The land upon which Mackinac Island’s Mission Point Resort sits has an ancient and intriguing history: From the Native American tribes who considered the island holy and who fed whole villages on the abundant whitefish found offshore to a British officer’s folly of a clubhouse to an international peace movement that set up headquarters where the upscale hotel resort now welcomes guests. Through the ages, Mission Point has offered respite, beauty, purpose, learning and a special Mackinac Island place to gather.
Here are six memorable eras from the fascinating and often unexpected history of this easternmost island point.
The Native Encampment Years
The whole of Mackinac Island is sacred to the Anishinaabe people—so much so that it’s hard to distinguish the history and value of any particular geographic section of the island. But Arch Rock, a limestone formation at the edge of Mission Point Resort with an unusual circle in the middle, and Sugar Loaf, a stacked limestone formation, both have special spiritual significance to the Anishinaabe people, says Eric Hemenway, the director of repatriation, archives and records for the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians and an expert on the island’s native history.
“What I’ve learned, and have heard others speak of, is that spirits reside in and around these areas, making them sacred,” Hemenway says.
The specifics of those spirits are so sacred that they’re shared only in certain times, in ceremony, he adds, so he suggests visitors explore the island and see what holy spots call to them. The whole island is what the Anishinaabe call their place of origin, where they’ve always been and still, in many cases, reside near and around.
At the height of the fur trade era, Mackinac was the center of action for the entire Upper Midwest, particularly for native people who would go there to camp, trade, hold ceremonies, raise families and bury their dead. They’d put up wigwams and fish, then grow corn on nearby Grand Island.
“It was a hub of people coming to trade, to travel, pass through with information and goods,” Hemenway says. “The fishing was unbelievable. Whitefish and sturgeon were, from records I read, like super fish, the size of a man’s leg. That’s one of the significant gifts of the Great Lakes, the food it provides the Anishinaabe people. And the location was very well placed. You had a finger on the pulse.”
Bordering the edge of Mission Point’s property on the island’s easternmost point is another limestone outcropping with the unusual name of Robinson’s Folly. This formation, 127 feet above the lake’s surface with a tree growing out of its top, is today both a favorite photo spot and a marker along the 8.2-mile cycling trail around the island. But in the late 1700s, it was a British fort commandant’s poorly-chosen site for a clubhouse—the first documented use of the property that’s now Mission Point Resort, according to Steve Brisson, director of Mackinac State Historic Parks.
There are written descriptions of how British Captain Daniel Robertson (the Fort Mackinac commander from 1782 to 1787) used the rustic wood structure as a getaway spot and retreat for officers and their families. “It was like a clubhouse, away from the fort, where they probably played cards, had some drinks. Basically, it’s a camp,” Brisson says. “The story goes, he built it too close to the cliff and it eventually fell over.” The rock gets its name, he says, from either the folly of the building site or the British term for a building with a superfluous use.
One often-shared legend has the captain battling a jealous native over a woman and falling to his death at the spot, but according to records, Robertson left his post fully alive, returned to Canada to receive the rank of major and later achieved a comfortable position in Montreal society. As the legend evolved, Robertson became pronounced Robinson and the natural structure was so named.
Mission House at center and the church to the left, about 1830. All historical images courtesy of Mackinac State Historic Parks.
The Mission Years & Early Tourism
In 1825, Mission Point’s namesake, Mission House, was built for the Protestant mission founded by William Montague Ferry and his wife, Amanda. The building, now maintained by Mackinac State Historic Parks and used as a dormitory for seasonal employees, started as a three-story wood-framed boarding school that drew native children from across the Midwest.
Tribal people willingly sent their children to early mission schools like this one, Hemenway says. Unlike some later boarding schools that prohibited the speaking of native languages and sought to assimilate native children into the majority culture, these early schools translated materials into the native language while also teaching them English and other subjects. Some children at this early mission school were trained to be interpreters for the area’s still-thriving commerce, and in 1827, 112 students were attending the school that closed 10 years later. The most lasting impact was an unintended one, Brisson says. It ignited a kind of war between island Protestants and Catholics who, upon seeing the Protestant activity, installed a full-time priest at St. Anne’s.
Another 10 years later, the Mission House took on a new mission—tourism—in the form of the first real tourist hotel operated on the island. Run by Edward Franks, it housed visitors up to the Great Depression, Brisson says, and they came for leisure pursuits, not unlike those that lure people to the island today. They might take a carriage tour, wander to the fort—back then to watch real soldiers on parade—walk in the woods, visit formations like Arch Rock, enjoy multi-course dinners and even ride the early version of today’s safety bikes (those with brakes).
Mission House Hotel, ca. 1890
An 1862 ad for Mission House
The Moral Rearmament Movement & College Years
An international peace movement, called the Moral Rearmament, that launched spinoffs like the high-energy Up with People performances and the original Alcoholics Anonymous got its start in America on Mackinac Island. The movement, founded first at England’s Oxford University by Lutheran pastor Frank Buchman in 1938 to usher in peace between nations (later between company leaders and laborers) with its principles of honesty, purity and unselfishness, moved its training programs to the United States in the mid-1950s—specifically Mackinac Island. After holding meetings at Grand Hotel and Island House, they opted to build their own massive compound and concentrate activities on the eastern side of the island where Mission Point Resort now sits.
