There was a moment in time in the 1990s when the 171-year-old home next to St. Anne’s Church on Mackinac Island hit the market, its future appearing up for grabs. That worried Father James Williams. And his efforts on behalf of the house and it’s famous 19th century owner, Magdelaine La Framboise, led to a careful restoration and new life as the Madame La Framboise Harbour View Inn.
Like a long line of St. Anne’s priests, Williams was versed in the story of the home’s first owner, Magdelaine La Framboise, a remarkable 19th-century French and Indian woman who, when widowed at a young age, parlayed her husband’s fur businesses into one of the most successful enterprises of her day. In later years she spread her wealth to fellow islanders and to her beloved St. Anne’s church. Mindful of La Frambroise’s legacy, Father Williams couldn’t bear the thought of losing the home’s connection to the church. To find a buyer who would respect its integrity, Williams scouted his congregation.
He connected with Dr. Michael Bacon, a Cheboygan-based doctor who runs the Mackinac Island Medical Clinic. Bacon”Doc” to islandersis well-known for his soft-spoken style and dedication to the island. And as a co-owner of the Metevier Inn, a renovated Victorian on Market Street, he had a track record of preserving the island’s historic homes. But to Father Williams, Bacon’s most important qualification was his standing as a loyal St. Anne’s parishioner.
At Father Williams’ prodding, Bacon began working the numbers. In 1994, convinced the home could be transformed into an upscale inn, Bacon and his wife, Jane, went for it. Last year, in its very first season, the Madame La Framboise Harbour View Inn secured a spot among the island’s grand establishments.
But Bacon’s relationship with the home goes well beyond a business venture. When renovating, the island’s doctor was captivated by the life and times of La Framboise. Along the way, Bacon looked inward. “If you read her history,” Bacon says, “it can’t help but make you assess your own life and values and weigh them against hers.”
La Framboise’s is a rags-to-riches story, but with the added obstacles of sex and race. In 1780 she was born to a French-Canadian fur trader and his Odawan wife. When she was a baby, her father was killed and her mother moved the little girl and her two sisters back to a village on the Grand River. At 14, Magdelaine married Joseph La Framboise, a French-Canadian fur trader in mid-Michigan.
The young wife proved a business asset. The couple spent winters gathering furs in the Grand River area, bartering them on Mackinac come summer, and La Framboise negotiated trades with the Indians. In time, Magdelaine had two children: a daughter, Josette, and a son, Joseph.
But then, on a winter’s evening in 1806, La Framboise’s life changed forever. Her husband, kneeling in prayer at the family’s campsite, was killed by an Indian he had refused liquor earlier in the day. With the help of her voyageurs, La Framboise buried her husband’s body at her native village and spent the rest of the winter gathering pelts. In the spring, she settled her husband’s business affairs and traded the winter’s supply of furs.
From 1806 until 1820, La Framboise worked the competitive, male-dominated fur trade, but the political turmoil of the period heightened the obstacles she faced. During her 15 years in the business, the Great Lakes region changed from American to British control and back to American. When the two powers vied for control of the fur trade in the War of 1812, both manipulated the Indians to promote their own interests. For independent fur traders like La Framboise, the troubles continued when John Jacob Astor’s powerful American Fur Company pushed to monopolize the trade. Still, La Framboise gracefully negotiated with all sides. She was fluent in Odawa, French and English and naturally adept at bartering. In fact, she lacked only one basic skill: the ability to read and write.
In 1820, La Framboise sold her business to another independent fur trader and retired to Mackinac Island, where she was known as Madame La Framboise. By this time, Joseph had gone to school in Montreal and Josette was courted by the commandant at Fort Mackinac, Benjamin Pierce, brother of Franklin, who years later would become president of the United States. The couple married on the island in 1816. Not long after, La Framboise began building her retirement home on Huron Street.
Like its owner, La Framboise’s home bridged two worlds. The core of the first floor was a solid, frontier-style log cabin; the second story was built out of frame, a more modern means of construction. The home, one of the most elegant on the island, soon became a salon for all walks of Mackinac society. La Framboise entertained military personnel from the fort, representatives of John Jacob Astor’s Fur Company and visiting dignitaries like French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville. Equally welcome were La Framboise’s many Indian friends and relatives. Indeed, La Framboise never forgot her native heritage and wore Indian dress to public functions.
For La Framboise’s last 25 years, philanthropy was a way of life. When St. Anne’s church needed a new, larger site, La Framboise donated land next to her home. She also devoted time and energy to educating the island children, first renting part of her home for teaching and later helping start Mackinac’s first Catholic school. Along the way, Madame herself learned to read and write.
But her last years were marked with tragedy. In 1821, Josette and her infant son died, most likely during childbirth. The two were buried beneath the altar of St. Anne’s church. Madame helped raise her granddaughter and the two remained close until La Framboise herself died in 1846. She was buried beneath the altar of St. Anne’s, beside Josette and her child. Years later, when a basement was added to the church, their remains were exhumed and moved to sepulchers in the church yard.
By the time the Bacons bought the home, most outward traces of the great woman and her times were long since gone. A second-story porch and Ionic columns had been added to the front of the house in the 1920s, and in the 1950s a homely addition was tacked onto the back. In the home’s original core, the Bacons found pine floors hidden under red carpet, walls covered in flocked paper with a gold-leaf motif, and pine and oak trim smothered with layers of paint.
