2018-05-12 / Columnists

A Look at History

Hero of Mackinac Island Preservation Died 100 Years Ago
BY FRANK STRAUS

The “Looking Back” reprint column in the Town Crier’s sister paper, The St. Ignace News, is always full of information on Mackinac Island’s past and history. A recently reprinted clipping from 1918 contained the following sad words:

“From Mackinac Island: Edwin O. Wood died in Pasadena, California, where he had gone for his health. Mr. Wood and family spent many summers on the Island in their beautiful cottage, and no man ever did more to bring the Island to the attention of the outside world than did Mr. Wood. His death will be universally regretted in this community.”

The news from Pasadena was also a significant event at General Motors. On April 22, 1918, the table where GM’s board of directors met to shape the future of what would be America’s largest car company had an empty chair. Wood’s love of Mackinac Island, and his ability to fight for its preservation into the 20th century, was an expression of serious clout possessed by a man who had been close to the very top of Michigan’s economy.

As a lifelong resident of Genesee County, the county that centers on Flint, Wood was familiar with the mushrooming southeastern Michigan car factories that were getting built in the 1910s. In that decade, everybody who could afford one was thinking of buying a “horseless carriage.” Henry Ford’s assembly lines were revolutionizing car manufacturing and prices, and financiers were offering large sums to consolidate some of Ford’s previously independent Michigan competitors into a single firm that could enjoy the same economies of scale as the Ford Motor Company. The merger of Flint-based Buick with Detroit-based Chevrolet was a key move in the creation of the new General Motors.

During the final eight years of his life, businessman Wood lived in two worlds. At his GM boardroom table, the corporation officer listened to industrial engineers as they described how they were starting to make cars reliable and affordable by using machines to make other machines: newly-invented automated boring tools were cutting metal cylinders into precisely fashioned steel tubes. The new gas-fired car cylinders would not require time-consuming daily maintenance like the cylinders of a coal-fired railroad steam engine. Their assemblies were the mechanical hearts and valves of Michigan’s new iron beasts: machines that could push themselves. On the East Bluff, by contrast, summer cottager Wood lived the day-to-day life of horse culture on Mackinac Island.

By ordinance enacted in the old City Hall a few years earlier, Wood’s neighbors had asked that gasoline and its engines stay off the Island. But it is often the nature of power that the only people who have it are the ones who have a lot of it. Other American islands, headed by Nantucket in Massachusetts and Mount Desert in Maine, had passed similar ordinances, and these East Coast pushes would fail: The muscle of the great new power of American automotive engineering would swamp them. Mackinac Island’s citizen-plea request would be useless unless at least one of the giants of the new industry were to countersign it. Mackinac Island’s identity as an auto-free dot inside the Motor Car State had to get a key backup from at least one of the people who were putting horses, everywhere else, off their oats and hay.

Edwin O. Wood was qualified to take on this role. He was a friend not only of top executives at General Motors but also of the 1910s governor of Michigan, Woodbridge Ferris. The political and economic ties between the Governor, the state legislature, the car industry, and Mackinac Island made it possible for the Island, in the 1910s, to start to “sell itself” to American auto travelers and the fast-growing tourist industry. The Island had the clout to say that not only did it not have any cars today, but it would not have them next year, either. People could have faith that they would drive to Mackinaw City or St. Ignace, park the car, and then ride a boat to a magical world where the automobile did not exist. At the northern end of Lake Huron, an enduring image of stability had been created in the midst of what seemed, to many of the Americans of Michigan and the U.S. in 1918, to be an increasingly fastpaced and deadly world.

Wood recognized the importance of historic building and landscape preservation to create these visual images of stability and human place. On the east end of town stood the deteriorated frame of what had once been an active Protestant church. In 1905- 1906, with financial help from the state, Islanders had built a new road around Mackinac Island. The “Mission Church” faced the new Lake Shore Road, but its timbers – cut in 1829 by the little sawmill near Mackinaw City – were now old and weary. As a new cottager in 1905, Wood worked with a lead organizer, the Rev. Meade Williams, in the fundraising drive to acquire the then-physically troubled building and see to the perpetuation of its authentic existence. The old church would become part of the experience of everyone going to Mission Point Resort or around the Island. Wood’s years of Island leadership and alliance with the State Park also saw the placement of pioneering historical markers and installations near Fort Mackinac, at Anne’s Tablet, and near Arch Rock, at the Nicolet Watch Tower, thus helping to prevent these and other spots from possible future development.

During the final months of his life, Wood saw the triumphant conclusion of his summer life on Mackinac Island. A big New York publishing house, Macmillan, had been persuaded to publish a very specialized set of documents on the history of little Mackinac Island. Edwin O. Wood’s “Historic Mackinac” (1918), a triumphant summary of the Island’s history up to that date and compendium of documents from the author’s library, has been for one century the indispensable foundation of knowledge of our Island’s past. Stories and texts familiar to many readers, written down in metal letters on historic plaques or spoken by drivers of the Island’s tour buggies, can be traced back to Wood’s two-volume work.

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