The group constructed several buildings with the help of hundreds of volunteers from around the world, moving massive timbers on the ice bridge or floating them across the Straits. The buildings included a theater and sound stage on which they produced major motion pictures as part of their propaganda-style “theater of hope presenting what society could be.” When it was finished, complete with orchestra rehearsal rooms, two major sound stages, set design and construction shops and more, it was the second-largest television studio in America. Some well-known actors of the time performed on the island, Brisson says, including Martin Landau, who would go on to win an Academy Award for other work. Not incidentally, the theater was later used as a major filming site for the film “Somewhere in Time,” and an incentive for Universal Studios to film entirely on the island. The Great Hall Complex, completed in the winter of 1955–56, added a million cubic feet of space that could house 1,000 people.
When the Moral Rearmament Movement closed its island operations, buildings like the theater were deeded to Mackinac College, a four-year liberal arts institution born in 1966 out of the movement’s desire to develop mid-Cold War unity by educating students for a future in public life, leadership and the media. They wanted, according to an oral history collected by former Mackinac State Historic Parks Director Phil Porter, “to create a college education in which character is developed along with a brain.”
Faculty were recruited from around the world and included a former head of the National Academy of Sciences, a Taiwanese ambassador to New Zealand and a scientist who had a major hand in the development of penicillin. Financial stresses forced near closure after three years, but the school stayed afloat for a fourth to have a single graduating class with the help of staff members who worked for free or gave up their jobs so students could step in and sub as housekeepers and kitchen help, says Pat Driscoll, Mission Point’s concierge and historian.
Driscoll helps host a regular reunion of Mackinac College grads, many of whom majored in political science and have gone on to live and work around the world. Most remember it as “wonderful,” she says. “It was hard to be isolated when the boat stopped, but there isn’t one of them who regrets doing it. When they come back, it is their college again.”
MRA Main Complex under construction in 1956
A Christian School With a Planned Ski Team—and a Cain and Abel Run
There was a Christian mission behind the college’s next use—as a different college but with the same name. Rex Humbard, a television evangelist best known then for his “Cathedral of Tomorrow” program, launched a college with 150 students in 1971 and closed it a year later due to financial problems throughout the ministry. That doesn’t mean Humbard didn’t have a fascinating vision though.
The holdings he purchased from the Moral Rearmament Movement included not just the Mission Point area campus but also land and buildings now a part of The Inn at Stonecliffe and Grand Hotel’s Woods Restaurant. There he built what was then the world’s only ski lift on an island, partly so his college could have a downhill ski team. The 28-chair lift and two runs—interestingly named “Cain and Abel” and the “Hallelujah Trail” were part of a 165-acre winter sports center that also included two ski jumps, a toboggan run, skating pond, cross-country trails and a Bavarian-themed guest house (now Woods Restaurant).
The complex was designed by Sepp Benedikter, an Austrian ski jumper, and other Olympians were hired as instructors for what was to be an alternative to “swinging ski resorts.” But lack of reliable snow and inability to easily get to the island in the winter proved challenges too daunting to overcome.
A Hotel Once Again
As other missions attempted on the point failed, the ones that stuck were always tourism-related, Brisson notes. By the summer of 1979 when Universal Studios leased the sound stage to produce “Somewhere in Time,” the cast and crew were able to stay in what was then the Inn on Mackinac. In late 1987, the property was sold to John Shufelt, and in 2014 to present owners Dennert and the late Suzanne Ware.
Schufert was successful in expanding the business, notes Mission Point’s Driscoll, starting with relatively spartan dormitory-style rooms. To the joy of the island, he tore down the old college library that stood where Adirondack chairs now dot the resort’s famous open lawn. He added lodge-style décor reminiscent of western ski resorts, and the resort thrived.
The Wares, Driscoll notes, have ushered the resort into a new era with their investments, kindness and goal of having the friendliest staff on the island to create extraordinary Mackinac Island experiences. Through multi-year renovation plans, they’ve added the largest spa and salon on the island, made major upgrades throughout the resort and brightened the décor bringing the beautiful colors of Mackinac and Lake Huron inside. Their passion for food has been translated into Mission Point’s “Farm to Ferry” dining as they work with local and regional farms bringing the best of Michigan straight to Mission Point Resort. “We see our commitment to elevated, farm to ferry dining as an opportunity to become the foodie’s destination on Mackinac,” says Liz Ware, VP of sales and marketing. “Whether staying at Mission Point or not, we want visitors to say, our trip isn’t complete until we’ve eaten at Mission Point.”
The team is currently working on its next five-year improvement plan which includes public spaces, activities and grounds. When Covid-19 interfered with many of the 2020 summer plans, they kicked off the new promenade area with what you do when handed lemons, Driscoll says: “Put up a lemonade stand.”
Many have dreamed and failed on this spot, but now—as in the past—the use with the most staying power is the one that lets visitors rest and dream on an island resort vacation.