Lilac experts, Young included, believe that most of the island’s earliest lilacs came via 19th-century settlers emigrating to Mackinac from New England—they brought “suckers dug up, wetted in sphagnum moss and transported with the rest of the furniture,” Young says. By the Victorian era, Young adds, lilacs were ornamental shrubs, purchased in mainland nurseries and transported in pots or burlap, probably by wealthy island cottage owners. “Lilacs were a central part of a Victorian garden, which was the style from the 1880s to the Depression,” he says.
For years, the earliest known written record of Mackinac Island lilacs dated to 1870. Gurdon Hubbard, an illustrious Chicago pioneer, built a summer cottage on Mackinac Island that year and named it The Lilacs for the flowers he planted around it.
Just last summer, an even earlier written documentation of lilacs on Mackinac surfaced, this one, surprisingly, by Henry David Thoreau, the famous 19th-century author of Walden Pond. It happened this way: Corinne Smith, a Massachusetts-based member of the Thoreau Society, was on the island to discuss her research into Henry David Thoreau’s visit to the island in 1861 (part of a journey from Massachusetts to Minnesota), and in particular, a journal that Thoreau kept that was largely devoted to the flora he observed on his trip. When someone in the audience asked if Thoreau had written anything about lilacs, Smith answered, yes, indeed, he’d mentioned them once, in a single word; above a line otherwise devoted to flowering apple trees. That scrawled word, Mackinac Island lilac aficionados knew at once, is now the earliest known written documentation of their lilacs.
That proof, that Mackinac’s lilacs predate the 1870 plantings at The Lilacs, has actually helped bolster a theory that Hubbard may have been Mackinac Island’s Johnny Appleseed of lilacs. Precisely true or not, the story is plausible. In 1818, at age 16, 52 years before he built The Lilacs as a summer getaway from his real estate and stockyard businesses in Chicago, Hubbard arrived on the Mackinac shore as an indentured employee of John Jacob Astor’s Mackinac Island–based American Fur Trading Company. No one knows for sure if the young Hubbard had a lilac sucker secreted away in his cloak. But we do know that it was May, the perfect season to transplant a lilac, and by his own accounts, he dearly missed his beloved family and his childhood on a Vermont farm known for its lilacs.