2017-12-09 / People

Working To Keep the Island Clean: 30 Years a Dray Driver for Roberts

By Jacob A. Ball

Lacal Roberts has been working on Mackinac Island since the summer of 1980, when he was hired as a dishwasher at Grand Hotel. He says he does not know where he would be otherwise, and regardless of any stress in his work, he loves the Island. Lacal Roberts has been working on Mackinac Island since the summer of 1980, when he was hired as a dishwasher at Grand Hotel. He says he does not know where he would be otherwise, and regardless of any stress in his work, he loves the Island. Lacal Roberts has been a dishwasher, street sweeper, luggage hauler, holiday sleigh driver, and a fixture on Mackinac Island since landing his first job here fresh from Saginaw High School in 1980.

Those varied roles in the Island’s seasonal commerce led Mr. Roberts, whose first name is pronounced “lay-sull,” to the skilled job he now pursues six long days a week each summer: guiding a dray behind a team of horses through Island streets and alleys to collect garbage, compost, and recyclables. He delivers them to the solid waste handling facility off British Landing Road.

Much like a longtime cottager, Mr. Roberts, whose year-around home is in Kinross, has returned year after year out of love for the Island he calls his second home. Talking with the Mackinac Island Town Crier about the challenges of his occupation and its many responsibilities, he said he’s glad he found work here straight out of high school.

“This has been the right decision for me,” said Mr. Roberts, a man of direct speech and few spare words.

He was encouraged to search for employment on the Island by his school counselor, Ed Detour, whom he credits with leading him to the place, people, and career he treasures.

Mr. Roberts spent his first several summers working at Grand Hotel before he went to work for Mackinac Island Service Company in 1987.

For nearly 40 seasons since, Mr. Roberts has worked with others who perform jobs essential to keeping the Island inviting and clean for the hundreds of thousands of visitors every summer. His hard-working attitude and positive spirit have endeared him to many, and his expertise driving a dray is said to be unsurpassed among his peers.

“This has been the right decision for me,” he added.

The job he landed when he arrived on the Island as a teenager in the summer of 1980 was as a dishwasher at Grand Hotel. This introduced him to a work ethic that endured through the years. Mr. Roberts would continue to work in Grand Hotel’s dish room for five seasons, during which he learned much about the operations outside the kitchen.

Beginning in 1985, he moved to other positions at the Grand, including laundry service, waste collection, and luggage transport. He still works closely with the hotel staff as the primary dray driver responsible for all trash, recycling, and compost that must be hauled regularly from Mackinac Island’s largest commercial establishment.

Mr. Roberts said Island people always have been gracious and welcoming. He is proud to call many residents and workers his lifelong friends.

“It’s just like my second home over there,” he said.

What makes him valuable to his employer and the community is his dedication and focus when working. Not only is he capable of driving every type of carriage and dray, he frequently assists other drivers to guarantee that the job is done safely and completely. Sometimes this extra effort can be stressful, but Mr. Roberts is quick to say that he loves the job in spite of it.

“He’s one of the best employees we have,” said his boss, Dr. Bill Chambers, president of Mackinac Island Carriage Tours. “He’s reliable, he knows what to do, he does his job, and he doesn’t give anybody a hard time.”

In 1987 when Mr. Roberts began working for Mackinac Island Service Company, a division of Carriage Tours, he was responsible for luggage transport from the ferry docks to Grand Hotel. He was taught the basics of driving horses, but had to learn a great deal more while on the job. After about 15 years of luggage hauling, he moved on to his current job driving one of the garbage wagons.

This required even more acumen. Each wagon has its own unique characteristics and must be driven carefully to avoid hitting light posts, fences, or buildings on the Island’s narrow streets. His driving skills have come in handy for off-season construction projects, such as the construction of the Mackinac Island Medical Center, for which he helped transport equipment and supplies.

He said he has never had a bad accident, but dealt with runaway horses a couple of times. This past summer, he was forced to switch horses after it became clear the first pair was too easily frightened.

“I’ve been in some binds, but I have become very aware of what the horses are doing after all these years of driving,” Mr. Roberts said.

He is responsible for a number of tasks, and any complication can derail his schedule for the whole day. His role sometimes appears to be taking care of anything that is unattended. This includes transporting garbage for Grand Hotel and Mission Point Resort, as well as garbage, compost, and recycling elsewhere on the Island. He spent six winters as a street sweeper and sleigh driver for residents and visitors.

His love of Mackinac Island is often challenged, but remains steadfast. One of his main frustrations is monitoring other drivers out on the road to ensure the safety of the horses and passengers. Often his peers are younger, less experienced, and perhaps less focused. They may allow too much slack in the reins, for example. If Mr. Roberts notices this or some another unsafe situation, he attempts to stop the carriage and fix the problem. His employer considers him irreplaceable.

“He does the job and he goes above and beyond. Some of those younger kids will leave things… so Lacal will go out and pick it up,” said Carriage Tours Manager Mike Beaudoin.

At the end of each trip to the solid waste facility, he must sort and count the bags he is delivering. Mr. Roberts said he has a good relationship with facility manager Gabe Cowell, who he believes has done a good job since taking over late last year.

This process will repeat itself day after day through the summer. Mr. Roberts typically works six days a week for 12 to 14 hours a day in summer. He doesn’t ask for personal time off.

“I’m all business when I’m over here,” he explained.

These days, Mr. Roberts takes a well-earned winter break while he waits for summer, when Island businesses owners, visitors, and especially the horses, will return.

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I've known Lacal for years.

I've known Lacal for years. He's a hard worker and always has a friendly greeting for people. I enjoyed the article and tribute to this longtime Island personality.
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