2013-05-18 / Columnists

A Look at History

100-year-old ‘Silver Birches’ Is Reminder of Edwardian Era on Mackinac

One of America’s biggest changes of course took place in the first decade of the 20th century – the decade historians call the Edwardian era. In Great Britain, then the world’s principal superpower, the King-Emperor was Edward VII, oldest son of Queen Victoria. Buildings and furnishings built or designed during this decade are sometimes called “Edwardian.”

Here west of the Atlantic, although many (especially on the East Coast) still looked toward London for inspiration, a solid background of economic growth encouraged many Americans to create their own policies, mindsets, and ways of looking at the world. At the forefront of this trend was President Theodore Roosevelt. Although Roosevelt had many personal ties with members of the British ruling class, his dream was to lead the United States toward equality with England – and beyond. The heart of this goal was what Roosevelt called “The Strenuous Life” – the belief that leading Americans should take advantage of the wide-open spaces of North America to build lives for themselves that would be very different from the lives of the English aristocracy on their crowded island. Patriotic Americans looked to Roosevelt and his friends for ideas about how to enjoy themselves.

One of the “strenuous” things that New York’s Roosevelt and his friends did was to go hiking and fishing in their Empire State’s largest mountain range, the northern Adirondacks. This rough and tumble patch of glacier cut rock is steep enough that it would, in the future, host two Winter Olympics, in 1932 and 1980. Along these cliffs and lakes, a new rustic resort architecture began to sprout in Teddy Roosevelt’s day, with buildings featuring exposed sticks and logs. In some cases, the builders even left the bark on the pieces of wood that were nailed, spiked, or tongue-and-grooved into place. Rough, splintery timbers were lined up to create rustic balustrades, frames for mosquito screens, and soaring crawl spaces for gravity-fed water tanks and first-generation electrical wiring. This architecture was called the Adirondack style.

In the Middle West, people of means began to look at the Adirondack style for inspiration when they thought of building opportunities and places to stay along the shores of the upper Great Lakes. Patches of New York-inspired builder’s work began to sprout, especially in steep places where the wily trout might be persuaded to bite. This decade, the 1900s – 1900-1910 – was the decade when several Adirondack-style fishing camps were built just north of Mackinac Island, in the “Les Cheneaux” archipelago. The big hotels that once stood in and around Cedarville and Hessel are almost all gone now, but boaters can still see Adirondackinspired cottages and boathouses that line the freshwater shore of “The Snows.”

Perhaps the most dramatic example of the Adirondack style in northern Michigan is far from accessible to the public. The Huron Mountain Club occupies about 13,000 acres of land, including an estimated 10,000 acres of old-growth forest, near Big Bay northwest of Marquette. Much of the older club infrastructure, including the central lodging and many of the cottages, were built during this period from 1900 until America’s entry into the First World War. Although open only to members and personal guests, the Club remains active to this day, and its members are trying to prevent environmental side affects from the adjacent Eagle copper-nickel mine project from causing what could be irreparable damage to portions of the central Upper Peninsula, including the Huron Mountains.

When the state of Michigan built the first gravel road around the Island in this 1900-10 decade, the shoreline north and east of British Landing became salable property. The Early family, which had farmed the upland – the patches of Island soil that are now Wawashkamo Golf Links and the adjacent horse barn and waste-transfer center – sold parcels of land to summer people and investors. John Early sold the two-acre parcel that would hold “Silver Birches” to Edna Troop in 1906, and over the following five years, an Adirondack lodge rose up here. Its dormer windows and rustic, multi-floored verandas faced the northern water of Lake Huron. Mackinac Island had just recommitted itself to horse culture – John Early’s brother, Peter, had helped vote for the City Council’s ban on “horseless carriages” in 1898 – and so two barns were built nearby.

For many decades Silver Birches was a home to summer visitors to Mackinac Island. For some years, it served as a girls’ camp, operated by Commander E.F. Tellefson. Islanders say that it was on this patch of shoreline that Tellefson stood in the summer of 1932, when he set the first verified world record for stone-skipping – a flat stone hopped 17 times across the briefly-calm surface of the restless water. The same water saw cement in the 1950s, when Moral-Rearmament (MRA) took its turn as the owner of the Silver Birches parcel; the derelict pier, its concrete piles and steel beams now twisted by winter ice, was built at that time.

As the MRA era dwindled and ended, Silver Birches again became a hospitality space. I well remember biking out repeatedly in 1976 to visit some close family members who had rented space there, but I spent much more time watching television than looking at the lodge’s architecture. It was exciting to find a place on Mackinac Island that was able to catch the broadcast signals that came from a faraway tower in the Upper Peninsula to the north.

For several decades, the Kendall family operated the lodge. As time passed, the nowvenerable hospitality space was given more time to think about the bygone years. In its centennial year, 2011, Silver Birches was quiet. Now in 2013, new owners have announced plans to restore and reopen this historic property.

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