2018-06-09 / Columnists


Gin Horses and Mackinac Distilleries Made for Tipsy Times
by Candice C. Dunnigan

Mackinac has had a reputation as a “watering hole” for many a sailor in the summer. The quest to quench a thirst with an alcoholic drink after a long day of vacationing, driving carriages, drays, and working on the dock is somewhat synonymous with this Island. But, very few, if any, know that horses were the backbone for making alcohol here. Mackinac “hooch” was made from the power of Island horses more than 150 years ago.

For starters, “gin” has more meaning than that delicious, botanically doused alcohol concoction that is perhaps the stable summer beverage of the cocktail set on Mackinac. A “gin,” when it comes to horses, usually is in reference to a type of mill which is horse operated. In fact, a horse gin was a wooden wheeled device on a spindle pulled by one or two horses often associated with shallow coal mining. This operated a pulley-like system that pulled loads up and down mines. But a horse gin can refer to the type of horse mill and grinding process done by horses for apple cider, vodkas, and whiskeys.

On Mackinac the horses moved harnessed in a circular motion, much like horses do on a hot walker. But think back to this is in the early 1800s. It was a slow and steady process for the horse(s) going around and around in a circle. Their purpose was to mill and grind grain.

The first to use them in such a manner to make local whiskey was Francis Le Barron. Le Barron (1781-1829) arrived on the Island as a garrison surgeon at Fort Mackinac. After a time he went into private practice on Mackinac. In addition to his duties at the post, Le Barron was an avid writer and chronicler of events. By 1804 he was also involved with matters in the Village and its ongoing fur trade. Making money on Mackinac Island was an opportunity that Le Barron saw happening before his eyes. He, too, wanted to be in on the action. No one knows for certain how he came up with his idea of a distillery, but he did. His concept was to construct a horse mill and a distillery on his own land. Actually, the site was not too far from the Grand Hotel shores, not far from the “Is it You?” “Somewhere In Time” marker.

The (territorial) land board rejected his claim for a bit of land on the southwest shore of the Island for such a project. Undaunted by the paperwork, Le Barron somehow proceeded and, by 1809, the mill and distillery went into operation.

To have a mill, you need to be near a source for enough water (there is a small spring in this location) and a small shed and working barn with a roof. The venture did not have a silver lin ing for the doctor. In fact, it was a failure. Le Barron had put almost $2,000 in the project. He left Mackinac in 1811, the horses were sold, but the mill and building stayed. There is recollection that during the initial occupation by the British on Mackinac in the War of 1812, some of the Island’s citizens had taken refuge in it. In 1822 there are still accounts of the place, which was then known as Reaume’s distillery. Others called it “Le Barron’s Still House. By the 1840s it was only a memory. There has not been any archaeology of the site, but I am certain that some bit of harness and nail could be found. There is evidence of it on the 1817 William Eveleth map of Mackinac Island.

There was a second horse mill powered distillery that was owned and operated by one of Mackinac’s first, and perhaps most infamous, entrepreneurs. This distillery was on a part of Dousman’s property. The problem is that the actual location is hard to pinpoint. Michael Dousman once owned almost the northern third (640 acres) of Mackinac. He, along with tenant farmers, successfully grew some crops here for the local market. Dousman had both horses and a few oxen to work the rocky island soil. He was known to have harvested wheat, oats, barley, straw, potatoes, and apples. At the farm, Dousman maintained a distillery to convert some of that grain into alcohol and apples into hard cider.

While Le Barron failed, Dousman thrived. It helped that he had a “house” in town, where both the military men as well as local citizens could meet for a drink and play shovelboard, billiards, and other games. This was known as the Dousman House Hotel. There was even a horse and wagon stabled there. There are accounts that the time there was pleasantly spent by the consumption of alcohol as part of the evening’s merriment.

From all details in maps and accounts, the actual distillery looks like it was near a spot by Croghan Water. This makes sense, for water is needed in the distillation process, and the horses could be harnessed and taken to the site, probably not too far from where one of the first barns was. There is a mention of the distillery in 1915 (by that time Peter Early and family had purchased the farm).

Dousman eventually moved onward to Wisconsin, where he died in 1854.

As for the mill horses, horses continue to do that same kind of work all over the world, especially in Europe. There are horse mills in Croatia, Great Britain, Belgium, France, Italy, Holland, and Russia that all grind grain for alcohol. Usually these are small batches, and they are commercially sold, but also for private consumption. But also in these countries, and many more horses as well as donkeys are harnessed to turn the millstones to grind flour, corn, and olive oil.

The small mills use one or two horses for power. Usually the mill is in operation two to six hours a day. This probably was the same type of operation in service on Mackinac Island, and it probably was mainly in working order five to eight months of the year.

Sadly, I’ve never come across any drawings or photographs of the Mackinac distilleries or the horses. Most likely the horses on Mackinac worked a single shift, with the spare horse in a shed nearby.

A 1915 map showing the location of both distilleries can be found with the column by Frank Straus, A Look at History, elsewhere in this issue.

Candice Dunnigan is a resident, writer, and equestrian on Mackinac Island. She belongs to various national and local equine organizations.

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