Looking past the surface, Bacon envisioned an upscale inn that would fit with the direction he sees the island heading. “The island is really becoming recognized across the country and internationally as a sophisticated place to vacation,” Bacon says. “Trinkets and tomahawks are giving way to sophisticated hotels and gift shops.”
To develop their plans, the couple worked with Harbor Springs architect William Fuller and Mackinac Island’s historic architect, Richard Neumann, whom the Mackinac Island City Council hires to review building plans for historic authenticity. But the Bacons broke from custom: Instead of waiting for Neumann to review the plans, the couple went to him with their concept.
Through Neumann’s eyes, Bacon began to see the importance of the home. Even 75 years after La Framboise built the place, it was one of the most prominent in the Midwest, for the island’s bluff-top mansions weren’t even built until 1895.
Bacon’s enthusiasm built as layers of modern patina were stripped away. One of the most exciting moments came when the plaster and lath walls were sanded down to the hand-hewn timbers at the core of the home. Bacon was so taken with the timbers that he arranged for a 4-foot-by-10-foot swath of the old exterior wall to remain exposed. Today, covered with Plexiglas, the cutaway faces the inn’s new lobby. Bacon was also intrigued by the lath, which was made from a mixture of hay, horsehair and wood chipped into tiny pieces with a tomahawk. Where he could, Bacon preserved the original walls.
At this point, Bacon was so swept up in the home’s history he began researching La Framboise. Among his finds are the oldest photograph of the home, taken in 1860, and drawings of La Framboise’s relatives. There are no known drawings of her while she was alive. For a portrait of her, Bacon commissioned an artist to use the drawings and written descriptions. And relying on the historical documents, he traced and visited the site of La Framboise’s fur trading post near Grand Haven.
But it is La Framboise’s Mackinac Island retirement that has moved Bacon most. Bacon’s own self-evaluation has prompted him to volunteer with the island’s recreation program. And he contributed to an extensive renovation of St. Anne’s church last year.
“I kid people a lot,” says the father of three. “I say to them, ‘Gee, I know you guys would rather have me take up drawing or piano.’ ”
The Bacons’ careful renovation has preserved the home’s historic integrity. The original floor plan has been kept intact. Downstairs, La Framboise’s parlor is the inn’s parlor, and upstairs the home’s original four bedrooms are now guest rooms. And when the island weather cools, guests warm themselves in front of eight fireplaces that were once the home’s only source of heat.
To the back and sides of the original home, the Bacons have added a discreet 20-room addition. Nine of the rooms, including the original four, have views of the water. The rest have verandas that look out on a garden and hot tub. Next to the garden, a new building called the Carriage House contains four more suites and 10 rooms. All are decorated in shades of teal and pink and with a Victorian floral carpet imported from England. “I wanted the home to have an elegant island-home feel,” says Jane Bacon, who decorated the inn with input from several interior designers. “But I also wanted it to feel comfortable.” Antiques, many of them dating to the homes earliest years, are scattered around the inn. In the parlor, a mahogany settee is believed to have been La Framboise’s.
The tranquil setting allows guests to slip into another era. Relaxing in the wicker and chintz rockers on the front porch, you can look out across Huron Street where carriages still clippety-clop by as they did when La Framboise lived here. A second-story porch looks out on Haldimand Bay and the 19th-century Round Island Lighthouse. Visitors take quiet moments, too, to wander across the yard to the coffins of Magdelaine La Framboise, her daughter and her grandson. On their stone coffins, the ornate French-script carvings give away little more than the dates of their births and deaths. Now, with the help of Mike Bacon and the Harbour View Inn, the rest of La Framboise’s story is much more easily read.
Elizabeth Edwards is Managing Editor for Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
Madame La Framboise Harbour View Inn opens for the season May 3 and closes October 26. Call 906-847-0101.
Madame La Framboise Comes Alive on Mackinac Island
On Mackinac Island, reminders of the life and times of Madame La Framboise are everywhere. For a trip back in time, a fitting way to start is on a ride with Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, which dates to 1820, the year Magdelaine La Framboise built her home. Each driver is schooled in the history of the island and shares it with passengers. Tours are $12.
At Fort Mackinac, the scenery is much the same as when La Framboise’s son-in-law, Benjamin Pierce, was commandant in the early 1800s. Historians believe he lived in the Officers Stone Quarters, which by most accounts is the oldest building in Michigan, dating to 1780. Its limestone walls are eight feet thick in places. Admission is $6.75 for adults, $4 for children. The fort opens May 8 and closes October 13.
From June 15 through Labor Day weekend, a fort pass gets you into other historic sites from the fur trade era. The old Indian Dormitory on Huron Street is restored to reflect the 1830s, when Indians from around the Great Lakes came here to pick up their government annuity checks. Today visitors can see costumed interpreters spinning wool and tour the offices of Henry Schoolcraft, the Indian agent of the times. On Market Street, the Biddle Home looks as it did when La Framboise’s close friend, Agatha Biddle, the husband of merchant Edward Biddle, lived there. Displays document the domestic area of the early 1800s. Also on Market Street is the Beaumont Memorial Building, formerly the American Fur Company store, which was renamed after Alex St. Martin. When St. Martin was shot here in 1822, his stomach wound became the basis for Dr. William Beaumont’s famous digestive-system experiments. Inside, there are displays of Beaumont’s work and other period exhibits.
No trip back into the time of La Framboise would be complete without a visit to St. Anne’s. The church was rebuilt in 1880 but still resembles the building of La Framboise’s era.
For more information, call the Mackinac Island Chamber of Commerce at 800-4-LILACS.