A Look at History
One of Mackinac Island’s largest cottage properties has changed hands. The recent sale to Dan and Marlee Musser of “Hedgecliff,” the southeastern two-thirds of the former George Schindler farm, transfers a parcel of blufftop land that has a history dating back to 1810.
Hedgecliff’s history dates back to a time before the War of 1812, when the very weak United States federal government owned all of a hostile Mackinac Island. The island’s private-sector inhabitants were not friendly to the U.S.; almost all of them were economically connected to another country, Great Britain. Almost all of the furs they gathered and sold went east to a Britishcontrolled port town, Montreal, and almost all of the furs they bought came from members of Indian tribes who were allied with the British. Under these circumstances, the United States appears to have wanted to clarify their uneasy status on Mackinac Island by handing out parcels of land in such a way as to create a support network for themselves.
The new owner, George Schindler, was a former soldier who had served out his term of enlistment and wanted to turn to farming and fur trading. He got married on Mackinac Island in July 1804, and the United States granted him 75.65 acres of land in 1810. The grant may have been a last-minute afterthought, because it is numbered “Private Claim #331” and is inserted between Private Claim #3, Stonecliffe, and Private Claim #4, the Annex.
Shortly after the War of 1812, Schindler’s life also became an afterthought. Although he was a relatively young man in his late 40s, his health failed, and in the harsh language of those days, he was described as “a cripple.” He was unable to farm his claim and was forced to sell out, over a period between 1816 to 1822, to the wealthy Dousman family. The final deed shows the property being transferred for “2,000 livres, ancient Quebec shillings, and one cow.” The “livre” was a form of money much used among the fur-trading Mackinac Islanders at this time; back in France, it was a silver coin worth about 20 U.S. cents, so two centuries ago the farm may have been worth a bit more than $400 in the money of the day.
Schindler’s cow is a reminder that after a few years, the farm’s thin soil was already wearing out and was better suited for pasturage than to try to grow crops. The farming claims of Mackinac Island were already becoming cow pastures, and the cows wore loud bells around their necks of the kind used by hill farmers in Switzerland to this day. Not too far from Hedgecliff is a small rise of land; today it is topped by the “Y”-shaped intersection where Annex Road and Stonecliffe Road come together. Old-timers call the little hillock “Listening Hill.” Its hilltop is almost equally close to what are now the Annex, Harrisonville, Hedgecliff, and Stonecliffe, and farmhands would go to the top of the hill to listen for the distinctive sounds of “their” cowbells.
In July 1829, the Hedgecliff farm became part of Mission Point. William and Amanda Ferry were building a vocational boarding school at the southeastern tip of Mackinac Island, and the missionaries bought the parcel of land for $1,000 to grow food for the school and teach their students agricultural science. Surviving records show that the Mission farm and pasture operated for eight years; in 1837 the Mission was wound up and the Ferry family moved to the Lower Peninsula. The farm settled down to quiet life as a pastureland.
In 1881, businessman Franklin Hanson of Chicago bought the pasture parcel; Hanson had married into the Geary family of Market Street, and had developed an interest in Mackinac Island. In March 1884, with the Annex next door being subdivided into building lots, Hanson hoped that Hedgecliff could become a cottage colony as well. A surveyor’s certificate for “Hanson’s Plat” appeared in the St. Ignace land records on this date. Interest in the pastureland was limited, however. Some cottagers from the Annex asked for and were granted permission to lay out a short rough, golf course on the grassland. After a few years they moved their clubs up beyond Listening Hill to the new “Wawashkamo” links, but Hedgecliff had become the first place golf was played on Mackinac Island.
In 1903, the Hanson house burned, and Franklin’s daughter, Daisy, and her husband, Edwin B. Harts, had to replace the lost home. The new Harts cottage was a blufftop signal to Mackinac Islanders that a new century had begun. A pioneer of what was to become the ‘third generation’ of Mackinac Island cottages, the Harts cottage moved away from Victorian patterns. Instead of choosing to use the design skills of a local builder like Patrick Doud or Frank Rounds, the Harts chose architects Mundie and Jensen of Chicago. The chosen team was a pair of High Modernists who had worked with skyscraper builder William Le Baron Jenney. Instead of using carved stone or wooden siding, Mundie and Jensen had the builders cover the cottage façade with metal lath and then cement stucco. Following the architects’ design, the building team surrounded the new showplace with a complex system of balustrades made with shaped blocks of tinted concrete. A favorable description and review of the 20th-century residence was published in House Beautiful magazine, and elements from it may have inspired other “third generation” cottages such as Stonecliffe next door.
In December 1955, the Harts property was sold to Elliot and Rita Sue Cohen of Bloomfield Hills. The couple used and enjoyed this beautiful parcel of land throughout Rita Sue’s life. Now it has become part of the life of another family whose members are known to all of Mackinac Island.