“The glowing beauty of the Indian summer, when the deep-blue sky, the purple haze in the air, the shining water, and the gorgeous autumn tints on the trees, made up a picture of rich coloring unknown in any other portion of the world. We climbed to old Fort Holmes, and saw the whole of Fairy Island clad in maple, orange, and scarlet, green pine and russet oak; we noted Round Island and Bois Blanc, like gay bouquets in the still water; we breathed the hazy air, all filled with gold-dust. Descending from the heights, we wandered through the painted woods, and brought home glowing branches to deck our cottage-walls.”
This vivid view of Mackinac Island is the work of Constance Fenimore Woolson, the Cleveland, Ohio native who spent summers on the island during the 1850s and 1860s. It comes from “Fairy Island,” an historical essay Woolson wrote for the July 1870 issue of Putnam’s Monthly Magazine.
The island inspired Woolson to write several short stories that were published in periodicals like Harper’s Monthly and Atlantic Monthly, as well as Anne, her first novel. Anne’s Tablet, a tablet honoring Woolson and the heroine of her novel on the island’s East Bluff, is one of the sights related to literature and art that visitors can discover on Mackinac Island.
Woolson’s heroine lived in a home on the former site of the Agency House, which was was once used to distribute money to Native Americans who turned over their land to the federal government as a result of the Treaty of 1836. The treaty transferred 15 million acres of Objibway (Chippewa) and Odawa (Ottawa) land in the Michigan Territory to the federal government.
The neighboring Indian Dormitory, constructed as a place where those Native Americans could stay when they came to the island to receive their annual treaty payments, still stands. Located on the eastern side of Marquette Park, the building was designed in 1838 by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, who came to the island in 1833 as a government agent for Indian affairs, spent the next eight years there, and later wrote books and articles about 18th and 19th-century Indian life. Since then, the Indian Dormitory has served several purposes, including housing the Mackinac Island Public School from 1867 until 1960. Today, the Indian Dormitory is home to the Richard and Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum, a showplace of fine and decorative arts inspired by Mackinac Island.
One of those items is Tigress and Scorpion Carried Into Mackinac, the oldest known painting depicting the island. Lt. Col. Robert C. McDouall, British commander of Fort Mackinac during the War of 1812, commissioned artist William Dashwood to paint a work commemorating McDouall’s success in capturing the Tigress and Scorpion, two American ships that took part in the War of 1812, as they tried to blockade Michilimackinac and take back control of the fort from the British on September 7, 1814. McDouall can be seen pointing out the captured schooners to a pair of Native Americans.
The Manoogians’ collection also includes more than 400 paintings that have been exhibited at the island’s Grand Hotel during the past 25 years. The Detroit philanthropists who summer on Mackinac select Hudson River landscapes, trompe l’oeil and still-life paintings, Impressionist paintings and other works by well-known artists like Thomas Moran, William Glackens, Albert Bierstadt and Childe Hassam.
Whether you explore the island on foot, on a bicycle or with the help of a horse, you’ll likely encounter items from the Detroit Institute of Arts’ Inside/Out program. High-quality reproductions of masterpieces in the museum’s collection are mounted outdoors around the island during the summer. For example, The Trappers’ Return, painted by George Caleb Bingham in 1851, gives an insightful glimpse into frontier life by depicting a French fur trapper and his half-Native American son heading home with their catch, including a chained bear cub, along the Missouri River.
The Mackinac Island Public Library is an especially nice stop to make during an artistic tour of the island. Rosa Truscott Webb (1853-1942) established the first library on the island in 1936, raising money to establish a community center with the help of the island’s Girl Scouts.
The library hired Carleton Varney, the interior designer responsible for the Grand Hotel’s striking appearance, to lend his talents to its interior. Walls painted in “Reverie Blue” complement a chandelier that originally hung in the Newport, Rhode Island mansion of island fur-trading executive John Jacob Astor.
The tiles in the library’s fireplace are examples of Pewabic pottery, the renowned Arts and Crafts pottery made in Detroit during the turn of the 20th century. The lattice tiles were cast from the original molds used in the children’s fireplace in the Detroit Public Library, while the side panels are cast in true Pewabic blue glazes. A professional artist created special Mackinac-inspired scenes, including the Round Island Lighthouse, Arch Rock, Fort Mackinac and the iconic rocking chairs on the Grand Hotel’s porch. A loon is reminiscent of The Loon Feather, a novel by Iola Fuller that is set during the period when the island was a fur-trading post. The quote spanning the top of the tiles is from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which is set on a “fairy isle”: “The isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.”
For more, read “The Great Turtle,” a chapter in Michigan in Literature, by Clarence A. Andrews; A Picturesque Situation: Mackinac Before Photography 1615-1860, by Brian Leigh Dunnigan; and Mackinac Treasures: The Museum Collections of Mackinac State Historic Parks, by Steven C. Brisson. Mackinac Island also makes appearances in “Astoria,” a short story written by Washington Irving in 1836, and “The Man Without a Country,” which Edward Everett Hale wrote for The Atlantic in 1863.
To discover more about Constance Fenimore Woolson and her work, see Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist, by Anne Boyd Rioux, and Miss Grief and Other Stories, by Constance Fenimore Woolson, edited by Anne Boyd Rioux. Castle Nowhere: Lake-Country Sketches, by Constance Fenimore Woolson, with an introduction by Margot Livesey, contains six of Woolson’s Mackinac Island-inspired works.