March is Women’s History Month. And, of course, Mackinac Island is steeped in history. But did you know that history has been shaped in large part by women?
From the island’s years as a pivotal economic hub in the Colonial era to its transition into a world-renowned vacation destination, several women have been at the forefront. In honor of Women’s History Month, let’s take a look at just a few of the prominent women who have had a hand in making Mackinac into what it is today:
Margaret Doud holds the distinction of being one of the longest-serving mayors in the country, having led Mackinac Island’s year-round population of about 500 residents since 1975. Born and raised on Mackinac, Doud was crowned the island’s Lilac Queen in 1963 and later taught kindergarten here for a few years before becoming mayor. She has won re-election annually for more than 40 years while also running the Windermere Hotel, which dates to 1887. Built as one of the early private family cottages on Mackinac, the Windermere was converted into a resort hotel by Doud’s great-uncle after the turn of the century and remains a popular place to stay for island visitors. In addition to her leadership in island tourism, Doud during her tenure as mayor has overseen many important projects including construction of the Mackinac Island Medical Center.
While the Windermere dates to 1887, it wasn’t the first summer cottage built on Mackinac. The 1880s launched a period of Victorian cottage construction that lasted about 20 years and to this day makes for great site-seeing on a bike ride, architectural walking tour or horse-drawn carriage tour of the island. When the U.S. Congress established Mackinac National Park (the second national park in the country, following Yellowstone), it required that the park be self-supporting. This happened through the lease of federal land for private cottages. The first such cottage in what was then Mackinac National Park (now Mackinac Island State Park) was built by Phoebe Gehr, a woman from Chicago who leased a lot on the island’s East Bluff and oversaw construction that was completed in 1885.
The reason the federal government needed lease revenue to fund Mackinac National Park is because U.S. Sen. Thomas Ferry pushed for the island to become a national park in the first place. Ferry was born on Mackinac to the Rev. William Ferry and Amanda White Ferry, Presbyterian missionaries who came to the island in the 1820s at the height of the fur trade and established a Protestant mission here. Amanda played an active role in the mission and its school and to this day the Mission Church is the oldest-surviving church building in Michigan. It’s one of a few old church buildings on Mackinac that make perfect settings for wedding ceremonies and one of the reasons the island is such a wedding destination.
On the island’s East Bluff just up from Fort Mackinac is Anne’s Tablet, one of many unique landmarks on Mackinac. This one memorializes 19th-century writer Constance Fenimore Woolson, who visited Mackinac as a child and set her first novel, “Anne,” on the island. The tablet features an image of Anne and an excerpt from the novel that gives a glimpse of Mackinac’s natural beauty, which continues to make it an attractive vacation destination still today. Like so many places on Mackinac, Anne’s Tablet is a beautiful place on the island to discover.
Years before Woolson vacationed on Mackinac, the island was sought by European immigrants as a key point of military control in the Great Lakes fur trade since it’s located in the narrow straits between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. Magdelaine La Framboise became a major player in that industry through the first half of the 19th century, before Mackinac transitioned into a vacation destination. Known as the “First Lady of Mackinac,” La Framboise is perhaps Michigan’s most famous female pioneer. She was half Native-American and half French-Canadian, born in 1780 to the daughter of an Odawa Indian chief. La Framboise married a French-Canadian fur trader in her teens and, after her husband was murdered, successfully carried on the business as a widow fluent in French, English, Odawa and Chippewa. She retired wealthy on Mackinac, where she started the island’s first school. La Framboise was buried at St. Anne’s Catholic Church and her home on the island – Chateau La Framboise – became the main house of the Harbour View Inn, one of many unique lodging facilities on Mackinac.