Francis B. Stockbridge, a prominent lumberman from Kalamazoo, bought the land on which the hotel now sits. He later arranged financing for its construction through formation of the Mackinac Island Hotel Company.

Appropriate Appointment

As Grand Hotel, a National Historic Landmark, celebrates its 125th Anniversary, it’s timely that Governor Rick Snyder recently appointed Margaret “Mimi” Cunningham, vice-president of Grand Hotel, to the seven-member Michigan Historical Commission.

In 1989, Cunningham, and her brother, R. D. Musser III, became the third generation of their family to take the helm of the hotel.

She said: “My family has enjoyed a long involvement in preserving Michigan’s historic landmarks, beginning with my Great Uncle Stewart Woodfill, who purchased Grand Hotel in 1933 and served as chair of the Mackinac Island State Park Commission.” (His nephew, R.D. Musser, Jr. became president in 1960 and purchased the hotel from Mr. Woodfill in 1979.)

Cunningham said: “I am honored to be the first Musser to serve on the Michigan Historical Commission and to continue building on our state’s historical legacy.”

George Weeks, a member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of fame, for 22 years was the political columnist for The Detroit News and previously with UPI as Lansing Bureau Chief and foreign editor in Washington. His weekly Michigan Politics column is syndicated by Superior Features.

Return to top

Click here for digital edition
2012-06-09 digital edition